Tolerated Evil

Prostitution in the Kingdom of Poland in the Nineteenth Century

by Jolanta Sikorska-Kulesza (Author) Jan Burzyński (Revision)
©2020 Monographs 356 Pages
Open Access


In the nineteenth century, state policy towards prostitution was primarily shaped by an assessment of its role in spreading venereal diseases. In this book, the author traces normative and organisational efforts of the authorities of the Kingdom of Poland, which sought to maintain control over prostitution and the health of women who offered paid sexual services. The author uses data collected by the police and medical authorities supervising legal and illegal prostitution to provide a demographic and sociological picture of the big-city and small-town market of sexual commerce. It was only in the early twentieth century when prostitution became an important subject of the Polish public debate, a process which is described in the book against the backdrop of the major issues and fears of the epoch.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 THE STATE VERSUS PROSTITUTION: Rules, regulations and means of control
  • 1. Between tolerance and repression – prostitution in early modern Poland
  • 2. The first regulation of prostitution – Warsaw 1802
  • 3. The realm of projects and provisions (1815–1843)
  • 4. The “necessary evil” and an ideal brothel
  • 5. The system of supervising prostitution in the 2nd half of the 19th century – medical-and-police committees in gubernias and districts
  • 1. The fight against “back-alley harlotry”
  • 2. The scale of illicit prostitution and the characterisation of prostitutes
  • 3. The infrastructure of harlotry – panderers and pimps
  • 4. The organisation of medical examination and treatment for prostitutes
  • Chapter 3 LEGAL PROSTITUTION: Social and demographic analysis
  • 1. The scale and territorial distribution of licensed prostitution
  • 2. Brothel houses and their owners
  • 3. The social and demographic makeup of tolerated prostitutes
  • Chapter 4: PROSTITUTION IN THE EYES OF THE SOCIETY: Written discourse at the turn of the 19th and the 20th centuries
  • 1. Abolitionism vs. regimentationism
  • 2. The perceived origins of prostitution
  • 3. Aid for prostitutes and the struggle for a new morality
  • Concluding remarks
  • Bibliography
  • Index of geographical names
  • Index of people
  • Index of charts and graphs
  • Series index

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List of abbreviations

AGAD Central Archives of Historical Records

ALR General State Laws for the Prussian States

Am.A Augustów City Records

Am.L Lublin City Records

Am.Ł Łódź City Records

Am.S Suwałki City Records

APCz State Archive in Częstochowa

APK State Archive in Kielce

APL State Archive in Lublin

APŁ State Archive in Łódź

APS State Archive in Suwałki

APW State Archive in Warsaw

CWPL Central Authorities of the November Uprising

DP KP Journal of Laws of the Kingdom of Poland

KGL Chancellery of the Governor of Lublin Gubernia

KKGP Code of Criminal and Corrective Penalties

KL-P Medical-and-Police Committee

KRSW Government Commission for Internal Affairs

KRW Government War Commission

KWK Committee of the Kalisz Voivodeship

L Medical (Department)

LVIA Lithuanian State Historical Archives

MMCz Magistrate of Częstochowa City

RGIA Russian State Historical Archives

RGKiel. Kielce Gubernia Authorities

RGL Lublin Gubernia Authorities

RGOSz Principal Welfare Council of Hospitals

RGP Piotrków Gubernia Authorities

RGW Warsaw Gubernia Authorities

ULGW Medical Office of the Warsaw Gubernia

WL Medical Department

WP Police Department

←8 | 9→


Relevant literature portrays the 19th century as a period of an unprecedented development of prostitution. Brothel houses and streetwalkers were an integral part of capitalist urban landscape. According to contemporaneous observers of social life, women rendering paid sexual services in European metropolises such as London, Paris, Berlin and St. Petersburg were counted by the thousand, or even hundreds of thousand, and were regularly availed of by married and single men.2 While such estimates and beliefs are likely to have been exaggerated, and research proves prostitution to have been developing relatively well in any and all periods (naturally, in proportion to the surrounding reality of life), the statement regarding its expansion in the 19th century seems justified. No previous epoch had produced such favourable circumstances for the evolution of this sector of the market. The pervasive and swift urbanisation and industrialisation of 19th-century Europe led to an equally rapid increase in the numbers of poor and destitute city dwellers, including an army of women with no means of sustenance, who were, so to speak, doomed to become prostitutes. On the other hand, the same economic processes and their social consequences, such as urban and overseas migration, the gender imbalance among immigrants, as well as certain cultural phenomena (especially the different norms of sexual behaviour applied to women and men) generated a higher demand for commercial sex and increased the number of potential customers.

