The Real Shady Ladies
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 attentions of men from the pursuing their daughters and relieving them of their “obligation.”
At the time, Victorian prudence had long taught “decent” women that the sexual act was solely for the purpose of bearing children. She was taught that she shouldn’t respond in any way and that her man should be indulged from time to time, but best to be avoided whenever possible.
The men of the West were often intimidated by the “decent” women who laid down the moral law and found themselves much more comfortable with the painted ladies who allowed them to be who they were.
Virtually every Old West town had at least a couple of “shady ladies,” who were the source of much gossip. Sometimes she would “hide” behind the chore of taking in laundry, as a seamstress, or running a boarding house. But, often she would flaunt her profitable bordello by prancing through the streets in her fine clothing, much to the chagrin of the “proper” women of the town. Such was the case of Pearl de Vere of Cripple Creek, Colorado.
By the 1860s prostitution was a booming business and though it was illegal almost everywhere, it was impossible to suppress, so the law generally did little more than tried to confine the parlors and brothels to certain districts of the community. Others regularly fined the brothels and painted ladies as a type of taxation. But otherwise, the businesses thrived with little intervention from the law.
Shady Ladies were so numerous in some of the frontier towns that some historians have estimated that they made up 25% of the population, often outnumbering the “decent” women 25 to 1. As the Old West towns grew, they would often have several bordellos staffed by four or five women. Usually, painted ladies were between the ages of 14 and 30 with the average age of 23.
Some high class courtesans often demanded as much as $50 from their clients; however, rates on the frontier generally ranged from $5 at nicer establishments to $1 or less for most ladies of the night. Sometimes they would split their earnings with the madam of the parlor house, while others paid a flat fee per night or week.
As in most occupations, there was a pecking order, with the women who lived in the best houses, at the top, and scorning those who worked out of dance halls, saloons or “cribs.” However, the majority of prostitutes did work out of parlor houses, the best of which looked like respectable mansions. To advertise the building’s true intent, red lanterns were often hung under the eaves or beside the door and bold red curtains adorned the lower windows. Inside, their was usually a lavishly decorated parlor, hence the name “parlor house.” The walls were flanked with sofas and chairs and often a piano stood in attendance for girls who might play or sing requests for customers.
The larger places were likely to include a game room and a dance hall. Between assignations the women and their callers were entertained by musicians, dancers, singers, and jugglers.
The most successful landladies maintained, at least on the ground floor, a strict air of respectability and a charming home life. They also insisted that their girls wear corsets downstairs and forbade any “rough stuff.”
Every house had a bouncer to handle customers who got too rough with the girls who didn’t want to pay his bill. This is most likely one of the reasons the girls considered themselves superior to those who worked independently.
The girls’ rooms were always on the second floor, if there was one. Parlor houses would usually average six to 12 girls, plus the madam, who entertained only those customers she personally selected. First-class places set a good table and prided themselves on their cellars, offering choice cigars, bonded bourbon, and the finest liquors and wines. Customers could enjoy champagne suppers and sing with the girls around the piano. In very high class parlor houses, the women could only be seen by appointment.
The women usually sent East for their finery or bought it from passing peddlers. Their gowns were generally tight, snugging them at the hips, slit to the knee on one side with deep décolletage, and decorated with sequins or fringe. In mining towns, the “girls” would often be seen walking, riding, or in carriages, dressed in their eye-catching finery.
The lower grade of bordello came to be called a “honkytonk,” from a common southern African-American term.
In these houses, there was very little subtlety. The direct approach was standard with maybe a five-minute dalliance at the bar, then it was off to her room.
Lower than even the saloon prostitutes were those who worked independently, living in small houses or cabins called cribs. Crib houses were usually in segregated districts with a front bedroom and a kitchen in the rear. Often they were illuminated by red lamps and or curtains. Some madams kept a string of “cribs” available for women no longer employable within the house, continuing to make a profit off of the older painted ladies.