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Prostitution on the Frontier (Part One)

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November 6, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

On the American frontier, in 1849, the ratio of men to women was 100:2. It was no wonder that the business gained a foothold. Nor is it surprising that prostitutes played a large role in the settlement of the West.

Prostitution has been part of history for as long as history has existed. Recorded as far back as the Sumerian Empire (2000 B.C.), the practice has at times been respected and at other times reviled, depending upon the culture. Though most European countries and the United States had laws against the practice by the 19th century, prostitution flourished in many areas—especially in the U.S. West, where women were scarce.

The term “red light district” has long been used to label those areas where houses of prostitution were clustered. Some sources say railroad men left their red signal lanterns on the porches when they went inside to conduct business. Other sources claim prostitutes themselves began hanging red lanterns on their porches to indicate they were “doing business.” In this way, a house that appeared legitimate was set apart for illegitimate purposes. The color red was also used inside many brothels as a major decorating theme.

Red light districts often grew up near railroad lines, where there was a constant flow of men. Such neighborhoods also abounded in mining towns, with or without railroads. Typically, where there was a substantial male population (permanent or transient), such areas could be found.

Establishments operating in red light districts varied greatly.

In general courtesans and mistresses operated independently. Because their business was conducted with individual men who provided them support and housing in return for exclusive privileges, they did not necessarily have places of business in known red light districts. Instead, they might live anywhere in the community, though most likely their homes would not be located in family residential neighborhoods.

On the upper end of the scale were parlor houses; often known as “boarding houses.” Most had musicians who doubled as bouncers when necessary and a cook. The madam took a portion of money paid her “girls” in exchange for use of the house. Men paid according to the service and amount of time desired and girls with special talents might make more money than their “sisters.”

Elite parlor houses generally were in prominent locations in the outer ranges of red light districts. These houses were well-maintained and prestigious. Interior décor was lavish and varied from tasteful to over-the-top depending upon the owner/madam. The most elite were run by a sophisticated madam and had strict rules of behavior for customers and the women employed there. Music and refreshments were provided in the parlor. The girls of the house wore the latest fashions and expensive lingerie and were accomplished both socially and in the bedroom. Customers paid handsomely for their services and such houses sometimes had a limited client list which was carefully crafted by the madam to assure the safety of her girls. Frequently, the employees in these houses were known for specific talents. Routine medical exams were usually provided them.

Brothels were shabbier forms of parlor houses. Working girls here were older, less accomplished, and les elite. Though clothing was fancy, it was not elegant. Clientele in these houses were usually not screened and girls working there took more risk. Brothels might use girls procured for a term of years. Often less educated, they were more likely to become victims of unscrupulous madams who cheated them of earnings and forced them to serve longer than their original contract might specify.

Some prostitutes worked in saloons or dance halls. These women provided friendly company to drinking men and often accompanied them upstairs for private entertainment. In some town, theatres with private boxes filled the same niche. In many cases, these girls became little more than indentured servants and business was often conducted with the owner of the saloon (in many cases the bartender). Rooms were simple and no promise of elegance or accomplishment was implied. These women often became victims of violence—committed by both customers and their pimps.

Nearer the railroad tracks and alleys were single “cribs.” These basic rooms provided prostitutes who plied their trade on the street with a private area in which to conduct business. Women paid rent for their use. These prostitutes might have a pimp who procured customers, provided sporadic protection, and kept most of the money due the women. Or, they might work on their own and take the chance of being beaten or killed.

On the lowest end of the spectrum were the streetwalkers who serviced clients in alleyways. Usually least desirable, these women might be older, less attractive than others in the trade, or those suddenly thrust into poverty with no other means for survival. They frequently lived on the edge of starvation and were victimized more often than others.

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