←9 | 10→

Sources indicate that the world of 19th-century prostitution was very diverse. Aside from heterosexual services (the organisation of which appears to have been changing at an unprecedented pace), there existed an entirely illegal – but nevertheless organised – market of child and homosexual prostitution. There were brothels for every budget. Their owners made efforts to cater to even the most refined – or the most licentious – tastes. Luxurious, “specialist” establishments for the most affluent and most demanding customers3 coexisted with houses which hardly met any basic standards, frequented by soldiers who had to queue up for a chance to satisfy their sexual drives. Since the final quarter of the 19th century, brothels began to be replaced by so-called meeting houses and entertainment venues open at night, where sexual services were offered in chambres separées. The poorest prostitutes searched for customers in the streets. In the course of the century, the business sphere related to prostitution gained veritably capitalist momentum, moving from local to global trade, conducted in the form of organised international trafficking of women to be used as prostitutes.

Another thereby unseen phenomenon related to prostitution was the State’s and the society’s interest in the issue. The connection between paid sexual services and the growing incidence of syphilis and other venereal diseases meant that the topic of prostitution was discussed not only in medical textbooks (as it had been since the 17th century), but also in state offices, which led to the widespread introduction of a system of regimentation of prostitution. Previously only implemented on a very small scale, the system involved subjecting prostitutes and establishments to specific forms of supervision carried out by police-and-medical authorities established for that very purpose. Since the first half of the 19th century, prostitutes had become subjects of academic study.4 The bodies, minds, and personal histories of women who plied the flesh trade started to be ←10 | 11→analysed by medical doctors (venereologists and hygienists) and, with the development of new disciplines of science, also by anthropologists, criminologists, psychologists, sociologists and historians. Increasingly often, the results of this research, published in books and specialist journals, were popularised by periodicals aimed at the general reader. What could be observed was a certain ennoblement of the issue in public discourse. The culmination of this process came at the turn of the century, when the matter was no longer discussed only in connection with public health concerns, but also in the context of the sources of marginalisation of women, their social and legal standing, and the fight against prostitution. Socialist thinkers and activists such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and August Bebel pointed to the connection between prostitution and the development and evolution of social and economic organisation. In the 1870s, the growing significance ascribed to prostitution as a factor in social life led to the emergence of an international movement to combat the phenomenon, known as abolitionism. At the same time, prostitution, human trafficking and the status of prostitution started to be used (especially by members of the suffragette movement) as an opening point for discussing other pressing matters.

The frequency with which women of ill repute were depicted in literature and visual arts had also increased. They became the protagonists of novels by Honore Balzac, Alexandre Dumas Fils, Emile Zola, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and many other 19th-century authors,5 and appeared on paintings and sketches by such outstanding artists as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Eduard Manet and Edgar Degas.6 The subject of prostitution was included in cinematography since its ←11 | 12→early beginnings.7 Another factor that made the issue popular was the growing interest in human sexuality and the fascination with eroticism observable in the 19th century.

The above-mentioned processes were also present in the territory of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was divided between Prussia, Austria and Russia following the partitions of Poland. As with many countries and regions of Europe, a system of regimentation of prostitution was introduced in all these administrative regions (though not simultaneously). The present publication presents the development and operation of the system in one part of the former Polish territory, namely the Kingdom of Poland, since its proclamation in 1815 to the year 1915, when it ceased to be managed by Russian administration.8 This one-hundred-year period brought fundamental changes in the political status of the Kingdom. Initially a semi-sovereign country dependent on Russia, but with its own constitution, parliament, central administration and army, the Kingdom gradually lost its autonomous institutions after two failed military insurrections (1830–1831 and 1863–1864) and as a result of the policy of unification implemented by Russia. In the 1870s it was turned into a province of the Russian Empire, entirely subordinate to the central authorities in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and governed with the help of a well-developed network of police forces. The official name of the region was changed to the Vistula Land (Privislinsky Kray). Consequently, while the first normative solutions and executive action concerning prostitution in the Kingdom of Poland were decided on by Polish officials in Warsaw, in time laws and regulations began to be imposed directly by Russia. The Polish society regained a small degree of agency (making postulates, establishing organisations) following the democratic transformations that took place in Russia in 1905–1907. The development of prostitution itself was, in turn, influenced by the demographic, social and economic changes observable in the Kingdom. The second half of the 19th century brought a wave of intense urbanisation and industrialisation. The emancipation reform of 1864 led to an increased number of rural residents migrating to cities and industrial centres, and moving beyond the borders of the Kingdom. In 1816 the Kingdom of Poland (127.3 thousand square kilometres) had a population of 3.3 million ←12 | 13→people; at the beginning of the 20th century that number had increased to over 12.1 million.

