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Endicott Street Brothel

In the early 1990s, archaeologists excavating ahead of the Central Artery Project (Big Dig) uncovered the privy of a mid-19th century brothel. The brothel was located at 27-29 Endicott Street in the North End.

The site

Like most of Boston, this area has been occupied for millennia, beginning with the Massachusett Tribe. In the early 17th century, colonial settlers changed the landscape to harness the tidal waters of the cove to power several mills. A diverse neighborhood grew around the mills over the next century. People built homes and wharves along the waterfront.

The town began to fill Mill Pond starting in the early 1800s and continuing until 1828. They used horses and carts to transport soil from surrounding areas, dumping it into the tidal bay. This added 50 acres of land to the City, which was separated into lots and then sold. The neighborhood surrounding Endicott Street was meant for development into residential areas. It contained many multi-story residences. These were intended to house the working classes.

Eventually, much of this area was sold to industrial and commercial entities. For nearly 40 years, 27-29 Endicott Street functioned as a tenant building. From 1852-1867, it was a brothel managed by a succession of three madams. The building was occupied solely by female tenants.

An 1874 map showing the location of the 27-29 Endicott Street brothel in the North End
Above: A snippet of an 1874 Hopkins map of Boston. The red square shows the location of the privy at 27-29 Endicott Street.

The dig

A molded blue glass base of a seed cup for a birdcage
Above: A cobalt blue molded glass seed cup for a birdcage. Archaeologists uncovered several of these, suggesting that some of the women at 27-29 Endicott Street kept birds as pets.

Archaeologists discovered a privy at 27-29 Endicott Street during work at the Mill Pond archaeological survey for the Central Artery Project. This project was known locally as “The Big Dig”. The 19th-century privy was not old enough to meet the cutoff put in place by the Massachusetts Historical Commission. So, it was not excavated as part of the Central Artery Project. Instead, the archaeologists volunteered their time to conduct data recovery of the privy for this clearly significant site.

The 1867 Sanborn Fire Map included the small wooden building that functioned as the building’s privy. But, it is absent in the 1885 Sanborn map. This led researchers to believe that it had been abandoned by that time because indoor plumbing was becoming more common.

It was a 4.5-by-8.5-foot brick-lined, double-chambered small rectangular cellar-like structure. It lay under the privy’s toilets and collected the human and household waste from the building. The surviving portions of the privy reached a depth of 4 feet from the ground surface at excavation. But, it likely would have been around 6 feet deep. Six feet was the legally required depth of privies at the time.

The results

The excavation of the privy yielded 8,140 artifacts. They included:

  • alcohol bottles
  • tea wares
  • medical objects
  • children’s toys
  • jewelry
  • cosmetics, and
  • even glass feeders for caged birds.

The daily lives of sex workers were rarely recorded in polite 19th-century society. These artifacts provide a close-up look into the lives of the women who lived and worked in the brothel.

The excavation of the Endicott Street Brothel Privy has resulted in many publications. These include doctoral dissertations, master’s theses, journal articles, and a forthcoming book. They explore multiple research topics and different artifact types. Please see our collection of research documents to learn more about the lives of the women living in this 19th-century brothel.

A clear glass vaginal syringe from the 1860s
Above: A vaginal syringe recovered from the mid-19th century Endicott Street Brothel privy. These could have been used for personal hygiene and the application of STI treatments and abortifacients.
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