Saloon Girls: The ‘Soiled Doves’ Of The Old West

CULTURE | January 28, 2019

Pioneer at the bar counter of a saloon, Old West, North America, drawing. Source: (gettyimages.com)

The Saloon

When one thinks of an old west town usually one includes a church, dusty dirt roads and a saloon with swinging doors. At the very beginning of the westward migration, there weren’t really towns. It was more like communities of tents with pretty much all men, which presents a large opportunity. Back east, women did not go to saloons and upheld the Victorian style morals and behavior. This type of moral code didn’t mesh well with the wild frontier. Shrewd men and women could see the ‘need’ for certain establishments in these communities. Once a saloon was built, then what we think of as an old west town, would get built up.

Old West Saloon Girl, or ‘Soiled Dove’. Source: (reddit.com)

The Painted Ladies Arrive

Most of the old west towns had a few women of ill-repute. At first, they would hide behind other jobs like a laundress or seamstress. Soon, the saloon owners would entice them to work or the women themselves asked to work there. It was a way for women to earn the kind of money they would not otherwise have the chance to earn. Women started opening up their own businesses and those women became pivotal in the development of the town. The men had names for these women such as ‘Soiled Dove’ and ‘Painted Ladies.’

Saloon Girls with their clients. Source: (pinterest.com)

Daily Life Of A Saloon Girl

Most people associate saloon girls with prostitutes. While that went on, most saloon girls were there to simply entertain the men so they would stay and continue to buy more alcohol which meant they spent more money. Many saloon girls were widows who had no other means of support or young girls who were seeking something more than working on their family farm. The girls were to dance with the men and get the men to buy them drinks. The men would pay full price for the girl’s drink, not realizing that it was really just tea or colored water. The girls received a small commission on the number of drinks they sold plus a weekly salary. Many saloon or ‘dance-hall girls’ made more money dancing with the men than they could as a prostitute.

Advertisement for Old West Brothel. Source: (pinterest.com)

Along Come the Madams

Enterprising women started up their own brothels. They were generally former prostitutes that had ‘aged out’ of the business. There were definitively differing levels of brothels. Some were just a couple of rooms shared by a few women. The high-end brothels were large beautiful homes where each girl had her own lavishly furnished room. The women rented their rooms from the madam and paid her usually fifty percent of their take. Many madams became known for their philanthropic work. It was likely a madam that put up the money to build a school and a church in the town. Some would give their girls start-up money for opening a store or restaurant. The madams played a vital role in the development of the Old West.

Belle Brezing, a notorious madam, in her private parlor. Source: (dailymail.co.uk)

The Dangers

Saloon girls and prostitutes alike faced many dangers. While saloon girls generally did not provide sexual favors, they were subject to physical danger. So much so that they usually carried a knife or small pistol. Prostitutes, had even more problems, one of the biggest being disease. They were in danger of picking up tuberculosis and syphilis. Some of the high-end brothels would ‘inspect’ the men before providing sex, but that did not prevent much. Condoms were just becoming available; however, most men did not want to wear them. Abortion was another danger. Birth control was virtually non-existent at the time, so most prostitutes used the rhythm method or douched after sex to try and prevent pregnancy. Many women died of botched abortions. The danger of violence was prevalent. Getting beaten up was common and the murder of a prostitute happened often.

Mattie Silks became the undisputed “Queen of Denver’s Red Light District” in the late 1800s. Source: (truewestmagazine.com)

What Happened to all the Brothels?

During the mid to late 1800s, brothels were seen as a necessary ‘evil’, mostly overlooked by law enforcement and tolerated by the townsfolk. Near the turn of the century, time ran out for these more public establishments. Moral reform, the push for prohibition, and religious leaders changed the way society viewed prostitution. Not that they disappeared mind you, they just faded to the background.

Tags: brothels, saloon girls, saloons, the old west

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Lyra Radford