The first two chapters of this book, essential in fulfilling its academic aim, present the approach taken by the Kingdom’s authorities (both Polish and Russian) with regard to prostitution in the course of the 19th century. Chapter 1 focuses on the creation of the system of regimentation, which the Kingdom had inherited from the Prussian administrative organs governing Warsaw in 1797–1807. It describes the process of implementing rules for the legal operation of brothel houses and prostitutes plying their trade independently, the emergence of regulations and the institutions of police, administrative and medical supervision over women. It also explains, as much as the modest source base allows, the motives behind the decisions taken by the authorities, as well as their standpoint and views on the matter. Chapter 2 offers an overview and an evaluation of the factual efficacy of the system (to the extent that is possible), both in large urban centres and in small towns throughout the entire analysed period. It traces the conditions in which medical supervision over prostitution was carried out and the results it produced, the organisation of medical examinations and the treatment of prostitutes introduced to protect the population from sexually transmitted diseases. For a system of regimentation to be effective, measures needed to be taken to combat illegal prostitution – such as tracking women suspected of engaging in paid sex and avoiding examination, and persecuting the organisers of illegal prostitution and human trafficking. The gathered source material, mainly records of police investigations, was used as the basis to present the profile of women apprehended for illegal prostitution throughout the decades. A detailed analysis of legal prostitution in the Kingdom of Poland – its scale, geographical distribution, the social and demographic background of prostitutes and brothel owners was presented in Chapter 3, based on the relatively substantial amount of statistical data acquired in the Kingdom in 1889, summarised and published by the Statistics Department of the Ministry of the Interior in St. Petersburg.

The final chapter in the book presents the local public opinion regarding the system of tolerated prostitution and its supervision. The analysis of relevant sources revealed a fascinating, diverse discussion on the topic, held – mainly in the press – by members of various social and professional groups, reformers and social activists, at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. It reflected not only the thitherto unexpressed attitude towards the relations between prostitution and the State persisting in the society outside the circle of officials. Questions as to the justifiability of maintaining a system of regimentation were used as an excuse to reveal the public’s views on prostitution itself, on its sources and on the aid offered to its victims. The issue of prostitution also became the starting ←13 | 14→point for a broader debate on the moral condition of the society and the family, the gender relations, the need for changing social norms and realities. The discourse surrounding prostitution at the time was inherently connected with various phenomena in political, social and economic life, as well as in the mentality, culture and science of the day. Describing it within the context of the numerous transformations that took place at the turn of the centuries would require more detailed and more focused research. The present book only presents the central themes in this dispute and outlines the key issues.

Due to the publication’s focus on the operation of the regimentation system in the entire territory of the Kingdom of Poland throughout the analysed period, not all of the issues traditionally tackled in analyses of prostitution shall be discussed in the same amount of detail. It should be noted that prostitution in Warsaw, although considered at length in the present work, is not analysed proportionately to its significance stemming from the scale and structure of paid sexual services rendered in the capital, or to the quantity of existing source material, which would suffice as the basis for an up-to-date monograph on the capital of the Kingdom.9 The historiography of prostitution all over the world mainly comprises works focusing on specific urban centres.

