Friday, June 22, 2018

Women of the Old West: Dance Hall Girls

Mary's dance hall, Goldfield, Nev.
Digital ID: (digital file from b&w film copy neg.) 
cph 3a21374
Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-20167 (b&w film copy neg.)

Repository: Library of Congress 

Prints and Photographs Division 
Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

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.
[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.

There are several early accounts of the object of the dance being for a man to whirl the girl high enough and wildly enough that her skirts belled out so her undergarments were exhibited, shared entertainment not just for the man doing the twirling but also for the spectators waiting their turn.

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.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

South Pass City

Joy That Long Endures and its sister historical novel in the Irish Blessings Series, 
Walls for the Wind, are available at 
the South Pass City store and 
the Sweetwater County Historical Museum in Green River.

South Pass City

Much of the action in the second novel of my Irish Blessings series, Joy That Long Endures, takes place in the gold rush town of South Pass City, Wyoming Territory.
Although Lewis and Clark traveled overland and reached the Columbia River in 1805 and John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company established Fort Astoria on the Columbia in 1811, it wasn’t until Captain Bonneville took a company of 110 men and 20 wagons across South Pass in 1832 that the tide of white North American expansion west of the Rocky Mountains began to turn from British and Spanish occupation in favor of the tide of persistent Americans.
The pass had been in continual use by Natives for thousands of years. In the mid nineteenth century, they were witness to steadily increasing traffic of hundreds of thousands of wagons and emigrants headed for Oregon, stagecoaches, and mail coaches. By 1861 the telegraph crossed the continental divide, and in 1861 a detachment of soldiers from Fort Bridger in pursuit of horse thieves stopped on their return trip and panned the gravel of Willow Creek. With the showing of a bit of color in the pans, some of the men decided to return to the area after their enlistment was up. In the fall of 1866 a few thousand dollars worth of gold had been extracted from crushed rock. By 1867 there were 2,000 people in South Pass City. In 1868 and 1869, newspaper articles and railroad itineraries broadcast cries of “gold!” drawing thousands to try their luck against harsh Territorial conditions and severe winter weather, all hoping to strike it rich.

The Sioux kept constant vigilance after the breaching of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 by gold seekers in the Black Hills. In 1870 Camp Stambaugh, a sub post of Fort Bridger, was established with one company of cavalry and one of infantry near the three Sweetwater District towns of Atlantic City, South Pass City, and Miner’s Delight.

Advertisements from the newspaper for local businesses in the South Pass News of October 27, 1869 include: two lawyers, three hotels, seven restaurants and lunch counters, two clothing emporiums, one mining machinery distributor, one mining tools purveyor, one druggist and one doctor, two sign and house painters, two billiard halls selling liquor and cigars, two additional sellers of liquor and cigars, one watchmaker, a railroad ad, one tin and hardware dealer, three groceries and one meat market, one livery and sale stable, one dealer in firearms and ammunition, one barber with baths, and the newspaper advertising itself as a job printer. Only one saloon paid to advertise, although one source lists at least fifteen saloons in addition to the wholesale liquor dealers and general mercantiles that also sold liquor. It’s reported there were horseshoes, a croquet court, an Episcopal Church, and for a short time, Esther Morris’s ladies’ millinery store. There were numerous mines in operation, two newspapers, two breweries and at least one bank. In other issues of the South Pass News, a butcher took out an advertisement as did a blacksmith. Main Street was called South Pass Avenue, and there were A, B, C, Smith, Dakota and Custer Avenues, and Washington, Jefferson, Colfax, Price, and Grant streets. The houses were built of logs with pole roofs of dirt, with well in front of each and an outhouse in back.

For a few short years, South Pass City was a busy, optimistic little town. Yet almost from the beginning there were rumblings from those labeling the Sweetwater District a humbug. By 1875 most everyone had moved on or given up and gone home. There were only about 100 people left in South Pass City and the population continued to dwindle. Today the town is a Wyoming State Historic Site, open seasonally to those who would like to visit what remains of an authentic Western gold mining town.

All images from Wikimedia Commons.

For further reading:

South Pass and Its Tales ©1978 James L. Sherlock

South Pass 1868: James Chisholm’s Journal of the Wyoming Gold Rush ©1960 University of Nebraska Press

South Pass City and the Sweetwater Mines ©2012 John Lane and Susan Layman

Atlantic City Nuggets ©1978 Betty Carpenter Pfaff

The first novel in the Irish Blessings Series, Walls for the Wind.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Sewing Machines and Joy That Long Endures

Joy That Long Endures, second in the Irish Blessings series of early Wyoming historical novels.

Sewing Machines

Mention 1872 and sewing machine in the same sentence, and invariably people envision the ubiquitous Singer treadle-operated model. One of the characters in the second of my Irish Blessings novels, Joy That Long Endures, is a traveling seamstress. Her sewing machine is described more than once as hand-cranked, and I wrote about her having gone to some trouble to have a special case made for it so it could travel with her. The machine is described as heavy, but not so bulky that she can’t carry it herself. 
From an 1865 Shaw & Clark pamphlet.

