Goodtime Girls: Prostitution in the Old West

In 1849 when gold was discovered, men went west in unprecedented numbers. The result for women was a lack of men in the east and for many, a new sense of adventure. A few went west to find gold and adventure but most of the women who venture there were in search of a husband. Some who traveled west were members of the oldest profession, prostitution, but many others ended up in the trade as there was no other way to make a living in the wilds of the mining camps.

Goodtime Girls pdfThe “fancy ladies” provided a wide range of services for men young and old. They provided sexual favors for a price but also companionship, and nursing for the injured and sick. They mended miner’s clothes, used their earnings to stake men down on their luck and provided a bit of civilization. This encouraged men who had neglected their physical hygiene to clean up before heading for the saloon at night. “Red light “districts grew up and eventually enterprising Madams set up houses in newly established towns and brought some civility.

The Courtesans and mistresses were at the top of the social pyramid. They were beautiful and intelligent. They established attachments to the wealthy and powerful gentlemen who then ensured their respectability. Next on the social scale came the girls in the parlor houses. These houses boasted large dining rooms and parlors for entertaining and 20 to 30 bedrooms. Evening entertainment was provided as well as fine wines and elegant dinners. Ladies spent a good portion of their income buying clothes, perfume and cosmetics from Paris to keep up appearances. Many of these courtesans had poodles which they promenaded through town in the afternoon. Poodles were so connected to the prostitutes that no “decent” woman would own one. Pictured above is Mattie Silks “The Queen of the Red Light District” in Denver and below is Madam Lil Lovell of Creede and Denver, Colorado.

Goodtime Girls pdf2Although courtesans and parlor girls lived well while they were young and lovely, as they aged many joined the ranks of lower class prostitutes in brothes and cribs and finally the streets. These women worked in shifts and often turned to alcohol and/or drugs to dull her senses. Some were able to marry and leave that life but most continued on a downward spiral until drugs, violence or disease ended their lives.

From the Parlor House to the street walker the western prostitute walked a lonely path. These women were considered immoral but it was perfectly acceptable or a man to visit one while the woman was condemned for being one.

“The miners came in 49, the whores in 51 and when they got together they produced the native son.”