Women's roles in the Wild West remained somewhat limited. Though women might accompany their families on migrations to the territories, many of them depended on their male family members to hold down a job for financial support. Those who became saloon girls, however, occasionally had more options.
There are a lot of modern misconceptions about Old West saloons and the saloon girl's occupation. For example, many of the women served as unconventional servers or dancers. And while their lives may not have been glamorous, saloon girls possessed unique freedoms.
Their lives could be difficult and dangerous, but these painted ladies were trailblazers in American history.
Sex Work Was Dubiously Legal
It was up to individual jurisdictions in the Old West to determine whether houses of ill repute were legal. According to some historians, the practice was widely accepted. Madams simply needed licenses to run their enterprises; the money from the licensing ensured the city profited.
Other historians noted bordellos had to pay fines, usually about $8 a month, to local governments to stay in business. Many authority figures seemingly chose to overlook these establishments because they supported the local economy.
Many Saloon Girls Sold Drinks – And Nothing More
A common misconception exists that all saloon girls also turned tricks. In reality, many women who worked in saloons earned money from drink sales, not from sex. Drinks usually cost between 10 and 75 cents, and for each beverage sold, the saloon girls made a percentage of the profit.
By marking up beverage costs, saloon owners could profit and pay their female employees. A saloon girl could earn around $10 per week, almost $200 today.
Men Generally Respected Saloon Girls
There was a good deal of social stratification in the Old West, even among women. Those considered proper ladies fit the social expectations of the time; they were wives, mothers, and daughters, and most relied on men for support. Saloon girls were looked down upon by women with more traditional roles, but that didn't seem to matter much to the men who sought their company.
Saloon girls made up a small population of the Old West and were therefore sought after by men. Their low social status often even made male patrons feel comfortable around them. Moreover, saloon owners often required customers to treat the women nicely; mistreatment could result in being banned from the establishment, ostracized from the community, or even killed.
Saloon Girls Had Many Different Responsibilities
Saloon girls wore many different hats and were responsible for a large variety of things. Instead of exchanging sex for money, saloon and dance hall girls entertained men through other methods, usually singing, talking, and dancing.
"Shady ladies" were the actual sex workers of the day, and they could work for madames or be independently employed. Women in brothels held a somewhat higher status in society and typically worked in businesses that didn't hide their true intentions. Shady ladies might also work alongside the saloon girls who didn't provide adult companionship.