Painted Ladies of the Old West

Below even those, were the streetwalkers, usually only found in the larger cities.

In a class by themselves were the women who serviced the military at remote forts. Many settlements that grew up around a fort were not large enough to support a “decent” parlor house, and most self-respecting madams would not admit a lowly-paid soldier anyway. Before long a district referred to as “Hog Town” could usually be found near these remote forts. Here, the soldiers could find gambling, whiskey, and a few aging and degenerate women.

Black men were not allowed to patronize white brothels, but many towns had all-black houses. And in a few small towns, some houses had both black and white women.

Though it may seem odd, many “painted ladies” were married, some to saloon owners or brothel operators. Others were married to managers of touring variety shows. Such men not only tolerated the profession but depended upon his wife to help with the finances.

Inevitably, painted ladies had children, though attempts were made at birth control which was very primitive at the time. By the 1840s women could purchase Portuguese Female Pills (an abortion pill) or Madame Restell’s Preventive Powders, but it is unclear how effective these were. The French had already invented the condom, fashioned of rubber or skin, as they are today. In places like New Orleans or St. Louis, where there was a large French population, condoms were readily available. However, much like today, many men were reluctant to use them. After 1860 diaphragms were available, as well as douches compounded from such ingredients as alum, pearlash, red rose leaves, carbolic acid, bicarbonate of soda, sulphate of zinc, vinegar, or plain water. Others simply relied on the rhythm method.

But, the most common form of birth control was abortion, which had also spread as a form of birth control to even the “respectable women.” In the years between 1850 and 1870 one historian estimated that one abortion was performed for every five to six live births in America.

If they were lucky, a courtesan would marry well and retire with enough money for a comfortable and respectable lifestyle. Those who married would normally become instantly “respectable” as it was considered impolite in the Old West to ask of a person’s background and most people were too busy to care. Others used their profits to open their own sporting houses, became saloon operators, or practiced as abortionists. Inevitably though, some often turned to alcohol or narcotics – dosing their drinks with laudanum or smoking opium. Suicides were frequent in the profession.

Women on the line were often in peril of picking up tuberculosis, called consumption, at the time, or sexually transmitted diseases, chiefly syphilis. Others died as a result of botched abortions, sometimes self-inflicted. Violence also claimed its share in brawls between prostitutes, customers and sometimes, husbands.


©Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March, 2017.

Soiled Dove

Soiled Dove

Also See: 

Harlots of the Barbary Coast

Leading Madams of the Old West

Saloons of the Old West

The Painted Ladies of Deadwood Gulch

Women of the American West



Saloon Style Ladies Slideshow:Caution, some photos include nudity – may not be appropriate for children.



All images available for photo prints and commercial downloads HERE!


1 thought on “Painted Ladies of the Old West”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *