Victorian Brothelese

23 Dec

That’s a strange title isn’t it? I heard that term while taking a tour of a brothel museum and, through my travels and research, have not seen or heard that term since. The owner of the museum threw it out there and, I assume, made it up. However, it is a good way to describe the experience of many in the Red Light Districts of the American West. When people hear the word Victorian, they think of a historical era of proper manners, speech, fashion and writing; a time of economic prosperity and technological advancement. Of course, brothelese brings to mind houses of prostitution. Put those two words together, and you have a good start at understanding the brothels that I have studied.

Prostitutes of the West worked in a hierarchical class structure, or a “whorearchy” (my term), in which the brothel was the highest rung. Also called parlor houses, they provided elaborate surroundings, luxuries, amenities, and the protection of a male bouncer if the clients became too rough. At the dawn of the twentieth century, one house in Colorado used electric lights, running water and a telephone. A staff of seven, including a bartender, a maid, and a musician, provided services other than sex. Of course, there were always five or six prostitutes. The Dumas Brothel in Butte, Montana was a three-story brick building that contained forty-three rooms and used pocket doors to create large rooms for parties.

Brothels differed in size and location, but the business structure for each remained basically the same. Respected businessmen owned most of the parlor houses but did not want their financial involvement to become commonly known. To accomplish this, they placed deeds under false names or in the names of their wives.

Madams were hired to oversee the day-to-day operations. These women usually emerged from the ranks of older prostitutes with experience in the profession and the knowledge and skills to recruit employees and customers. In fact, a few madams owned their own businesses.

Madams oversaw the business aspect of the brothels while the prostitutes did the work. A work shift began with the woman put on display. Therefore, when a man entered an establishment he found the women lounging in a parlor room. Here, he could choose someone in which to spend some time. When a customer chose a prostitute, he gave the money to the madam or someone else charged with the task. The amount paid depended on several factors, including house rate, the amount of time, and the beauty and skill of the woman.

Brothels built their business on pampering and catering to men who could afford the services. On average, a quick “date” cost five dollars, and an entire night cost between fifteen and thirty dollars. Owners depended on volume for profit by running twenty-four hours a day. With a shift of twenty-four hours, a women could conceivably have sex with twenty-five men and produce a tremendous amount of money. The house collected most of the fee, while the girls kept tips, sold photos and drinks, and stole from their customers. From this amount, the prostitutes paid their expenses, including clothes from local merchants at inflated prices, taxes to the local government, and bribes to the police.

13 Responses to “Victorian Brothelese”

  1. campfireshadows July 10, 2012 at 12:48 #

    As an avid reader and writer of Western short stories, I give a big tip of the hat over this post. Good job. Something I’ve always been in wonderment about was how the quality of the whore (soiled dove etc etc) seemed to dwindle the further she went west. (along with the services provided by the brothel).
    It reminds me of a how a tsunami works. Pressure from behind pushes the trash and debris forward ahead of the flood.
    In the old west, the further from Kansas City and New Orleans the prostitute went, it seemed the uglier and more syphilis ridden they were. By the time they reached Texas, New Mexico or the Arizona territory they were so skanky that many a miner or cowboy didn’t even want the prostitute to undress…”Just bend over Ma’am, I don’t want to blow lunch”…so to speak. While my observations may be politically incorrect (who cares anyway) it sure makes the putting them in a story more fun!…the uglier the better.

    • surroundedbyimbeciles July 10, 2012 at 18:01 #

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I have done a lot of research in “whoredom”. In fact, I am headed to Montana in a few weeks to research. What you say is true – the further the industry went, the rougher it got. One thing is for certain, it always followed the money.

      • campfireshadows July 10, 2012 at 19:36 #

        Plus it was the method of last resort in a widows survival. If no one took her in (marriage, possible if she had male children or out of Christian charity…doubtful ) and she could find no work, (mercantile or school teacher) then she could work either on her own or through a bordello. Gee, things haven’t changed much have they?

  2. Love & Lunchmeat September 24, 2012 at 17:17 #

    I honestly thought prostitutes were exempt from taxes… And needed to hold on to every last penny due to job hazards…

    • surroundedbyimbeciles September 25, 2012 at 02:21 #

      Not with the legalized version. The government always finds a while to get their hands on some cash.

  3. thescroobiouspip June 10, 2013 at 05:50 #

    All I can say is my university subjects now look positively dull. Thank you for including the historical aspect. I had not realised that it was reputable business men who owned them (albeit anonymously).

    • Rick June 10, 2013 at 12:46 #

      This is the one lecture that all of my students show up for. They stay awake for it, too.

  4. DyingNote June 22, 2013 at 11:52 #

    The Victorian period is deemed to have seen the greatest proliferation of prostitution. Not surprising, censorship usually has that effect.

    I love this article, Rick. I didn’t know this was a legal business with taxes etc.

    • Rick June 22, 2013 at 13:43 #

      Thanks. It’s legality was a local issue. Sometimes it was legal and taxed. Other times it was illegal and still “taxed”.


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