Painted Ladies of the Old West
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Wild West, the
harsh Puritan sanctions were not as "practical” as in America’s more
conservative eastern counterpart. And though the "proper” ladies still labeled those who
didn’t share their values -- by virtue of dress, behavior or sexual
ethics, as "disgraceful,” the shady ladies of the West
were generally tolerated by other women as a "necessary evil.”
‘49ers labeled these women with names such as "ladies of the line” and
"sporting women", while the cowboys dubbed them "soiled doves.” Among
the many trails of
common terms included "daughters of sin”, "fallen frails,” "doves of the
roost,” and "nymphs du prairie.” Other nicknames for these women,
who were as much a part of the Old West
as were the
outlaws, cowboys and miners, were "scarlet ladies,” fallen angels,”
"frail sisters,” "fair belles,” and "painted cats,” among dozens of
biggest difference in the American West was the
presence of girls in
unheard of east of the
River, except in German beer halls, where the daughters or wives of
the owners, often served as barmaids and waitresses.
A Lady of the Evening poses for the camera.
This image available for
prints and downloads
There were two types of "bad girls”
The "worst” types, according to the "proper” women,
were the many painted ladies who made their living by offering paid
sex in the numerous brothels, parlor houses, and cribs of the western
towns. The second type of "bad girl” were the saloon and dance hall
women, who contrary to some popular thinking, were generally not
prostitutes -- this
tended to occur only in the very shabbiest class of saloons. Though the "respectable” ladies considered the
saloon girls "fallen”, most of the girls wouldn’t be caught dead
associating with an actual prostitute.
Saloon and Dance Hall Girls
saloon or dancehall
girl’s job was to brighten the evenings of the many lonely men of the
western towns. In the
Old West, men usually
outnumbered women by at least three to one – sometimes more, as was
the case in
California in1850, where 90% of the population was male. Starved for female companionship, the
saloon girl would sing
for the men, dance with them, and talk to them
– inducing them to remain in
the bar, buying drinks and patronizing the games.
Not all saloons employed saloon girls, such as in
Dodge City’s north side of Front Street, which was the
"respectable” side, where both saloon
girls and gambling were barred, and featured music and billiards as
the chief amusements to accompany drinking.
girls were refugees from farms or mills, lured by posters and
handbills advertising high wages, easy work, and fine clothing. Many
were widows or needy women of good morals, forced to earn a living in
an era that offered few means for women to do so.
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 shot.
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.
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.
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.
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."
One of the many soiled doves who worked the
of the Old West.
This image available for
prints & downloads
Harlots of the Barbary
Leading Madams of the Old West
Saloons of the
The Painted Ladies of Deadwood Gulch
Women in American
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