The Red Light District

I was chatting with a pal today about this and that and we got to talking about ‘The Red Light District’ and neither of us could come up with a satisfactory answer as to the origin of this title.

Does anyone out there know of the origin of the words and how they came to mean what they mean today?

My hubby had put his two cents worth in with - doctors used to have a red light outside their premises, but since that was all he could offer, didn’t really satisfy.

P.S. I hope I’ve put this in the right message board.



This page at Snopes has another possible explanation, though it’s labelled ‘undertermined’.

To summarize: railroad engineers always carried red lanterns when they left the trains so they could be found easily by the other workers if there was an emergency. When they’d stop off at the local cathouse, they’d hang the lantern by the window.
Not a very convincing explanation, but interesting.

I seem to recall seeing some news bit or something like that on TV where in Amsterdam, I believe, prostitues put lamps with red shades on them to advertise the availibility of their services.

When did doctors hang a red light outside their doors. I’m rather a student of medical history, and as far as I know they never did, in any place or time I’ve ever heard of. Let’s not forget that electricity and gas lamps are a fairly recent inventions that spread outwards from the cities (and I doubt he claims that doctors used to hang candles inside expensive colored glass cylinders or somesuch.)

No, I’d say that this doesn’t make any sense. A red light would not accord with any symbology I have ever read - and I’ve read a lot. One has to, yo make any sense of the field. For example, the staff of Aesclepius used by the medical profession derived, oddly, from symbol used by publishers (hence it bears the wings of Mercury, god of communications)

Why would doctors use a light, when no other profession did this, and lights don;t ‘just happen’. [Soon after Lyndon Johnson became President in 1963 , he commented on the Rural Electrification Act by noting electricity hadn’t yet reached parts of the hill country in Texas where he’d been born - and that’s in the good ol’ US of A. That may seem a long time ago to you, but I was born then)

I’d want to see a cite before I’d accept that a red light was ever a symbol used by doctors. I don’t believe it ever was.

Now barbers (who were the early surgeons) did hang a striped barber pole out front, in keeping with the practice of many other guilds and professions (e.g. the three balls of the pawnbroker) but itat’s not just red and does nothing to explain the red light.

In the red light districts prostitues sit in sort of shop windows on display, illuminated by red light. White light often is not so favourable to the looks…

I believe this is true. I was in the Amsterdam red light district a few years back, and they still actually do have the women in the windows with the red lights (or did then). I thought it was a mannequin in the window of a lingere shop, and nearly jumped ten feet when the ‘mannequin’ winked at me!

You can see this in almost any town with a major port. Sailors are lonely.
Round the corner from my place they turn to a ‘light’-version of this. Since the town council only allows the women to wait in their cars for customers they simply leave the interior lighting switched on - with a red bulb.

My Googling also came up with the “railwaymen” and " “advertising” explanations. I’m not too sure just why the railway workers would be using these services more than other groups…but what do I know.
Given the context, Shanti I am very sorry to hear that your husband “didn’t really satisfy”. :slight_smile:

I know this isn’t an infallible source, but I saw something on the History channel that indicated that in France or England during WWI, prostitution was rampant for soldiers on leave. Brothels that serviced officers hung a blue light outside their doors and those serving enlisted men hung a red light.

(Again, the History channel; take it with a grain of salt).

An old thread on this, where my idea was shot full of holes:

I don’t see an answer in that thread, either.

Thanks KP, but it was just a passing theory/thought, not something to get up and ‘gee’ about really.

Not all of us are ardent followers of fashion, past or present, no cite forthwith.
Thanks for your insights folks. I guess it’s just one of those things that happens in history,
Oh Celyn, it is a rare ocassion that my hubby doesn’t satisfy.