The present book describes the operation of the regimentation system primarily on the basis of official records produced by the local and central administrative bodies responsible for supervising prostitution. The query encompassed the archives of voivodeship committees and gubernia authorities10 (medical and military-and-police departments; medical-and-police committees11), medical offices, municipal authorities and the police bodies that answered to ←14 | 15→them, and the Office of the Chief Police Inspector in Warsaw. Research was conducted in the archives of central offices of the Kingdom and Russia, i.a. the Government Commission for Internal Affairs,12 managing matters of public health; the Principal Welfare Council of Hospitals (1832–1870);13 the Office of the General Governor of Warsaw; the Office of the Chief Inspector of Healthcare in St. Petersburg; and the Russian State Duma’s Committee for the Kingdom of Poland.14 The archives of the Medical Council (1809–1867), very relevant to the issue, are no longer available. This gap in source material is partially filled by the monograph Rada Lekarska Księstwa Warszawskiego i Królestwa Polskiego (1809–1867) written by physician Franciszek Giedroyć and based on the archives of this institution (which the author extensively quotes).15 Irreparable damage was also done by the loss of nearly all records from the city of Warsaw (destroyed during the Second World War), which would have been crucial in the reconstruction of the image of prostitution in the capital and the mechanisms through which women were dragged into the world of the flesh trade. The missing archives include those of Warsaw’s Medical-and-Police Committee at the Office of the Chief Police Inspector (which probably included records of the inspector working at the Medical Office in Warsaw in 1843–1866), managing all issues related to prostitution in the city since 1867. Only a number of printed reports from the Committee’s activity in several years have survived.

←15 | 16→

The quantity of available sources pertaining to a given region does not necessarily correspond to the scale of prostitution within its borders. It is now difficult to ascertain to what extent the size of specific collections of records results from the actual scale of prostitution and the supervision thereof, and not from the history of the archives (or institutional documentation)16. With regard to the first half of the 19th century (before 1860s), existing records on “harlots” and the steps taken against “venereal women” come from Kalisz (1820s and 1830s; Committee of the Kalisz Voivodeship), Augustów Voivodeship (1840s and 1850s; the Magistrate of Suwałki City) and, in a much smaller number, from Piotrków (Piotrków City Records) and Radom (Radom’s Medical Office).17 Data from the second half of the 19th century – or, more precisely, from the 1880s onwards – has survived in nearly all regions of the Kingdom. The largest collection pertains to the Lublin Gubernia, excepting the city of Lublin (Lublin Gubernia Authorities), hence the slight overrepresentation of references to this region, especially in the part describing medical supervision. Slightly less data comes from the Kielce Gubernia (Kielce Gubernia Authorities), less still from the Piotrków region (Piotrków Gubernia Authorities, Łódź City Records, the Magistrate of Częstochowa City), the Warsaw region (Warsaw Gubernia Authorities), the Kalisz region (Kalisz Gubernia Authorities) and the Łomża region (Łomża Gubernia Authorities). The material offered insight into the more provincial part of the Kingdom of Poland – smaller towns and, to some extent, the countryside, from which many prostitutes had originally come. The society of the Kingdom of Poland was largely agrarian, with enclaves of industrial urban communities in Warsaw, Łódź, and the Dąbrowa Coal Basin. Relatively large-scale prostitution only developed in those provincial, gubernia (voivodeship) and district capitals that housed large military garrisons, yet sexual services were offered everywhere, most frequently by women from the countryside. For them, ←16 | 17→prostitution was a temporary occupation taken up outside the season of work in the fields.

The nature of the interest a given office had in prostitution determined the type of documentation it produced. Thus, existing sources consist primarily of reporting correspondence (accounts of medical supervision of prostitutes, reports and transcripts from meetings of various committees established to supervise prostitution) and are almost exclusively limited to numerical data and general prescriptions. Exceptions to this rule include information regarding brothel houses (licences, requests from citizens asking the authorities to intervene). Reports from a given region and period are sometimes inconsistent; it is difficult to ascertain whether this results from the small scale of the problem, the inefficacy of administration, or the loss of records. Regardless of the underlying causes, this incongruity makes it impossible to take full advantage of the benefits of such sources – namely their homogeneity and the (theoretically) large quantity. Moreover, the numbers cited by the police and the various committees may sometimes seem questionable. The full spectrum of prostitution is not easily discernible from the records, which is why historians are forced to reconstruct the image from tiny craps of information, often second-hand in nature. Official documents are, for instance, entirely devoid of information on the most affluent prostitutes. The State showed no interest in mistresses and kept women, as they had protectors, did not come into conflict with the law, and sometimes enjoyed a rather ambivalent social status. In the words of one contemporary, they had “the sad privilege of sinning with impunity”. Thus, even a relatively sizable local documentation usually reveals only a fraction of the world of prostitution. For this very reason, the present publication often (perhaps excessively) presents specific cases of individual people registered by the offices and known by name. More than any other source, these cases offer insight into the lives of real people, shortening the distance between historians and the subjects of their study of the past. Another type of officially generated source material are statistics, such as the publication on prostitution in the Russian Empire in 1889, and the general census of 1897 which included prostitutes on the list of occupations.

