FSEM Research Paper

The Creation and Success of Vice New Orleans Tourism: How the Social Changes of the 1920’s and 1930’s Influenced Tourism Within the Big Easy.

The period of time between World War I and World War II was an era meant for the United States to return to the state of normalcy they had been used to prior to their involvement in world affairs. Yet, in reality, the 1920s and 1930s was a time of immense social change throughout the country as prohibition became law, prostitution was outlawed as a result of the first war, racial divides came into question, and gender roles began to alter as women gained the right to vote and started to fight for a greater role in society. As these trends influenced the attitudes of the American people, they in turn influenced the ways in which tourist sites, especially those in urban environments, presented and marketed their attractions. One of the best examples of this is the city of New Orleans. New Orleans prior to this period had begun to gain some popularity, though the tourism was marketed to a limited sector of the American public. Through the social changes of the 1920s and 1930s, primarily the examination of race, prohibition, the outlawing of prostitution, and changing gender roles, New Orleans was able to develop into an immensely successful vice tourist location for a wide audience to enjoy.

New Orleans in the years following the first world war saw a complicated relationship between black residents and white city leaders and tourists. Though attitudes in the country were beginning to change as the number of black inhabitants working in the urban north increased, it was still the Jim Crow era and incidents of racism in New Orleans were common. There were traditions of white people throwing eggs at black people for Mardi Gras and many cases of violent altercations between black and white residents of the city. And yet, when it came to New Orleans tourism, white attitudes were conflicted. Most tourist guides either erased traces of black culture in the city or they tried to show it as inferior to their own, which was especially true in the case of jazz. Jazz to white tourists represented a lot of the stereotypes they held about black people. Its wailing, improvisational style along with the behaviors its musicians took part in made upper class whites see the music as lewd and suggestive. Despite that, jazz became popular with both races and promoters of tourism had to promote that aspect of black culture. Though it gained attention in the 20’s, this popularity and promotion of the music didn’t really take off until white attitudes towards it shifted, which came with the Great Depression.

Prior to the Depression, the general attitude towards jazz was that it was disorderly music. City leaders wanted the urban space to run smoothly for economic prosperity and they wanted the arts within the city to reflect that. Due to this, music with structured harmony such as symphonies were far more popular with the public. Once the Great Depression hit, however, jazz became an outlet for anxieties brought on by the economic downfall.[1] A statement by Paul Whiteman and Mary McBride sums up the ways in jazz became an outlet and expression of freedom. “In America, jazz is at once a revolt and a release. Through it, we get back to simple, to a savage, if you like, joy in being alive. While we are dancing or singing or even listening to jazz, all the artificial restraints are gone. We are rhythmic, we are emotional, we are natural.” The main attraction of jazz as a part of tourism was the ways in which it contributed to the vice allure of the city. The fact that jazz was often performed in brothels and included suggestive dance steps that led to men and women dancing close to one another was a part of the risky appeal. However, above all, it was the mixing of black and white culture that made jazz seem so immoral and fascinating at the same time. New Orleans had always been looser in terms of racial boundaries as it was a mixture of European, Caribbean, African, and American aspects. In this Jim Crow era, though, the fact that jazz could create an atmosphere of dancing and socializing with people of any race, class, and gender was something unusual and uniquely New Orleans. People were drawn in by their curiosity to these black jazz musicians and made it part of their tourist experience in order to fulfill that curiosity.[2]

This is very similar to the tourism dynamic we read about in Wild Things by Jasen. Like with black residents and New Orleans, Native people’s role in Ontario tourism increased at the same time the era of scientific racism began with the Indian Act, aggressive white settlement, and assault on Native culture. Despite this though, they were a necessary part of tourism, as part of the reason people came to Ontario to get those tours was so they could interact with Native people up close and see the wildness they believed they possessed. Tourists weren’t only paying to look at the beauty of nature; they were also paying for “a chance to ponder, at close hand, the differences between their own race and the one they regarded as distinctly other.”[3] This pondering of the “other” was very much relevant between the two wars, and the reason this type of racial mixing as part of tourism worked was because, in both instances, the white tourists still felt like they were superior. In Ontario, tourists saw the Natives as employees and normally expected to have control over them, becoming annoyed if the Native tour guide didn’t cooperate. As for New Orleans, a quote from the book Subversive Sounds evaluates the dynamic that allowed white tourists to intermingle with ease. “Whites expected blacks to utilize music for their entertainment and pleasure; such interchange was in many ways consistent with racial subordination, for blacks were seen as naturally rhythmic and inventive but incapable of higher thought. Musicians found ways at times to evade the strictures of segregation, but racism influence which musicians played together, what kind of music was played before a particular audience, who listened to the music and with whom, and what music meant to those listeners.” [4]Essentially, white tourists could fulfill their vice curiosity by going to see and interact with black musicians because they still believed that the black musicians were serving them and that, when it came down to it, they were in control of what those musicians could and couldn’t do. Tourists could go to these immoral places, dance to this immoral music, and mix their culture with that of a race they deemed inferior, and still return home no less respectable than they were before. Jazz one was big aspect of the vice yet safe tourism that drew so many people in, but it was not the only one. A similar appeal was also heavily associated with the vice elements that New Orleans was so well known for- its famous red-light district and its copious amounts of alcohol throughout the city.

