Earning as much as $10
per week, most saloon
girls also made a commission from the drinks that they sold. Whiskey sold to
the customer was generally marked up 30-60% over its wholesale price.
Commonly drinks bought for the girls would only be cold tea or colored sugar
water served in a shot glass; however, the customers were charged the full
price of whiskey, which could range from ten to seventy-five cents a
Saloon girls wore brightly colored
ruffled skirts that were scandalously short for the time – mid-shin or
knee-length. Under the bell-shaped skirts, could be seen colorfully hued
petticoats that barely reached their kid boots that were often adorned with
tassels. More often than not, their arms and shoulders were bare, their
bodices cut low over their bosoms, and their dresses decorated with sequins
and fringe. Silk, lace, or net stockings were held up by garters, which were
often gifts from their admirers. The term “painted ladies” was coined because
the “girls” had the audacity to wear make-up and dye their hair. Many were
armed with pistols or jeweled daggers concealed in their boot tops or tucked
between her breasts to keep the boisterous cowboys in line.
Most saloon girls were considered "good" women by the men
they danced and talked with; often receiving lavish gifts from admirers. In
most places the proprieties of treating the saloon girls as
“ladies” were strictly observed, as much because Western men tended to revere
all women, as because the women or the saloon keeper
demanded it. Any man who mistreated these women would quickly become a social
outcast, and if he insulted one he would very likely be killed.
And, as for the “respectable
women”, the saloon
girls were rarely interested in the opinions of the drab, hard-working women
who set themselves up to judge them. In fact, they were hard pressed to
understand why those women didn’t have sense enough to avoid working themselves to death
by having babies, tending animals, and helping their husbands try to bring in
a crop or tend the cattle.
In the early California Gold
Rush of 1849, dance halls began to appear and spread throughout later
settlements. While these saloons usually
offered games of chance, their chief attraction was dancing. The customer
generally paid 75¢ to $1.00 for a ticket to dance, with the proceeds being
split between the dance hall girl and the saloon owner.
After the dance, the girl would steer the gentleman to the bar, where she
would make an additional commission from the sale of a drink.
Dancing usually began about 8:00 p.m., ranging from
waltzes to schottisches with each “turn” lasting about 15 minutes. A popular
girl would average 50 dances a night, sometimes making more a night than a
working man could make in a month. Dance hall girls made enough money that it
was very rare for them to double as a prostitute, in fact many former “soiled
doves” found they could make more money as a dance hall girl.
To the saloon owner, the dance girls were a profitable commodity and
gentlemen were discouraged from paying too much attention to any one girl, as
dance hall owners lost more women to marriage than in any other way.
Though most patrons respected the girls, violent deaths
were one of their biggest professional hazards. More than a hundred cases
were documented, but there were, no doubt, probably many more. One saloon girl, who was savagely beaten, had repelled the advances
of a drunken customer. When a cowboy approached her, she responded "I
don't mind the black eye, but he called me a whore."
The Real Shady Ladies
Some of the reasons why women entered prostitution
during the Wild
West are probably not a lot different than it is today. However,
with limited opportunities in the nineteenth century, many had little
choice when they were abandoned by husbands or stranded in Old West
towns when her spouse was killed. Some just had no other skills to
provide a means of support. Others were the daughters of prostitutes,
already tainted in the business. The saddest reason were those women
who were seduced by a cad and lost her virginity, or were raped. At
the time, these women were seen as “lost” and there was no hope for them,
virtually forcing them into prostitution.
The "Row" at Cripple Creek,
courtesy Denver Public Library
Though the “proper” ladies ignored the existence of
brothels, realistically they admitted their necessity to distract the
attentions of men from the pursuing their daughters and relieving them of
their “obligation.” At the time Victorian prudence had long taught
“decent” women that the sexual act was solely for the purpose of bearing
children. She was taught that she shouldn't respond in any way and that
her man should be indulged from time to time, but best to be avoided
The men of the West were often intimidated by the “decent” women
who laid down the moral law and found themselves much more comfortable
with the painted ladies who allowed them to be who they were.
Virtually every Old West town had at least a couple of
ladies,” who were the source of much gossip. Sometimes she
would “hide” behind the chore of taking in laundry, as a seamstress, or
running a boarding house. But, often she would flaunt her
profitable bordello by prancing through the streets in her fine clothing,
much to the chagrin of the “proper” women of the town. Such was the
case of Pearl
de Vere of Cripple Creek,
By the 1860s
prostitution was a booming business and though it was illegal almost
everywhere, it was impossible to suppress, so the law generally did
little more than tried to confine the parlors and brothels to certain
districts of the community. Others regularly fined the brothels and
ladies as a type of taxation. But otherwise, the businesses
thrived with little intervention from the law.
