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Female Prostitution and the Moralisation of Public Space in Alba Iulia (nineteenth and twentieth centuries)

Seeing the transformations occurring in the metropolitan areas of the Habsburg Empire, moralists, physicians and the municipal authorities of Alba Iulia adopted a series of measures aiming to improve morality and public health. Among the innovative normative decisions in the “struggle against immorality and venereal diseases” was the system of prostitution. The ordination regarding prostitution was first adopted in Pest, in 1867, and later spread throughout Hungary until the beginning of the First World War. This phenomenon was present in Lower Alba County as well. Alba Iulia adopted such an ordination in 1880 (being followed in 1888 by Aiud, in 1905 by Abrud, and in 1913 by Sebeș). The early adoption of the regulation regarding prostitution in Alba Iulia could be explained by the fact that this city was the most populous of the county, and that in 1910 the personnel of the military garrison amounted to 18% of the total population.

The ordination on prostitution in Alba Iulia was voted for by the Municipal Council on 29 October 1880, on a proposition made by the captain of police. It established the modes by which to bring “immorality” (or, more precisely, of the forms of sexuality regarded as illegitimate or against morals) into the open and allow the authorities to measure and control the phenomenon. The 21 chapters and 105 articles of the ordination amounted to nothing less than the regulation of prostitution. Defined in terms of public usefulness as an economic activity consisting of an exchange of feminine services for masculine payment, the prostitution legislation and its categories signalled the premises of the creation of a new moral order. Establishing brothels, either as collective “houses of tolerance” (a common Romanian term for brothels) or individual dwellings, where illegitimate sexualities could be practiced in the form of economic-sexual exchange, and their emplacement in the peripheries, that is, away from public cultural and educational institutions, contributed to the delimitation of the borders of a bourgeois, masculine centre, where sexuality had to grow ever more invisible.

These efforts to render moral the public space are reflected in the statistics of the city records regarding attempts to control the phenomenon of prostitution in Alba Iulia. In the beginning, the ordination authorised four brothels with no more than eight and no less than three sex workers, and the practice of prostitution for a certain number of women. We learn about the mobility of these women from a note of the physician who examined the women. Thus, in 1880, only 18 women provided sexual services, although 43 had been registered. In 1885, the number of registered women had grown to 52 and in 1895 it had reached 74. The stability of sex businesses depended on many factors. Among these was the mobility of women, who could spend from several days to a couple of weeks in a brothel, depending on the type of prostitution practiced, each one’s living costs, and the demand available in a certain place. One should add to the mobility of prostitutes both competition from other brothels and interference by the administrative authorities.

The rules introduced in 1880 produced effects. Thus, in 1883, Alba Iulia innkeeper Lajos Hillinger was denounced for having accepted a prostitute and employed her in order to entertain his customers. He was condemned by the authorities to pay a fine of 25 florins for breaking the ordination. Using prostitutes in various inns was perhaps a widespread practice, but gradually it came to be amended. In 1886, the widow and brothel owner Estera Friedman, née Goldsteinen complained in a letter sent to the vice-count of Aiud about the troubles caused to her by the captain of police of Alba Iulia. The captain had communicated to her workers that they could leave whenever they wanted and, as a result, many of them “ran off” to other competing brothels of the city. Estera Friedman complained not only about the brothel run by the wife of Herr Fermeter, but also other brothels such as those of Iacob Gutman, János Padoler and Adolf Springer, which were not troubled by the police captain. The documentation pertaining to the period before World War I is meagre and does not allow a precise examination of the continuing transformation of prostitution. However, for the subsequent period the situation of documentary evidence changed thanks to the registers of female prostitutes kept by the sanitary administration of the city.

According to these registers, only one house of tolerance existed: Hollender’s brothel, owned by the Jew Anton Hollender. This brothel functioned until the sanitary law of 1930 abolished the system of houses of tolerance. The brothel was at 22 Vasile Alecsandri Street, and from 1922 to 1930, one sixth of the city’s prostitutes worked in it. After 1930, the brothel became the restaurant and hotel Bulevard, and two thirds of the city’s prostitutes worked there until the confiscation of the building from its owner, based on the racial laws of 1940-1942.

In conclusion, beyond the common sense practice of imposing an official tariff on commercial sexual intercourse and female prostitution, the regulation of prostitution in the late nineteenth century was conceived as a utilitarian management of illegitimate (i.e. extramarital) sex. It was an expression of an age in which faith in the progress of science exceptionally authorised, through the agency of physicians and policemen (the latter often operating on the brink of illegality), the imposition of state tutelage over certain categories of women whose activities did not conform to the usual socially acceptable gender roles of submissive daughter, wife, or mother. (L. D. D.)