Prior to 1920, New Orleans enjoyed a fairly prosperous tourism industry, however the majority of their tourist attractions were marketed only to men. These men would often leave their domestic spheres and come to New Orleans to let loose, typically by enjoying the great extent of and easy access to alcohol and prostitution. New Orleans during this time was known for its vice elements of tourism such as its bars, music halls, and brothels located in the red-light district known as Storyville. While these places did benefit the city in a lot of ways, this type of tourism still left out a huge portion of potential visitors able to bring in more revenue. In order for New Orleans to become a truly triumphant vice tourist location, it needed to make changes that would allow them to advertise to more than men looking for an escape from their everyday lives. In order for this to happen, the vice elements first had to be somewhat hindered. The first occurrence of this was in 1917 when, due to World War I, prostitution was banned to help the US military sooth family fears and prevent the spread of venereal diseases within their troops. Soon after, in 1920, the 18th amendment took effect, outlawing the sale of alcohol nationwide. Prior to this amendment, in 1918, the sale of many alcoholic drinks had been banned through the Wartime Prohibition Act, meant to conserve food like grain and create a more efficient, sober public. However, once negotiations had been made, reformers still won in the fight against the sale of alcohol, believing what was good for the country in wartime was also good during times of peace. The combination of these two actions greatly influenced tourism within New Orleans, significantly dimming the nightlife that had been so popular. Due to this, businessmen and politicians were forced to adjust in ways that would bring tourists back to New Orleans. First, they began to market other aspects of the city, noticing that, especially when prostitution was banned, the number of women venturing into the streets of New Orleans increased. Beforehand, there was a stigma on women who chose to leave the domestic sphere to visit or work in areas of the city frequented by prostitutes. Once this changed, women felt more comfortable going into the streets and standing side by side with men without being seen as women of questionable virtue. The city responded to the influx of women by making the streets a place where even sophisticated women and their children felt safe to visit, shop, and see the finer parts of urban life. Doing this brought in whole new crowd of tourists willing to come and spend their money on New Orleans less vice attractions.

At the same time these new tourists came in, however, those vice elements that had attracted so many men beforehand were in no way abandoned once prostitution and alcohol were made illegal. The mayor of New Orleans during this time, Mayor Behrman, was one of the biggest proponents of keeping the vice attractions alive. Two quotes of his read “You can make prostitution illegal in Louisiana, but you can’t make it unpopular” and “There are thousands of voters who are devoted to prohibition at home so long as they may take a train to Alexandria, Eunice, or New Orleans and go wet for a few hours.” He, along with the politicians and business leaders of the city decided to keep it a wide-open city, letting vice elements remain while keeping up the appearance of following the new laws. Hotels took on the role of brothels and taverns posed as soft drink stands while discretely selling alcohol and turning a blind eye to gambling. Popular night spots opened up near these stands, where girls were hired to dance lewdly and alcohol was smuggled in. The nightlife of New Orleans returned in a way that brought back its previous clientele but didn’t scare away the women and families new to the city’s population of tourists. The outlawing of prostitution and alcohol in many ways actually benefitted the tourist industry. It enhanced the excitement of experiencing the vice attractions and made it so New Orleans was offering something not elsewhere available, which brought in even more men than before. At the same time, it made a New Orleans into a place that seemed safer for families and comfortable for women to venture without judgement. With a broader audience to market towards, New Orleans developed into something bigger and more profitable, but it was still only known as a vice tourist location for men. It was not until farther into the 1920’s and reaching into the 1930’s that this really started to change as gender roles throughout the United States came into question.

The period during and shortly after World War I were crucial to the development of the role of women in American society. During wartime, many women were, for the first time, able to experience work outside the household as they filled gaps left open by men who left to fight. This gave women the opportunity to see what they were capable of and what life outside their typical domestic sphere was like. Shortly after, the 19th amendment was ratified, granting women the right to vote and giving women some of the influence that men had had for so long. These two things combined inspired women to start fighting for a greater role in their society, sparking more social change throughout the era after the first world war. Married women, even if they did return to work within the home, felt more freedom to express themselves and seek an equal voice within their relationships. Single women often sought out jobs and were then able to spend the money they earned to enjoy their time away from labor. This created a whole new sector of female clientele for New Orleans to market to, especially as a revolution in gender conventions came in the late 1920’s and into the 1930’s.

