William Goldman 1856-1922

“Goldman was born twenty-five miles from Reading in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. He became an apprentice in photography in 1876 and worked for a number of Reading photographers over the next fifteen years before setting up his own business in the city that he maintained until his death in 1922 … He served as the treasurer of the Photographer’s Association of the Middle Atlantic States. Goldman was also a 32° Mason, a Shriner, a member of the Elks, and an Odd Fellow. His 1922 obituary stated, ‘‘Billy’ Goldman, as his host of friends knew him, was one of the most popular and lovable men we have ever met and his death will be felt by many’. In short, Goldman was seen as a pillar of society.


There were, however, two individuals in one. First there was William I. Goldman the upstanding local photographer who documented the citizens, their weddings, and social occasions. Then there was Billy Goldman, man of his times and its appetites, who we now know, used his camera, in secret, to capture the feminine beauty of the prostitutes who worked in his city.


At this time, the mere suggestion of a woman posing naked for a painter, much less a photographer was beyond scandalous. The one woman that might not have had a second thought about posing, for the right price, was a prostitute. It is impossible to know when they first met, but Billy Goldman’s photographic studio on Penn Street was less than a ten-minute walk from Sallie’s house of ill repute at North 8th and Walnut.


Why did Goldman take these particular photographs? It is evident from searches through archives in Pennsylvania that Goldman did not distribute or sell them publicly. Speculation that the albums in which the photographs were originally housed might have served as a visual menu to allow clients of Sallie’s brothel to select a prostitute of their choice is untenable. The women came and went with a frequency that would not allow the albums to be kept up to date and used in this manner.


With an upstanding reputation to protect, it seems clear that Goldman ultimately made this assemblage of photographs for his personal pleasure. He then lovingly mounted them in albums to be hidden away from prying eyes. As we have seen in his own photographs, Goldman shared these albums with the women who sat for his camera but otherwise it can be assumed they remained a secret until now.”


*Excerpted from Robert Flynn Johnson’s introduction for the book “Working Girls” (An American Brothel, Circa 1892: The Secret Photographs of William Goldman). Gliteratti Editions, 2018. pp. 35-37.