The above-mentioned sources are not the only archival material relevant to the subject. The query conducted for the present publication did not, for instance, include court files, as they are incomplete. Moreover, the case documentation in lower courts (where prostitutes were usually tried) contains very little information. Such sources would not present a reliable picture of police supervision over prostitution, yet could contain interesting supplementary data ←17 | 18→of sociological nature. Any scholar wishing to tackle this issue must, however, brace themselves for searching through files that had not been prepared to facilitate research queries.

Additional information to complete the image emerging from archival material was acquired from printed legal acts, periodicals, published monographs, memoirs and the belles-lettres. It must, however, be noted that prostitution is not an easy topic to study, not only due to the scarce documentation (the taboo nature of the phenomenon and its categorisation as a crime), but also because the credibility of statements is difficult to verify. Many of them are riddled with unfounded beliefs, exaggeration and judgment.

Even diaries, whose main advantage as a source is the presence of everyday life topics, fail to be of use in the study of 19th-century prostitution in Polish territory. Few memoirs from the period disclose any information on the author’s sexual life. This aspect of existence tended to be politely overlooked.18 In such circumstances, the moral dilemmas faced by young Stefan Żeromski (who later became an acclaimed author) in connection with a visit to a brothel can hardly be regarded as representative for his entire generation.19 Nevertheless, it should be added that the presence of such sources – produced in massive quantities since the 19th century – makes it impossible to conduct a fully exhaustive archival query, which in this case becomes rather random. From the 1870s ←18 | 19→onwards, prostitutes started to appear as characters in social-problem novels (Adolf Dygasiński, Bolesław Prus).20 Many writers of the early 20th century (e.g. Stefan Żeromski, Gabriela Zapolska)21 tackled the issue of fallen women and prostitution with clear educational and ideological agendas in mind. For this reason, their works constitute as valuable a source as the press of the day, given their potential to influence readers.

The largest quantity of data to reconstruct the discourse pertaining to prostitution and its tolerated form comes from newspapers and periodicals. Apart from specialist publications, most notably those issued by medical and hygienist institutions (e.g. Zdrowie, published by the Warsaw Association of Hygiene), which discussed the links between prostitution and venereal disease, the ongoing medical supervision and prostitution itself, the subject was most often breached in women’s press of various ilk, as well as in periodicals focusing on culture and the society, especially those on the liberal or leftist side of the spectrum. The query for this publication encompassed all issues of over a dozen weekly magazines published in Warsaw, and random issues of daily press. Two early 20th-century periodicals issued in Galicia were also included due to their chosen subject matter – Czystość (1905–1909; focused on the fight against prostitution) and Nowe Słowo (1902–1907; the first feminist periodical).

The international body of work presenting the history of prostitution in various time periods is vast. A number of synthetic publications on the topic appeared as early as in the 19th century, setting the standard for a genre that was continued (with considerable success) in the 20th century, this time intended for the general reader – history through the ages, from Biblical stories of harlotry, the Antiquity (this part usually discussed alleged regulations instituted by Solon) to the author’s own decade. Such works contain much factographic and anecdotal information, offered with a pinch of moralising. Although far from meeting modern expectations, they nevertheless prove valuable to historians of prostitution, as texts that shaped the image of prostitution and the attitude ←19 | 20→towards it. Existing sources also include numerous monographs focusing on prostitution in selected countries and cities.22

Academic interest in prostitution grew significantly in the 20th century, especially since the 1960s. The impressive oeuvre of works on the issue was partially synthesised in bibliographies of studies of prostitution, published in the 1970s and 1990s.23 Most of the reasons behind the popularity of the topic (aside from the apparently unwavering reader interest) are associated with the development of social history, which started to tackle such issues as the history of family life, the status of women, gender relations and social outcasts. The study of human sexuality as a social phenomenon (pioneered by Michel Foucault) has also been rapidly evolving. These trends appeared both in European and in American historiography and became more prominent in the 1970s, with the development of feminist studies, the interest in homoerotic relations and homosexual prostitution, and the issue of AIDS (which was compared to the threat of syphilis in the 19th century). New directions in the study of prostitution involved the analysis of police and administrative records. Ordinary streetwalkers and nameless prostitutes replaced courtesans as the central characters in relevant historiography. Apart from describing the social reality of brothel houses, scholars started to focus on the prerequisite conditions for the phenomenon, the channels ←20 | 21→of marginalisation of women and the popularity of prostitution among men, as well as on State and municipal policy towards paid sex.