Shady Ladies were so numerous in some of
the frontier towns that some historians have estimated that they
made up 25% of the population, often outnumbering the “decent” women 25
to 1. As the Old West towns grew, they would often
have several bordellos staffed by four or five women. Usually,
painted ladies were between the ages of 14 and 30 with the average age of
Some high class courtesans
often demanded as much as $50 from their clients; however, rates on the
frontier generally ranged from $5 at nicer establishments to $1 or less
for most ladies
of the night. Sometimes they would split their earnings with
the madam of the parlor house, while others paid a flat fee per night or
1890 Parlor, courtesy Denver
As in most occupations, there was a pecking order, with
the women who lived in the best houses, at the top, and scorning those who
worked out of dance halls, saloons or “cribs.” However, the majority of
prostitutes did work out of parlor houses, the best of which looked
like respectable mansions. To advertise the building’s true intent,
red lanterns were often hung under the eaves or beside the door and bold
red curtains adorned the lower windows. Inside, their was usually a
lavishly decorated parlor, hence the name “parlor house.” The
walls were flanked with sofas and chairs and often a piano stood in
attendance for girls who might play or sing requests for customers.
The larger places
were likely to include a game room and a dance hall. Between assignations
the women and their callers were entertained by musicians, dancers,
singers, and jugglers. The most successful landladies maintained, at least
on the ground floor, a strict air of respectability and a charming home
life. They also insisted that their girls wear corsets downstairs and
forbade any "rough stuff."
house had a bouncer to handle customers who got too rough with the girls
who didn’t want to pay his bill. This is most likely one of the
reasons the girls considered themselves superior to those who worked
girls’ rooms were always on the second floor, if there was one.
Parlor houses would usually average six to 12 girls, plus the madam,
who entertained only those customers she personally selected. First-class
places set a good table and prided themselves on their cellars, offering
choice cigars, bonded bourbon, and the finest liquors and wines.
Customers could enjoy champagne suppers and sing with the girls around the
piano. In very high class parlor houses, the women could only be seen
The women usually
sent East for their finery or bought it from passing peddlers. Their
gowns were generally tight, snugging them at the hips, slit to the knee on
one side with deep décolletage, and decorated with sequins or fringe.
In mining towns, the “girls” would often be seen walking, riding, or in
carriages, dressed in their eye-catching finery.
lower grade of bordello came to be called a "honkytonk," from a
common southern African-American term. In these houses, there was very
little subtlety. The direct approach was standard with maybe a
five-minute dalliance at the bar, then it was off to her room.
The Old Homestead was the most
popular house in
during its heyday. Pearl de Vere,
its famous madam sometimes charged
as much as $1,000 to entertain the men of the district. Today, it
continues to stand
as a museum. June, 2006, Kathy
than even the saloon prostitutes were those who worked
independently, living in small houses or cabins called cribs. Crib
houses were usually in segregated districts with a front bedroom and a
kitchen in the rear. Often they were illuminated by red lamps and or
curtains. Some madams kept a string of "cribs" available
for women no longer employable within the house, continuing to make a
profit off of the older painted ladies.
Below even those were the streetwalkers, usually only
found in the larger cities.
In a class by
themselves were the women who serviced the military at remote forts.
Many settlements that grew up around a fort were not large enough to
support a “decent” parlor house, and most self-respecting madams would not
admit a lowly-paid soldier anyway. Before long a district referred to
as “Hog Town” could usually be found near these remote forts. Here,
the soldiers could find gambling, whiskey, and a few aging and degenerate
Black men were not allowed to patronize white brothels,
but many towns had all-black houses. And in a few small towns, some
houses had both black and white women.
Though it may seem odd, many “painted ladies”
were married, some to saloon owners or brothel operators. Others were
married to managers of touring variety shows. Such men not only
tolerated the profession but depended upon his wife to help with the
Street Walker, courtesy of
Library of Congress
available for photographic prints HERE!
Inevitably, painted ladies had children,
though attempts were made at birth control which was very primitive at
the time. By the 1840s women could purchase Portuguese Female
Pills (an abortion pill) or Madame Restell's Preventive Powders, but it
is unclear how effective these were. The French had already
invented the condom, fashioned of rubber or skin, as they are
today. In places like New Orleans or St. Louis, where there was a
large French population, condoms were readily available. However,
much like today, many men were reluctant to use them. After 1860
diaphragms were available, as well as douches compounded from such ingredients
as alum, pearlash, red rose leaves, carbolic acid, bicarbonate of soda,
sulphate of zinc, vinegar, or plain water. Others simply relied
on the rhythm method.
the most common form of birth control was abortion, which had also spread
as a form of birth control to even the “respectable women.” In the
years between 1850 and 1870 one historian estimated that one abortion was
performed for every five to six live births in America.
If they were lucky, a courtesan
would marry well and retire with enough money for a comfortable and
respectable lifestyle. Those who married would normally become
instantly “respectable” as it was considered impolite in the
Old West to ask of a person’s
background and most people were too busy to care. Others used their
profits to open their own sporting houses, became saloon operators, or practiced as abortionists.
Inevitably though, some often turned to alcohol or narcotics – dosing
their drinks with laudanum or smoking opium. Suicides were frequent
in the profession.
on the line were often in peril of picking up tuberculosis, called
consumption, at the time, or sexually transmitted diseases, chiefly
syphilis. Others died as a result of botched abortions, sometimes
self-inflicted. Violence also claimed its share in brawls between
prostitutes, customers and sometimes, husbands.
©Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, July, 2006