Terry Pratchett's Discworld series uses "seamstress" as a euphemism for sex worker. Prior to the publication of the series, was it used in real life this way?

It sounds very plausible, but neither Wiktionary nor the Online Etymology Dictionary mentions it.

  • Upvote for the question as it's always interesting to explore how much authors have played fast and loose with/been faithful to real-world origins in created-world writings.
    – Spagirl
    Sep 14, 2016 at 14:19

4 Answers 4


It is mentioned in the Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work Vol 2 ISBN 0-313-32970-2 Pub 2006 Greenwood Press

SEAMSTRESSES. "Seamstress" was a euphemism for "prostitute" in census records and other documents of the 19th century in the United States. Historical documentation showing several "seamstresses" sharing common living quarters may generally be assumed to represent a brothel. Whether this occupation was reported by prostitutes or supplied by census enumerators and other officials remains speculative, although potential reasons for both are easily understood. Legitimate uses of the term should not be confused with the codified use. Other historical and modern euphemisms exist, including laundressess and actressess.

New Essays on Poe's Major Tales by Kenneth Silverman, Cambridge University Press 1993 also states:

Terms like "shopgirl" and "seamstress" were mid-century euphemisms for women whose chief source of income was their bodies.

This website also discusses the issue with reference to an older work by Charles Horne

In John Cleland's Fanny Hill Mrs Cole's establishment poses as a "millinery shop". A milliner's or mantua-maker's establishment was often likened to a house of prostitution, probably an accurate public perception.

A good many of the fallen women whose bastard children were put into the Foundling Hospital were seamstresses. Millinery and dressmaking were a kind of introduction to the prostitute's trade. What trial records show is that when prostitutes were brought into court (usually for stealing a gentleman's watch while his trousers were down), they would describe themselves as apprentices to a mantua-maker, or as being at one time a mantua-marker before they were led astray. A character witness for a prostitute will commonly be a mantua-maker, but I think many judges and juries realized that this mantua-maker acted as the "aunt" at the head of a small-time ring of streetwalkers. The professional mantua-maker often took in lodgers to supplement her income, and the real situation, often as not, is that she would have a few girl "apprentices" who mended stolen clothes and made new clothes from stolen textiles while they are not otherwise engaged picking up men in the street and bringing them to their mistress's upstairs rooms. It was not uncommon for a gentleman to go into a milliner's shop and have sex with one of the girls then and there. Though dressmaking could of course involve a high degree of professional skill, it also provided good cover for both prostitution and fencing stolen goods. Very large quantities of linen and silk, plus ribbons and lace etc., were regularly stolen from warehouses, and found their way to mantua-makers, milliners, and tailors. Tailors and milliners often acted as pawnbrokers, which to a great extent meant dealing in stolen goods. They operated on the boundary between the underworld and the respectable world.

The occupation of millinery or mantua-making was widely regarded as just a cover for prostitution. Charles Horne in Serious Thoughts on the Miseries of Seduction and Prostitution (1783) warned parents not to allow their daughters to become milliners, mantua-makers, or workers in the various clothes trades because they were "actually seminaries of prostitution".

  • 1
    Looks like there's an encyclopedia for everything under the sun. Great!
    – BiscuitBoy
    Sep 14, 2016 at 13:39
  • 1
    It even comes in several volumes ;)
    – Helmar
    Sep 14, 2016 at 14:10
  • 3
    “. . . we cannot lodge and board a dozen or fourteene Gentlewomen that liue honeſtly by the pricke of their Needles, but it will bee thought we keepe a Bawdy-house ſtraight.”—Hostess in Shakespeare’s Henry V 2.1. Sep 14, 2016 at 14:14
  • @BrianDonovan ::snigger:: he said ‘prick’ ::snigger::
    – Spagirl
    Aug 9, 2018 at 7:27

I attach a Census image from 1881 of Devonshire Street in St. George in the East, London which has a number of properties where the young female occupants (all lodgers) from many countries have a range of occupations such as dressmaker, laundress, etc. but who were almost certainly prostitutes.

Emily Brown at No. 19 even has a gentleman visitor who presumably chose not to reveal his name which is registered as "N.K".

Interestingly Sarah Pipman on the bottom line does not have a euphemism.

1881 Census for St. George in the East, London


In Cambridge (England) there used to be a special police force that had the power to arrest women “walking in the company of a member of the university” and imprisoning them in the “spinning house”, where they were actually set to work spinning. This continued until as late as 1891.



Many single female immigrants from countries like Sweden came over as seamstresses, dressmakers ( those terms were defined differently in NYC) and tailors. These were jobs that they'd held in big cities and could be done immediately without extensive knowledge of English language in an era before mass production of clothing. Let's not forget the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City that killed the clothing workers and that resulted in revised labor laws. I would like a timeframe and much more clarity in information about specific locations before generalizing a description of clothing workers as ladies of the evening. We know there were plenty of those (prostitutes), but cooking,servant work, laundry work and dressmaking were among the few legit jobs women could hold initially in urban America.

  • No one was suggesting that all clothing workers were ladies of the evening, rather that terms from one profession could be euphemistically applied to the other, in circumstances where the fiction was both convenient and (most importantly) understood..
    – Spagirl
    Oct 25, 2016 at 15:32

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