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Whores in History: Prostitution in Western Society

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What was prostitution like in the “Wild West” ? Did they shave their legs ?
Blending social history and sexual politics, this book aims to retrieve prostitution from the hands of male writers who have defined the “oldest profession” from their own point of view as the client sex. The author challenges orthodox views on prostitutes and, in this narrative account, proclaims herself on the side of the unrepentant whore, the most maligned woman in history. From the high-ranking temple whores of Egypt and the courtesans of Greece and Rome, she tells the story of the prost… more about book…

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What was prostitution like in the “Wild West” ? Did they shave their legs ?(r/AskHistorians)

Ok, maybe flirting with the Rules here. I have some knowledge from a course I took years ago, and material that I read that was incidental to my undergrad thesis. (Which was on Crime and Justice in Territorial Arkansas).

I’m familiar with two good books on the topic, but my knowledge was more general in nature and based on what I recall from incidental mentions in many other sources I read. So i’ll cite the two sources I know are more comprehensive first, then go on to what I recall.

Whores in History: Prostitution in Western Society

You might also look at The upstairs girls, prostitution in the American West

Any discussion of prostitution in the historical context is invariably influenced by modern politics. Until the 20th century, the idea of “social history” was fairly radical, and more traditional views of history prevailed. (i.e. kings and generals, wars, nations, political movements etc.). When you combine this with the idea that traditional morality often looks down on the business of selling sex for money, most histories of prostitution are relatively recent, written since 80’s and 90’s.

Even then, you have a rather sharp discord between more traditionalist historians, and various stripes of feminist and marxist historians each of whom would put their own particular spin on the nature of prostitution.

Moving on to what I can say more specifically. There’s a popular conception that may not be entirely accurate. There were certainly prostitutes in the old west, but they were not perhaps as common as might be thought, and perhaps more accurately, there were different levels of the trade.

In the “old west” – California in the 1850’s and territories west of the Missouri River, Kansas City, etc/. The Dakotas into the 1870’s., the population was 90% men. The areas were mostly under federal jurisdiction. It was far from the moral judgment of eastern victorian era society, but the moral judgment was not entirely absent. Women who were seen to be open prostitutes were harshly judged, even in western society. Common names were “soiled doves” and “Daughters of sin.” Prostitution was illegal almost everywhere in the west, but the Federal government had bigger things to worry about, and local law enforcement was often in its infancy. Direct acts of prostitution were often banished outskirts of the community (or driven underground) and were one of the first things displaced when “civilization” moved in.

That said, when you had a population that was disproportionately young, disproportionately male, and with money to spare, there was undeniably a demand for female companionship.

Enter the “saloon girl.” Under the Victorian standards of the time, these girls would still have been engaged in a dishonorable profession, but in a looser society, these girls could maintain a distance from the seedier aspects of the profession, and if some engaged in direct prostitution, it was far more discreet (and many may not have done so at all).

A saloon girl was a woman employed by a bar. This is roughly analogous to a Japanese Hostess, although the cultural context is different. Many were refugees of a sort, having left farm life or life in an an eastern mill by the same promise that drove men out west in droves. The promise of high wages. Flyers promised Saloon girls $10 a day, which was 3x the wage a laborer could make.

The Saloon Girls were paid by the bar owner to sit in the bar and interact with the male patrons. They were paid a commission on each drink they sold, and often male patrons of the bar would have the opportunity to buy the girls overpriced drinks. They would also dance with the men, for a fee, split between the girl and the house.

Although these girls often dressed provocatively, these Saloon girls were considered “good girls” by their customers, and indeed that was part of their allure. The bar owners correctly judged that many men would rather interact with “good” women, on the possible hope of something to follow, than with a woman who was simply exchanging cash for an act. That said, the saloon girls may or may not have been willing to bestow extra favors upon particualrly good customers, although the entire relationship maintained an air of plausible deniability, both from the sales side (we’re selling overpriced drinks, not women) and the buyers side (buying a drink for a girl isn’t the same as paying her right?).

And indeed, the nature of a Saloon Girls’ employment made it possible to transition into a more respectable life when the area became more civilized. Being a Saloon girl also did not necessarily preclude other, more conventional employment. And if a Saloon girl managed to settle down later, again, there was less to gloss over than if she had been a much lower class prostitute.

Below the saloon girls would have been girls who were more obviously prostitutes, but were high class prostitutes operated out of brothels or “parlor houses.” In these type of establishments gentlemen would be able to call and engage in social activity with the women. Again drinks were available and there was more involved than simply picking a girl out of a lineup like is often depicted in film. The social interaction however, would culminate in the pair going upstairs to a room to negotiate further. Many such parlor houses were run by a female madam, and maintained bouncers to protect the girls. Again, there was somewhat of an air of plausible deniability. In more modern terminology, the girls might be considered “independent contractors” and what they purported to do in those upper rooms was between them and their clients, and something the madam could theoretically still deny, even if it was an open secret.

Even these parlor houses were often discouraged and pushed into areas of town. The practice of identifying the houses by hanging red lights gave rise to the term “red light district.” As local governments gained strength and brought “civilization” and morality with them, these entities were pushed out.

At the lowest level would have been women who operated out of their own businesses or streetwalkers. In some areas, laundrywomen developed a reputation as brothel owners, which in some cases was tied to the prostitution (and sex slavery in reality) of Asian women. As a laundry run by Asians might double as a brothel. These truly did operate at the lowest level, being often in the underground economy.

Prices varied widely, with the cheapest prostitutes being a few dollars, (about a day’s wage for a moderately skilled or hard working laborer), to high class prostitutes costing $50 or more.

As for whether they shaved their legs, I personally have no idea, however, there are photo plates and paintings around if you care to look for them, that gives some evidence that grooming standards weren’t all that different from today.

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Nickie Roberts

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HarperCollins

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Whores in History: Prostitution in Western Society

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What was prostitution like in the “Wild West” ? Did they shave their legs ?

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