Painted Ladies of the Old West


Soiled Dove

A Lady of the Evening poses for the camera.

In the 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.”

California ‘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 Kansas, 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 others.

The biggest difference in the American West was the presence of girls in saloons.

This was unheard of east of the Missouri River, except in German beer halls, where the daughters or wives of the owners, often served as barmaids and waitresses.

There were two types of “bad girls” in the West. 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” was 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 these women wouldn’t be caught dead associating with an actual prostitute.

Saloon and Dance Hall Girls

Dance Hall Girl 1885

Dance Hall Girl 1885

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 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.

Most saloon 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.

Saloon Girls

Saloon Girls

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.

Saloon Women in Cripple Creek, Colorado

Saloon Women in Cripple Creek, Colorado

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.

Saloon lady

Saloon lady

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. Dancehall 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 dancehall 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

Ladies and their cribs, Dawson, Yukon, Canada, about 1900

Ladies and their cribs, Dawson, Yukon, Canada, about 1900

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.

Though the “proper” ladies ignored the existence of brothels, realistically they admitted their necessity to distract the attention of men from pursuing their daughters and relieving them of their “obligation.”

2 thoughts on “Painted Ladies of the Old West”

  1. I’ve been searching for a photo that I saw long ago of a prostitute. She was called Onion Head because she had survived a scalping as a young girl and her hair grew back going straight up. The rest of the wagon trail was murdered by the indians. I assume they thought she was dead. If you could help me find her story and photo I would be very grateful.

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