With prostitution and alcohol still under wraps, women continued to gain freedom to roam the streets of formerly male-dominated attractions and with that, women began to experience more freedom to experiment with their sexuality and behavior. Many women began to bob their hair, use cosmetics, wear provocative clothing, smoke, drink, gamble, and in general, make their own presence in the public sphere, which previously would have been seen as scandalous. At the same time, alcohol lost a lot of its association with unruly male behavior and prohibition got less popular as movies and radio glamorized the type of nightlife found in the city. Going to the vice city of New Orleans became a symbol of personal freedom while speakeasies became a symbol of edgy sophistication that was welcome to both sexes. The repeal of prohibition came in 1933, but it didn’t come with a return of male-oriented tourism. Instead, it actually helped equalize men and women in the urban space and aided that aspect of tourism as the two genders could drink and socialize with one another much easier. Following this revolution of gender roles, New Orleans enjoyed an influx of tourists as families came to enjoy the sheltered urban environment during the day while both men and women came to enjoy the elements of nightlife that were offered. The increased wealth coming into the city from greater then made it possible to clean the city up by improving sewage and water systems, garbage incinerators, roads and sidewalks. This cleansing of the urban space helped tourism further while strengthening the city’s commitment to the vice that allowed them to better the city.[5]

New Orleans in this time period, was in many ways, a more modern-day Ballston Spa. Ballston was revolutionary for its time as it was one of the first tourist locations in the country in general and also one that drew in many visitors because of the vice aspects of it. Those who visited, mainly those who went for social rather than health reasons, experienced what true leisure was like and the consequences that could come with it. There, people could come participate in activities like drinking, gambling, and flirting. “Maidenly virtue” was seen to be threatened and “the spring’s visitors were immersed in an atmosphere of freedom that seemed so far removed from their homes that they could do almost anything at all without consequences.”[6] Ballston, like New Orleans, was a place that seemed far removed from the everyday lives of the tourists that visited and that was what enticed so many to go there. Visitors at both Ballston and New Orleans could come, act in vice ways that would likely be deemed inappropriate if they were anywhere else, and then could simply return to their safe, non-leisurely lives at home. This was what gave these places their allure and what made them into the successful tourist locations they came to be.

Without the social changes that came about in the 1920’s and 1930’s, specifically the questioning of race, prohibition, the ban of alcohol, and changing gender norms, New Orleans tourism would never have developed into the successful vice tourist location it is now known as. Each individual aspect of change in some way allowed for New Orleans to cater to a greater demographic of tourists, leading to greater success. Each element furthermore influenced the city by transforming it into a place of escape where those who wished to experience vice not found in their everyday lives could do so without immense risk. Tourists could mix with those of different races and genders while taking advantage of the pleasures the city had to offer. Elsewhere, this behavior could have been seen too immoral to even think about but it New Orleans, these tourists were simply seen as participating in the local culture. Through the social changes occurring between the two world wars, New Orleans was able to cultivate a unique experience that enticed visitors with the more wicked aspects of the city while giving them control and allowing them to return to their domestic lives just as refined as beforehand. This is what defined New Orleans tourism and influences of those social changes can still be seen today.


Gassan, Richard H. The birth of American tourism: New York, the Hudson Valley, and American culture, 1790-1830. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008.

Hersch, Charles. Subversive Sounds: race and the birth of jazz in New Orleans. Chicago, Ill.: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2009.

Jasen, Patricia Jane. Wild things: nature, culture, and tourism in Ontario, 1790-1914. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

Stanonis, A. J. Creating the big easy: New orleans, american culture, and the emergence of modern tourism, 1915–1950 (Order No. 3085798). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (305300196). 2003. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.umw.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/305300196?accountid=12299


[1] Stanonis, A. J. Creating the big easy: New orleans, american culture, and the emergence of modern tourism, 1915–1950 (Order No. 3085798). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (305300196). 2003. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.umw.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/305300196?accountid=12299

[2] Hersch, Charles. Subversive Sounds: race and the birth of jazz in New Orleans. Chicago, Ill.: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2009.

[3] Jasen, Patricia Jane. Wild things: nature, culture, and tourism in Ontario, 1790-1914. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

[4] Hersch, Charles. Subversive Sounds: race and the birth of jazz in New Orleans. Chicago, Ill.: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2009.

[5] Stanonis, A. J. Creating the big easy: New orleans, american culture, and the emergence of modern tourism, 1915–1950 (Order No. 3085798). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (305300196). 2003. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.umw.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/305300196?accountid=12299