Although historical research into prostitution encompassed nearly all eras from the Antiquity and the Middle Ages24 to modernity, the focus on the period of 1800–1920 (for which the source material is the most sizable) is clearly apparent.25 Current studies pertain not only to France26 and other European countries,27 but also to prostitution in ←21 | 22→China,28 North29 and South America,30 and the Arabic world. As a still present phenomenon, prostitution has also become the subject of study for sociologists, psychologists, sexologists and lawyers around the globe.

The achievements of Polish historiography seem rather modest in this respect, not only in comparison with research conducted in other parts of the world, but also with other fields of social study. No synthetic work on the history of prostitution was written in the 19th century.31 This being said, the pan-European trend for studying prostitutes and prostitution observable among physicians and lawyers led to the publication of the extremely valuable works by Antoni Rolle,32 ←22 | 23→Franciszek Giedroyć (doctors of medicine) and Jan Maurycy Kamiński33 (a barrister), which described the contemporary situation and now constitute a source of useful data. All three of the mentioned authors took up the issue of prostitution motivated by their scholarly ambitions and social concerns. The first to do so was Józef Antoni Rolle, a doctor from Kamieniec Podolski (present-day Ukraine), whose publications appeared in medical specialist press in all three parts of partitioned Poland. Rolle wrote about venereal diseases and paid sex as early as in the 1850s and 60s, not only out of social-activist sentiments, but also due to the fact that he had come into contact with the issue relatively early, during his long stay in Paris, where it was hotly debated at the time. He was the first historian and analyst of contemporary prostitution who asked questions that went beyond the medical and anecdotal aspects of the phenomenon, and developed an adequately broad plan for combating prostitution. However, his contemporary research (including the first and – thus far – the only article on prostitution in the countryside, published in a medical periodical in Warsaw34) focused only on Podolia, and his historical study – on pre-partitioned Poland.

Invaluable information for any historian delving into the issue of 19th-century prostitution in the Kingdom of Poland is found in the works the Warsaw-based venereologist and regimentationist Franciszek Giedroyć. As the head doctor of the St. Lazarus hospital, which treated prostitutes, and a physician at its outpatient clinic, Giedroyć had an extensive knowledge of the topic in question. His works are objective and based on reliable sources, a substantial portion of which is no longer available to scholars.35

Doctor Jan Macko, in turn, wrote about prostitution from the perspective of an opponent of the system of regimentation. Macko was a physician and an abolitionist activist working in Interwar Poland.36 His book, published in 1927 and ←23 | 24→presenting all aspects of prostitution and debauchery (legal, medical, ethical and hygienist) includes a rather superficial historical overview of the issue (40 pages covering the period between the Antiquity and contemporary times) riddled with mistakes, which are particularly jarring if they pertain to Polish territory. The interwar period also saw the publication of the first and thus far the only history of prostitution in 19th-century Warsaw, by Wacław Zaleski.37 Despite its poor research methodology and anecdotal nature, the work remains a source of information on Warsaw’s prostitution, especially in the final 25 years of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, as few official records from the period have survived.

In post-war Poland, the history of prostitution in Polish territory was not a topic favoured by scholars.38 Thus far (2004) no academic has made it into their main subject of study. The findings made in this respect – though unquestionably valuable and based on reliable sources – are the result of broader studies of human sexuality (Adam Krawiec’s book on the sexual behaviours of mediaeval Poles and their contemporaneous views on the issue39) or of urban squalor and women’s activity in the 17th – 18th century (the works of Andrzej Karpiński, a historian of the modern period).40 A synthetic history of prostitution around the world (including Warsaw) intended for the general reader was written by Marek Karpiński.41

Historiographic works focusing on prostitution in Polish territory in the 19th-century are even more scarce. They include one chapter in Małgorzata Karpińska’s book about crime in Warsaw in the period of the Kingdom of ←24 | 25→Poland42 and a single article on prostitution in Cracow at the turn of the 20th century, written by Michał Baczkowski.43 The issue of prostitutes in Warsaw was briefly discussed in Stanisław Milewski’s popular-science publication describing crime in Warsaw on the basis of contemporaneous press articles. It offers little new information regarding the topic.44 Anna Pawłowska’s publication from the 1980s presents the attitude towards prostitution as one of the socio-ethical problems of the early 20th century, as displayed in the first Polish-language feminist periodicals.45

