Digital Humanities Project Expands Research: “Prostitution and Brothel Drama in the Progressive Era”

Safe in Hellby Maggie Thomas, CAS Communications Intern

Sex for SaleDr. Katie Johnson of the English department, Elias Tzoc, Digital Initiatives and Associate Librarian, and graduate students, Tory Lowe and Tyler Groff, began collaborating a year and a half ago to create a digital humanities archive. The project was created to serve as a digital element for Johnson’s recent book, Sex for Sale: Six Progressive-Era Brothel Dramas.

The website is hosted by the Center for Digital Scholarship, which exists to support digital initiatives that enhance the research, teaching, and learning mission of Miami University. The team worked on the digital site for over a year, and plans on expanding the site as they discover more research and can devote more time to the project.   

The digital project features the collaborative work of graduate students Lowe and Groff. Lowe completed his Master’s degree in English Literature in 2012 and is currently studying to receive his second Master’s degree in Student Affairs.  Having earned his Master’s degree in English Literature in 2013, Groff is now working on his PhD in English with a focus on British Literature from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Johnson could not be more pleased with the graduate students’ work: “The site evolved from something very simplistic into a very layered and rich, clickable, digital archive. It developed over more than a year, in working with Elias, and Tyler, and Tory--these wonderful collaborators--where everyone brought their areas of expertise to the table, and it just took off from there.”

Johnson’s book, Sex for Sale, demonstrates the centrality of theatre in shaping U.S. culture during the Progressive era, a time period in which prostitution, sexuality, immigration, and women’s role in the public sphere were matters of intense debate. In the 1910s and 1920s numerous plays focused on prostitution during the height of anti-prostitution reform.  Johnson has called this genre of entertainment “brothel dramas.” In her book, Johnson discusses six plays which focused on these themes and publishes the scripts—many of which for the first time. The book represents the brothel drama’s part in creating perspectives of sexuality, birth control, immigration, urbanization, and women’s work.

Johnson’s editor at the University of Iowa Press, Heather Nathans, encouraged her to create the digital component for the book. The team also received input from Catherine Cocks of the University of Iowa Press, and Max Shulman, Nathan’s graduate student at Tufts. The site was created to feature materials that weren’t included in the critical anthology. The archive includes, yet is not limited to, guest writers, historical documents, film clips, and several brothel dramas that weren’t discussed in the book. Although the site was created with a defined purpose, the digital team hopes continue to add more content, while broadening the audience and sources.

“Because so many changes are happening in academic publishing right now, there is a much greater push for scholarship that occupies digital spaces, as opposed to the traditional book form. Digital scholarship allows for much broader access; it allows the site to reach different audiences, present original artifacts, and be much more interactive for students and other scholars,” Lowe said.

Johnson said the team is most pleased with the “Red Light Writers,” and the “After the Red Lights” sections. The team plans to find more articles, editorials, and film clips that support similar themes.

“Ultimately, while the project began as a companion to Dr. Johnson’s book, we now see the site as attempting to bring conversations that typically only happen in academic spaces and or in print into the digital sphere, and to demonstrate the continued relevance of this topic, dramatic representations of sex work, in our own cultural moment,” Lowe said.

Recently, the digital archive was positively reviewed by the Digital Research and Scholarship Group of the American Society of Theatre Research