And lest we
not forget the
saloon or dance-hall girl,
whose job was to brighten the evenings of lonely men starved for female
companionship. Contrary to what many might think, the
was very rarely a prostitute – 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
prostitute. Their job was to entertain the guests, sing for
them, dance with them, talk to them and perhaps flirt with them a bit –
inducing them to others in the bar, buying drinks and patronizing the
Not all saloons employed saloon girls, such as in
north side of Front Street, which was the "respectable” side, where guns,
saloon girls and gambling were
barred, Instead, music and billiards were featured as the chief
amusements to accompany drinking.
Most 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.
1885 Painting of
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 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 customer was
charged the full price of whiskey, which could range from ten to
seventy-five cents a shot.
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, and 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
While they might have been
scorned by the "proper" ladies, the saloon girl could
count on respect from the males. 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
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
Gold Rush of 1849, dance halls began to appear and spread throughout
the boomtowns. While these saloon 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.
Even today, don’t we still see the vestige remains of
Old West Saloon as the professional woman may peer down upon the bar
waitress, who may peer down upon today’s
though the gaming tables and spittoons may be long gone, the tavern or
bar remains an establishment that is apparently free from the effects
of the economy and will, no doubt, always remain a place where
business people continue to make deals and people frequent to chase
away their cares.
of America, updated August, 2017.