There were various models of sewing machines invented between 1790 and 1807, but the first working chain stitch model was patented by a French tailor in 1830. He opened a sewing machine based clothing company to manufacture army uniforms, but the factory was burned down, perhaps by persons fearing for their jobs. The American Walter Hunt invented a lockstitch machine in 1832, selling individual models but not patenting his invention until 1854.

From a W.A. White & Co. pamphlet, 1871.

John Fisher, an English inventor, beat Isaac Merritt Singer’s similar machine to production by seven years. In a legal dispute, Singer won the patent race over Fisher. In the 1850s and 1860s the firm of Wheeler and Wilson sold many quieter and smoother-operating machines.

Individual improvements and innovations by numerous companies led to a Sewing Machine War. Instead of continually fighting each other in court four companies pooled their patents and required anyone making use of them to pay $15.
Clothing manufacturers were the first to use sewing machines for factory-made clothing in standardized sizes, but by the 1860s there were many examples of such machines in private homes. Items of clothing that had previously taken hours to stitch together could be whipped up in minutes. Women who previously had no financial employment outlet could seek jobs outside the home. The demand for cotton fabric rose, metals industries profited from making sewing machine parts, and many household goods manufacturers benefited from the increased productivity provided by the use of machines.
According to TIME Magazine, Lady’s Book, a fashion magazine, enthused: “Next to the plough, [the sewing machine] is perhaps humanity’s most blessed instrument.” Certainly the ability to speedily add yards of embellishment like ribbons and lace changed the ladies’ fashion industry. Singer himself grew rich from the profits of sales of his machines, many sold on the installment plan to women who couldn’t afford to part with the total price at once.
So certainly by 1872, clever seamstress Ailis Tierney who made her living following and outfitting a traveling dance troupe, could have found any number of table-top, hand-cranked sewing machines to modify to her portable use with a custom wooden case—long before Singer seized on the idea in 1911 with his Model 99.

Some sources:

Before The Hon. Philip F. Thomas, Commissioner Of Patents. In The Matter Of The Application Of Elias Howe, Jr., For An Extension Of His Patent For Sewing Machines. Testimony Taken On The Part Of The Applicant, Elias Howe, Jr. New York: Wm. W. Rose, Job Printer, 1860.

The Sewing Machine. Its History, Construction, and Application. Translated from the German of Dr. Herzberg by Upfield Green. London: E. & F.N. Spon, 1864.

Genius Rewarded; The Story of the Sewing Machine. New York: John J. Caulon, Printer, 1881.


Alethea Williams is the author of Willow Vale, the story of a Tyrolean immigrant’s journey to America after WWI. Willow Vale won a 2012 Wyoming State Historical Society Publications Award. In her second novel, Walls for the Wind, a group of New York City immigrant orphans arrive in Hell on Wheels, Cheyenne, Wyoming. Walls for the Wind is a WILLA Literary Award finalist, a gold Will Rogers Medallion winner, and placed first at the Laramie Awards in the Prairie Fiction category. Partially based on the works of Canadian trader, explorer, and mapmaker David Thompson, Náápiikoan Winter spans a continent, examining the cultures in flux at the passing of one era and the painful birth of another. Náápiikoan Winter was an Inspirational Western Fiction Will Rogers Medallion Bronze winner, and a Best Regional E-book Independent Publisher Bronze winner. Joy that Long Endures, the second of the Irish Blessings historical novels, spans western early Wyoming Territory from the rails at Bryan City to the goldfields of South Pass City. 

Find Alethea Williams:

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Books for Christmas from Wyoming Writers members

Yellowstone Has Teeth
In this well-constructed narrative, Ambler reveals a hidden Yellowstone, a place where delight and danger are separated by the slimmest of margins: a degree of pitch on an avalanche slope, a few inches of a buffalo’s horn, a moment during a deadly wildfire. With insight, love, and humor, Yellowstone Has Teeth paints a never-before-seen portrait of an iconic American landscape and the people who live there.

The Deadly Art of Love and Murder

Alaskan fine arts dealer, Caribou King, has closed up shop for the season. When she discovers the body of Mrs. Nash, an elderly woman, in the old Tilamu house, Cara can’t help poking her nose into the investigation. With the Alaskan winter closing in, Cara finds herself caught between two men who say they love her and one who wants her dead.

Along the Sylvan Trail

In Sylvan Grove, Iowa, you can eat at Sally's Sylvan Diner, shop at a family business in the square, read your news in the Sylvan Grove Gossiper, spend the night at the Sylvan Inn, and live out your final days at the Sylvan Valley Care Center. But if you are budding plant scientist Amber Jensen, Sylvan Grove is your touchstone, the place to heal a broken heart and start a new life restoring an historic bar in the foothills of Wyoming's Wind River Mountains.

To Love Kindness

1918 At a time when it takes courage to love, hope, or have faith, three young Irish-American dare to believe in themselves and in America. Meticulously researched, this second book in the White Winter Trilogy explores how hope is shattered and rekindled, hearts are broken and mended, and faith is lost and found in a world in which nothing is certain.

Náápiikoan Winter

At the turn of a new century, changes unimagined are about to unfold. When white traders approach the Piikáni for the first time, no one can reckon the price that will be paid. Naapiikoan Winter is a Will Rogers Medallion Awards bronze level winner.