Saloon and Dancehall Girls
A 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 Dodge City’s north side of Front Street, the “respectable” side. Both saloon girls and gambling were barred and featured music and billiards as the chief amusements to accompany drinking.
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 shot.
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.