Prostitution in the Old West

Readers who follow me know I put historical fact in every book I write. Texas Redemption has more history than probably any I think.  From the steamboats that once ran from Jefferson, Texas to New Orleans to the lesser known facts of prostitution.

Laurel James was kidnapped at fifteen and forced to work in a brothel in St. Louis. I did a lot of research about that kind of life. I learned that working girls did in fact carve their real names above the door to remind them of who they once were, just as Laurel observes in young Adeline’s room in the saloon.

I also mention Laurel remembering the pungent smell of sulphuric water that the working girls made their customers bathe in before taking them to their room. That was done to kill any disease or lice the men might carry. Prostitutes adhered to this practice very strenuously because if they got sick, they couldn’t work and they’d be turned out. Most had nowhere else to go.

Almost all working girls had a pet dog or cat. It was a lonely life and they were starved for companionship. Often the pet was the only loyal friend she had.

A lot of women turned to prostitution because of abusive relationships, rape, and because they were uneducated. For some there was no other work for them. Women had few choices when they found themselves alone with no one to turn to. But still there were the few who chose the life, thinking they’d get rich.

Most of them had poor teeth due to lack of toothbrushes or lessons on how to care for their teeth. But face it, the teeth were low on the list of priorities.

Pregnancies were a big problem. Most chose to get the fetus aborted which often led to their death. I mention this in Texas Redemption also. Some of their customers brought rubbers or often the girls insisted their men put them on. But they were stiff and very unlike these of today and men hated using them. Douching was probably the most effective way to avoid pregnancy. The solutions used were bicarbonate of soda, borax, bichloride of mercury, potassium biartate, alum, or vinegar. In the book, I mention herbs the girls were given on a regular basis. The most common was black haw tonic made from cotton root bark, which is what Laurel talks about with Adeline. But there was also plant seeds from Queen Anne’s Lace which also worked.

Depression, drugs, and suicide were rampant among the women. It was a sad, difficult life with no prospect of a future. Most died very young.

I’m so grateful we have access to better medicines and regular doctor care.

Does historical fact in books make the stories come alive or does it hinder and take you out of the story?



Prostitution in the Old West — 14 Comments

  1. Good morning Linda, I love historical facts in books. I do think they bring a book and its settings more to life, especially if I’m reading and a historical fact or place is in them that I’m already familiar with or have visited, it just super sizes the story so much more. Like you askeddoes it make it seem more real to life.. yes, yes it does. You hav a great week and I loved this article. Great one. Love you my sister friend.

    • Hi Miss Tonya…….Great comment. For me a story really springs more to life and puts me there if it has historical fact. As long as the author doesn’t go overboard and make it read more like an encyclopedia. I’m glad you enjoyed my post.

      Love you too, sister friend.

  2. I love historical facts in books. One thing I hate is reading books about prostitutes in the 1800’s as though it as a glamorous life with no negative consequences. Women in that profession dealt with all those issues you mentioned in your post. Thank you for sharing some of these details.

    • Hi Robyn…..Thank you for coming. Yes, I know what you mean. That life was not glamorous in the least bit. I didn’t even mention that customers often beat them for not performing to their satisfaction. And/or the madam would beat them, however that probably rarely happened because they couldn’t work if the madam worked them over and that took money for her pocket. But there were so many problems associated with that profession. Certainly not one for the faint of heart.

      Hugs and have a great day!

  3. What a sad and difficult life for these women who had so few options. I do like historical facts like these in the stories because they add to the realism and the emotional content. I have learned a lot over the years when reading historicals!

    • Hi Cheryl C…….Yes it was a horrible life. Women back then were a commodity for the most part, not treated very well. Their options were few, especially if they had no skill like sewing or running a business. Depression was very common among all women who had no hope.

      Love you, lady.

  4. In the movies of the old West, prostitutes are portrayed as beautiful sexy women. In truth, that wasn’t the case. I love the facts that you’ve pointed out here. Amazing what women were forced to do to survive. Historical posts ALWAYS add to the story! Great post.

    • Hi Sister…..Glad you came. Yes, the movies hid the truth about prostitutes. I agree about what women were forced to do in order to survive. Some things were very sad and makes my heart ache.

      Love you so much!

  5. I love for books to have historical facts. I’ve learned about history reading Historical Western Romance than I ever did in American History classes.

    • Hi Stephanie……Thanks for coming! I love seeing you. Historical Western Romance does a lot more than entertain. We teach as well. Very true.

      Love you, lady!

  6. A great post, Linda, about 1800s prostitution. The facts about the profession that you’ve researched extensively made me read all of your message, just like true historic facts used within stories keeps me reading. I also learned from you a couple tidbits I hadn’t known before. I’ll continue to read authors whose accurate historical details are woven into their stories.

    • Hi Aliçe…….Great to have you drop by. I’m glad I could tell you something you didn’t know. I have a feeling that doesn’t happen very often. I think I learn something new everyday. There is so much history and all of it fascinating.

      Hugs, lady!

  7. Great post Linda, and yes it was a very sad time for these ladies that had to do this. The book did have a lot of history in it. I really enjoyed it.

    • Hi Quilt Lady…….Great to see you, I hope you’re having a very good week. I wouldn’t have wanted to be one of those ladies. Very difficult. I’m very glad you liked Texas Redemption. Makes me happy.

      Big Hugs!