All That Glitters isn’t Gold: The Myth of the American Prostitute

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There is a widespread myth that paints fallen women—prostitutes—of the late 18th and early 19th century—as women whose every thought is one of remorse and regret for the life she has chosen. Oftentimes prostitutes are romanticized and thought of as tenderhearted women who, despite the hardships they have gone through, have retained (if not a pure body or mind) a pure heart. The prostitute with a heart of gold is an extremely popular myth, as it enables society (the men and women who judge these outcasts) to “understand” their predicament and “forgive” their sins. However, all that glitters is not necessarily gold. Though the majority of prostitutes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century did not have hearts of gold, they did play major roles in shaping the American west.

When people started migrating west, a high demand for prostitutes developed in the new mining towns1. This was due to the fact that the majority of the population in the west was male, and most of the women in the west were either married or someone’s daughter who would generally be snatched up the second she came of age. The lack of female influence was felt in the male dominated communities and as a result prostitution flourished. Suddenly men would be willing to pay almost any price just to talk to a woman again. Prostitutes may not have been perfect society women, but their presence brought a bit of civilization to the men in the west. While Eastern women were still prized, men would often end up marrying prostitutes that had given up the life. Prostitutes were often more practical that a well-bred eastern woman and as survival was more important than manners and good breeding, the eastern woman would sometimes be looked over in favor of a more experienced woman.

While eastern women became increasingly scarce in the west, prostitutes became more widespread. Many madams became wealthy enough to own large tracts of land and real estate2. Madams and their girls often enjoyed more freedoms than women in good standing with society. There was a mentality among prostitutes that they might as well do what they wanted as they were already outcasts. Madams would make deals with the law enforcement in the towns to protect their girls as well3. While other women had no defense against abuse from their husbands, prostitutes generally had some protection in the form of either law enforcement or bouncers in the house. Some madams even provided free health care for their girls. Though it was a hard life, some prostitutes could make quite a lot of money before either retiring or going on to become a madam by her own right. The story of Madeleine Blair is just one example of this phenomenon. She says of her first summer running her own house, “The volume of business was so great that it taxed every member of the household to handle it. By the first of August my bank-account had swollen to a size that was far beyond my wildest expectations”4.

The freedoms granted to prostitutes made the lifestyle seem quite amenable to some oppressed women. Who wanted to work as a shop girl and make half of what she would make selling herself instead? Who wanted to teach a bunch of children for a pittance when she could make a fortune by letting a bunch of men do their business? Who wanted to wait on one man day and night for nothing when she could be her own woman and set her own terms? It sounded like a glamorous life, and it was possible for some, if they were smart about it. For others, the life became harsh and they became jaded, driven only by their need for money.

It was true that prostitutes were some of the wealthiest women in America during the nineteenth century, however, the wages often varied based on how a prostitute looked or what her nationality was. In San Francisco, wages varied from twenty-five cents to one dollar and the skilled or beautiful prostitutes often made higher wages than that5. Very frequently a madam would take a certain percentage out of the money a girl would make and then let her keep whatever wage was left and what tips she made6.

Some madams did take care of their girls, financially and/or physically, but not all of them were kind. When a prostitute first came to a house to work, the madam would often charge them for clothes and food and the room they worked out of on top of a percentage of their earnings7. This drove many girls into debt to the point that they were basically in a legal form of slavery. The madams owned them and therefore were required to do whatever they could to make as much money as they could. This harsh treatment drove some girls to alcohol, some to drugs, and some to suicide. The reality of prostitution was and is much harder than anyone can imagine. It was no wonder prostitutes became jaded and hardened. Faking it, however, was their business. Many forced smiles on their faces and laughter through their lips with the single goal being the cash at the end of the night8.

The myth of the prostitute with a heart of gold may have been true in very rare instances, but the reality of prostitution is that it forced many hearts to harden. Kindness was not a part of their daily lives. It was no wonder that prostitutes emerged from their ordeals bitter and jaded. The life did ingrain in then a keen business sense that enables many madams to become major players in the towns they lived in9. Despite financial contributions, these women were still shunned and ostracized by society. This embittered prostitutes and forced them to think of only their survival. The glitter in their eyes often reflected cold greed, and that serves as a reminder that all that glitters, is not gold.

–Cassidy Chilcott

  1. Thaddeus Russell, “How 19th Century Prostitutes were Among the Freest, Wealthiest, Most Educated Women of Their Time”, alternet.org, September 27, 2010. http://www.alternet.org/story/148327/how_19th_century_prostitutes_were_among_the_freest,_wealthiest,_most_educated_women_of_their_time
  2. Ibid.
  3. Anne Seagraves, Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West (Idaho: WESANNE PUBLICATIONS, 1994). Page 26.
  4. Madeleine Blair, Madeleine: An Autobiography (New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1919). Book II, Chapter VII PDF e-book.
  5. Jan Koski, “Soiled Doves of the Old West”, soiled-doves.com. http://soiled-doves.com
  6. Anne Seagraves, Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West (Idaho: WESANNE PUBLICATIONS, 1994). Page 26.
  7. Madeleine Blair, Madeleine: An Autobiography (New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1919). Book II, Chapter VII PDF e-book.
  8. Anne Seagraves, Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West (Idaho: WESANNE PUBLICATIONS, 1994). Page xvii.
  9. Thaddeus Russell, “How 19th Century Prostitutes were Among the Freest, Wealthiest, Most Educated Women of Their Time”, alternet.org, September 27, 2010.
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