Prostitution in Québec City in the 19th Century (Part I)

In the 19th century, a growing and diversified population roamed the streets of Québec City. Commercial activities multiplied thanks to the port, which became an important crossroads. British sailors and soldiers were everywhere. The Irish, fleeing famine, arrived en masse. People poured in from rural areas to toil in the workshops of the Lower Town (la Basse-Ville).  

By Marie-Claude Simard

Women were not to be outdone in that society. In 1870, they were more numerous than the men in “la Vielle Capitale,” which boasted 60,000 inhabitants. Many women had left the countryside hoping to become seamstresses or domestics.

All throughout the 19th century prostitution flourished in Québec City, even though the red light districts were in the faubourgs (neighborhoods) of Sait-Jean-Baptiste and Saint-Roch

And the sex trade was burgeoning. When the sun set, the night owls came out to play, in search of entertainment, alcohol and debauchery. While many sought comfort in brothels, others followed street prostitutes into the nooks and crannies of the city’s famous ramparts.

The bourgeoisie tried many tactics to hide this trade and push it into working class neighborhoods, outside the city’s walls and far from the port. In 1865, city councillor Langlois noted 600 houses of ill repute, mostly situated in the Saint-Jean-Baptiste neighborhood as well as in the Saint-Roch area. This, according to Luxure et ivrognerie (Debauchery and Drunkenness), a historical guide written by the “Services historiques Six-Associés” and published by Septentrion.

Alcohol and Prostitution

Despite numerous political efforts to keep brothels far away from the city’s high society, they continued to operate in the Champlain district, where alcohol consumption was also rampant. Drunkenness ran amok in this portside district which, at its height, was home to 100 nightclubs. Alcohol ravaged the area, and prostitutes were not immune.

The Old Capital was gentrifyig in the 19th century, so clients had to go outside the city walls to frequent a brothel.

Canadian Confederation in 1867 led to the men of the British garrison leaving Québec City in 1871, depriving the bordellos of a very reliable customer base.

Prostitution remained a flourishing and little-regulated industry until it was totally banned in 1913, writes Réjean Lemoine in his article “Maisons mal famées et prostitution : de la tolérance à l’interdiction” (Houses of Ill Repute and Prostitution: from Tolerance to Prohibition) published in the journal Érudit in 1985. The more Québec City urbanized, the more the sex trade became lucrative, though not for the women and girls who practiced this trade.

First seen in Reflet de Société, Vol. 29, no. 4, mai (May) 2021, pages 24 – 27.

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