Since the year 2004, when the first edition of The Tolerated Evil was published, many Polish historians (especially from the younger generation) have shown interest in and began research on various aspects associated with prostitution in Polish territory in the 19th century.46 This development certainly gave the author of the present book a sense of satisfaction (as she had, to some extent, acted as a trailblazer) yet it came mostly as a result of the development of Polish social history, with such sub-disciplines as the history of women, crime and the outskirts of society, social pathologies, the history of sexuality (sexual education), and the social history of medicine. Another factor that affects the choice of historical research are existing phenomena spotlighted by the media, such as human trafficking.

The majority of the several dozen works that appeared in 2004–2019 focuses on the opinions of social activists (e.g. Zofia Daszyńska-Golińska), or recapitulates the discussion regarding prostitution held in the press in the late ←25 | 26→19th and early 20th century – in one or two periodicals representing the views of a specific professional group (e.g. physicians, educators) or ideological circle (feminists, conservatives).47 Press articles and, to an even greater extent, literary texts provide as much insight into prostitution, as they do on the society and its problems (e.g. family).48 The issue was analysed in particular detail by Aneta Bołdyrew, a historian of education and upbringing, who wrote many publications discussing social pathologies in the Kingdom of Poland in the last 50 years of its existence. She was the first to touch on the issue of underage prostitutes; her book also presents the concepts for preventing prostitution and the educational-prophylactic and resocialisation initiatives directed at “fallen women” or those in danger of turning to prostitution.49

International trade in women from Polish territory is another widely discussed topic related to prostitution whose analyses, in a sense, pertain more to constructed narratives than to reality. An edited compendium of relevant sources (press articles) from 1873–1938 was compiled (and preceded by a sizable foreword) by lawyer Radosław Antonow, most likely to provide historical context for modern legal studies on human trafficking.50 The most comprehensive analysis of the issue, based on an archival query conducted all over the world and ample knowledge of relevant literature (an exhaustive overview of the current state of research) was presented by Aleksandra Jakubczak.51 The work confirms the ←26 | 27→lack of reliable descriptions of this type of criminal activity. The (rather understandable) nonexistence of tangible evidence for the crime, juxtaposed with the huge scale of the problem – as perceived by contemporaneous social activists and observers of social life – led Jakubczak to believe that the issue should be regarded in terms of a myth and the paradigm of the so-called moral panic. Thus, she questions the scale and, consequently, the social significance of the phenomenon.52 The interest in 19th-century trade in women is also related to another developing branch of historical studies in Poland, namely research into the history of Jews in Polish territory and the role they were believed (justly or not) to have played in human trafficking.53 In an earlier work, Aleksandra Jakubczak tackled the issue of the so-called pogrom of pimps that took place in Warsaw during the 1905 revolution, presenting it from the perspective of the Jewish press and literature. Jakubczak offers an overview and an analysis of all opinions regarding the sources of the pogrom.54 Since a systematic query in the archives of Russian offices is still impossible to conduct, the motivation of the authorities must remain conjectural and interpretative.

←27 | 28→

Noteworthy publications on relevant topics include Aleksander Gotowicz’s article focusing on prostitution and venereal disease in the industrial Piotrków Gubernia, based on the known portion of the annual Medical Department reports of the Russian Ministry of the Interior, the first general census in the Russian Empire (1897) and local press articles.55

The issue of prostitution and the people involved in it is also mentioned briefly in many publications pertaining to domestic service, sexual education, and moral reform movements.56


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2020 (August)
social history regimentation of prostitution women`s history venereal diseases sexual education women trafficking
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 356 pp., 7 fig. b/w, 33 tables.

Biographical notes

Jolanta Sikorska-Kulesza (Author) Jan Burzyński (Revision)

Jolanta Sikorska-Kulesza is a professor at the Institute of History of the University of Warsaw. She specialises in research on the social history of the Kingdom of Poland and the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the nineteenth century (the history and transformations of the nobility, memory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the social role of photography) and critical editing of sources.


Title: Tolerated Evil