Saloons of the American West

Dance Hall Girl, 1885

Dance Hall Girl, 1885

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 saloon girl 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 actual 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 games.

Not all saloons employed saloon girls, such as in Dodge City’s 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.

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 be killed.

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 avoid working 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 California 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 the Old West Saloon as the professional woman may peer down upon the bar waitress, who may peer down upon today’s prostitute?  And 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.


Cowboys at Tascosa, Texas

Cowboys at Tascosa, Texas

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

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