Many women have made a living working as prostitutes in Bergen. Prostitution has always been regarded as both shameful and illegal. Still, turning to this profession has provided many women with the best income possible in Bergen, where customers like sailors and merchants have always been available. In the nineteenth century two of the most well known brothels were found in Nøstegaten: Vestindien and De Fire Løver.
Johan Duckwitz took citizenship in Bergen as an innkeeper. He and his wife Oline Duckwitz soon started Hotel de Parie at Nordnes. They made good money on their business, and were soon able to purchase the new properties that were to be known as Vestindien (The West Indies) and De Fire Løver (The Four Lions).
The women who worked at the brothels were managed by a professional "madam". Her job was to guide the customer toward the right girl, and to administrate the night’s incomes. In the morning the madams were seen on their way to the Duckwitz’ house on Sydneshaugen, where their patrons led comfortable lives.
"The Madam's job included guiding the costumer toward the right girl, and to administrate the night's income""
The couple had managed their surpluses wisely, and Johan was eventually regarded as a shipbroker and an independent gentleman. "Pimping" was a lucrative business.
Women in this line of work were made subject to public control from 1816. The Norwegian naturalistic painter Christian Krogh’s painting of "Albertine in the police doctor’s waiting room", is famous. The prostitutes were regularly given medical examinations, primarily to prevent venereal diseases from reaching the customers and their families. “The fallen women” were hardly given much consideration. When Napoleon Bonaparte started public control of prostitutes in 1802, the most important issue was the great extent of venereal diseases among the soldiers. In order to save the proud French Army, prostitutes had their health examined. The controls in Bergen and Norway seem to be based on European practises.
After the introduction of medical controls, it became common to differenciate controlled prostitution from clandestine activities. Being registered and subject to medical controls, the authorities turned a blind eye to the prostitution. Those who refused controls where subject to arrest and prosecution.
Prostitution had become disputed around Europe. In England, feminist Josephine Baker went to the barricades and organized Ladies National Association. The association used a strong language, and talked about prostitution as “slavery for men’s lust”. The medical control of the women was regarded as “instrumental rape by physicians.”
Prostitution was increasingly regarded as a poverty issue, with good citizens looking upon the prostitutes with a certain degree of compassion in spite of their falling in society. Prostitution was hardly a profession of choise for most. They were often countryside girls looking for ordinary employment before turning to prostitution. Reality could come down hard on girls in lack of family or connections.
Working as a hospital priest in Bergen, Wilhelm Holdt acknowledged a need for rehabilitating the young girls of the trade. In 1879 he and other citizens started Magdalenahjemmet (the Magdalena Home), where twelve prostitutes were admitted every year. The idea was to train the girls and teach them a new way of life through work and moral conduct. The rules were strict, and the work day was long. Still, for most, this way of life was most likely preferable to the one offered by the Duckwitz family.