Shady Ladies and Saloons
A story of booze and brothels

[March 21 2922 | Blue Sage Center for the Arts | By Kathryn R. Burke]

This presentation was designed for and given at the Blue Sage Center for the Arts in  Paonia, Colo. I added a few twists and updates to this version to fit the venue and location. And lots of pictures. I had a lot of fun putting this presentation together. Some of it I discovered while visiting or working in many of the places we will talk about. I often met with historical societies and museums, sometimes authors, and as a publisher of books and magazines about a colorful time. Some of it you’ve probably heard before—the colorful history the American frontier west around the turn of the last century—it’s a favorite topic of mine. And many of you, too.

The rest? I did some research, looking into (sometimes dubious) sources, all purporting to be true, of course. What it boils down to, though, is…storytelling. Think about the word HISTORY. His – story.  Or in this case, “Her—story. History is really an edited collection of facts and fiction. “Truth” changes to suit the teller (or sometimes the political and religious views of the time). But the story told is still organized and relayed from the perspective of the teller—in this case, me. What I shared with this audience is the result of personal observations, stories I’ve been told by “old timers” who remember stories they heard from generations before them, all combined with books about local history by respected local authors who’ve researched and written about the area and era.

Bars and brothels went hand-in-hand with the boom and bust cycles that characterized America’s “wild west” from the 1870s through the turn of the 20th Century. According to the U.S. Census, in 1870, males outnumbered females more than 95 percent! By 1880 and through the turn of the century, it averaged out to around 2 to 1, which was about the same throughout all the mountainous mining areas, including Arizona. Looking at those numbers, it’s easy to see why women of easy virtue could make a good living. For the girls—known variously as soiled doves, shady ladies, fancy women, saloon girls, horizontal employees, ceiling experts, ladies of the line, sporting women, and Painted Ladies (for cosmetic embellishments, especially eye makeup)—employment as a prostitute was often short-lived. Some married, more died young, and a fortunate few became madams, often becoming quite wealthy in the process. A few became famous for nefarious activities such as cattle rustling, or my personal favorite, trying to cut the living heart out of a rival. Many were known for their good deeds, helping during difficult times, such as the Spanish Influenza, or helping the less fortunate, earning the prototypical term “whore with a heart of gold.”

At with all stories, it’s up to the teller…and listener, to determine truth or tall tale.

As fortunes were made and lost by miners searching for gold and silver, they also peaked and plummeted in the businesses that slacked their thirst and supplied (paid) female companionship. In frontier towns populated almost entirely by men, saloons were the social center of life.

Most mining camps, at least in the early days, were more portable than permanent. Enterprising saloon keepers hauled whiskey in wagons and set up tent that also served as a temporary social center in frontier towns populated almost entirely by men. Drinking and gambling (usually faro) were the chief forms of recreation, and the place was a clearing house of local news. And probably the only place they would see a woman.

Brothels and bars were in tents or make-shift cabins. Often both occupied the same location, making it easier for a patron to enjoy a boots-on quickie, hustle over to the bar next door for a drink and a smoke, and maybe a game of faro, then hop back on his mule and head up to his claim before somebody jumped it.

By 1875, many of the mining camps (where the claims had not played out) had grown to towns. Sometimes a humble miner’s cabin was the first structure in what would become a great city. And almost without fail, the first permanent structure in town was… a bar—probably with brothel accommodations included.

Saloons, gaming halls, cribs, and brothels quickly replaced the portable tents and wagons with more permanent structures. Unfortunately, most built of wood. And since wood stoves were the common heating source, fire was a constant threat.

But other camps told a different story. Stone and brick structures, some 3-stories tall replaced the old shacks. Even in the less sophisticated areas, beautifully-crafted Brushwick bars and backbars with sparkling mirrors reflecting an array of libations replaced the stacks of booze boxes piled on, under, or behind makeshift, rickety wooden bars. But even with spitoons along the brass rail, most men were sloppy spitters, and saloon floors were often a sticky mess.

Eventually, as men married, “ladies of the night” were replaced by “respectable” ladies of the day (i.e. wives and daughters). Bars and brothels were labeled an evil influence, and although they continued to flourish less publicly, most were soon replaced by theaters and opera houses as towns became gentrified and “family” entertainment popular. This continued until “The Great Drought” which shut everything down, and until restored, many bar (with or without brothels) went dark and decayed from disuse. Although a few of the more enterprising business owners found a way to circumvent the law and keep operating.

But this is a story of boom and bust. Many of those busted bars are booming again thanks to non-profit organizations that support them. Brothels, too, haven’t quite disappeared –just read current news stories for confirmation. And a few of the old-time establishments, mostly in Nevada, are still operating today, over 100 years since first opening their doors!

Shady Ladies and Saloons are still a big part of our culture.