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Also known as “sporting women” “painted cat” or “Calico Queen”. This occupation was divided into groups or caste systems. At the top were the courtesans or mistresses, these women had beauty, intelligence, and sophistication. They used wit and charm to get what they wanted. Which was an attachment to a wealthy, powerful man who not only provided for them handsomely but also gave them acceptance and respectability in society.
The next step down was a lavish parlor house. A madam (usually a former prostitute) ran the parlor houses. These had servants, a bouncer, and a “professor”. This gentleman played music during the evening for tips, drinks, and small wage. These men traveled around never staying at one place too long. Some were musicians, some were not. Parlor house madams were sophisticated and discreet. They referred to their “girls” as “boarders”. There were usually 20 elegantly dressed, experienced “boarders” between the age of 18-30 in each house. To attract quality clients, the madams advertised by sending their charges, dressed in their finest clothes, out to stroll through parks or to ride in open carriages. During these “advertisements” the women carried poodles, the signal they were not a “decent woman”. The madam also sent out invitations to soirees which allowed the men to view her “boarders” in a social setting. And parlor houses were listed in a directory found in elite saloons, hotels, and restaurants. Parlor house clients were gentlemen of wealth and respected men in their community. The sheets in parlor houses were changed after every client and maids took care of the “girls” needs.
A brothel was the next step down. There were high class brothels and low end brothels. Both brothels and parlor houses reeked because windows were not opened. Stale smoke, perfume, and drinks permeated the establishments. Brothels tended to be operated by a madam as well, but few had servants. The women were older and dressed less elegant. These establishments usually operated in the “red light” or “Tenderloin” district of a town. “Red Light” originated in Dodge City, Kansas.
The railroad stopped in Dodge City long enough for the train crews to “visit” women. When theyentered the brothels, they left their red lanterns on the porch, in case of an emergency they could be found. Eventually, this red light in front of a place of prostitution became a law. High- class brothels in the Red light district were just a step down from the Parlor Houses. These girls wore fancy, though not elaborate clothing and lots of make up to conceal their aging. These women could be anywhere from 16-35 years of age.
It was important for an experienced prostitute to move around. Men became bored with them after awhile, wanting something new, so they would move to another town and be the “new” girl. These women earned about $10 for their services. The madam received her cut and the rest was spent on clothing and necessities. Some madams took their girls on “summer vacation” They’d set up large tents near a mining camp or town and work there for several weeks before returning to their house. There is a large meadow in the Steens Mountains in Oregon where the women would stay during the summer when the sheep herders had their sheep on the mountain grazing.
When a woman lost her youthfulness and charms--and hadn't died from overdosing on drugs and alcohol which the lifetime prostitute used to forget how bad her life had become--she would find a small town to ply her trade and hope to find a husband, which happened more in the smaller rural communities than it did in the cities. Or they moved down the ladder to volume brothels, saloons, hurdy-gurdy houses. This was still a step above the bottom rung on the ladder--the crib . A volume brothel was just that- fast turn around of customers, dirty, shabby conditions. The establishment was set up with an open area to the street where the woman sat dressed in short skirts, low necklines and tried to entice the customers in. These girls worked in shifts and were older, not as attractive, and usually on drugs or an alcoholic. They used drugs and alcohol to survive. One woman could service 25 men in a busy shift. The sheets in this establishment were rarely changed. A good number of women when they hit this level tried to take their lives. These women were not considered respectable and didn’t go out in public. Some still traveled from place to place. If they were well liked by the men, the brothel would advertise when the woman would be at their establishment.
Pimps were men who took in vulnerable women. They paid for all the woman’s needs making them indebted, then sold their bodies to men, making the woman believe she was paying back her debt.
Prostitutes in rural communities were given some respect and freedom. The brothels in small towns usually had from 2-7 girls. The customers in rural towns were cowboys and laborers. The women didn’t make as much money as in cities. Yet, a prostitute in a rural area had a better chance of getting married.
The crib is nearly the lowest a prostitute can go in the chain. The crib is the most despicable area in the red light district with a row of small, dilapidated houses. They had enough room for a small bed, small stove, a chair, and washstand. With a privy in back. The foot of the bed had an oil cloth across it to keep the men’s boots (which they didn’t’ take off) from staining the bed cover. But they always took off their hats. On pay day there would be lines of men waiting for their turn. The women would work all night. A brisk woman could accommodate 80 men a night. Some women made enough they could afford their own house.
The bottom of the ladder is the streetwalker. This woman battled disease, drugs, and alcohol. This was a woman so far past her prime a pimp wouldn’t even take her in.
A prostitute’s biggest fear was getting pregnant. When she had a disease she would treat it and be back to work in weeks. A pregnancy put her out of commission. European women used a form of protection made from beeswax that fit over their cervix. The Americans would use an abortionist which usually ended up with her becoming sterile. They also discovered opiates would stop menstruation and that could be why so many prostitutes were addicted.
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Saloons and hurdy-gurdy houses were all over the west. Hurdy-gurdy girls were prostitutes and respected women. A dancer received $1 a dance and by the end of the night could have danced with as many as 50 men. Half of that went to the owner of the house, but that was still a good wage back then. Some, who either liked sex or wanted more money would take men to rooms in the back and give sexual favors.
Some saloons had rooms upstairs where the saloon girls entertained any man willing to pay the price. The men running saloons could be cruel, using physical force to make the women, even entertainers who were passing through service a man who was willing to pay. Because the married women were revered, the lowly saloon girl took the brunt of the men's anger, especially when they were drunk. The "resepectable" people believed having the saloon girls and prostitutes for the cowpuncher and miner to visit, these men would leave the married women and daughters alone. And so, a blind eye was given to the women of this profession.
There were some of the higher class saloons who had can-can dancers and women who urged the gamblers to drink more than they should or strung along a man looking for a good time, but they were only allowed to step out with a man on their own time, not while they were working.
The latter type of saloon is what my character Beau Gentry runs on in my upcoming historical western series, Silver Dollar Saloon. The saloon girls will all find their HEA with men who frequent the saloon, or they run into in their excursions outside the saloon.
How do you feel about saloon girls in stories? I like the fact they can be redeemed even though, in the Silver Dollar Saloon, every woman is treated with respect. It comes from Beau's sense of protectiveness and the fact his mother had to be a prostitute to raise him. But you'll learn that in book one of the series, Savannah, when it releases in August.
Disclaimer: Parts of this post have been posted on other sites and are part of a workshop I give at writing conferences on Characters of the West..
Paty Jager is an award-winning author of 30+ novels, a dozen novellas, and short stories of murder mystery, western romance, and action adventure. She has a RomCon Reader’s Choice Award, EPPIE, Lorie, and RONE Award. All her work has Western or Native American elements in them along with hints of humor and engaging characters. This is what readers have to say about the Letters of Fate series- “...filled with romance, adventure and twists and turns.” “What a refreshing and well written love story of fate and hope!”