In gold rush days, the people who provided services to others were often the ones who made the most money. In the second of my Irish Blessings novels, Joy That Long Endures, two characters—a saloon manager, and a dressmaker—make a living from the exertions of the dance hall girls at the fictional Goldust Saloon in South Pass City, Wyoming Territory.
4/46/Klondyke_Dance_Hall_and_saloon%2C_A-Y-P%2C_1909.jpg[No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
With the exception of wives and daughters of German beer hall proprietors, women were almost an unknown quantity in liquor establishments of the East in the nineteenth century. So it makes sense that some of the first women to make their living in the saloons of the American West arrived as “hurdy gurdy” girls, chaperoned troupes of four unmarried girls arriving at the California gold fields from the poverty-stricken German principality of Hesse. From their beginning about 1820 as contracted dancing girls who played the musical instrument of the hurdy gurdy, by the days of the dance halls of Western mining camps, the girls were paid for dancing—a dollar a ticket, split with the owner of the saloon, and commissions paid on the drinks they sold.
|Dance halls were common in the Old West.|
Men received the company of the girl of their choice for five to fifteen minutes plus the additional privilege when the music paused of buying her a glass of tea disguised as whiskey as well as the genuine item for himself. At an estimated fifty dances a night, a hurdy gurdy girl could make good money. If she was thrifty and saved her money rather than spending it on liquor, laudanum, and fancy, expensive frocks, she often came to represent an attractive marital prospect for a local miner or rancher.
As welcome as they were when they first arrived in the West, dance hall girls by their very nature as men’s entertainment were always suspected of indulging in more physical occupations than singing and dancing, whether they actually indulged in extracurricular amorous congress or not. Even though treated with deference in the early days when women were scarce in the camps, and with specific rules posted governing the behavior of both sides such as one that prohibited the ladies from accompanying gentlemen to their rooms, inevitably the title of saloon dancer became entwined with that of prostitute. And although certainly some might have supplemented their income with prostitution, especially those with expensive drug habits, the general consensus is that most made enough money with their respectable dancing that having to resort to prostitution was avoidable.
Later on that particular dance step became unnecessary as the girls’ costumes developed shorter skirts and skimpier bosom covering, accompanied by bare arms, red petticoats, and tasseled boots—which served to protect a girl’s toes from her partner’s stomping dance steps better than slippers.
Most of the saloon girls were lured from eastern farms and workshops by advertisements touting the easy life and financial opportunity available. Although dancers did came from high walks of life as well as the working class: in Dodge City was found Dora Hand, a trained opera singer with tuberculosis whose venue was the Grey Lady Saloon.
Unfortunately, being the object of men’s desires could also be a dangerous occupation. While most dance hall girls were showered with gifts and could hope to eventually retire on their earnings, there are accounts of beatings and even murders of the painted ladies of the West, who made their living at night when social mores were loosened and inhibitions undone.
For further reading:
Joy That Long Endures and the first volume in the Wyoming historical Irish Blessings series, Walls for the Wind, are available at the Sweetwater County Museum in Green River and at the store in South Pass City, as well as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.