From the late 1840s into the early 1900s, the ratio of women to men in the Old West was very much out of kilter. According to many historians, most western women here in those times were unschooled and over-worked, and the death rate for females in the West was 22 percent higher than for males. Prior to the dawning of the 20th Century, many young women were tragically forced into the prostitution trade as a way of life.
Petaluma, in those days, was not exempt from this “trade.”
Thousands of loggers, gold miners, sailors and ranchers flocked into and through our little river town, to find work or to invest their hard earned money in agriculture, or to start a business. Most of them had left their wives and families behind in the East, until they could start making a living here in the West. Life was tough, and these men welcomed the attentions and favors that were offered by the ‘Ladies of the Night‘. (Think “Miss Kitty” in the old “Gun Smoke” TV series).
Don’t be too misled by that model, however.
Almost all the ‘favors’ came at a price and few of those ladies even had the energy to be friendly.
Prostitution became a thriving industry in California, and the miners, who had few places in which to spend their gold, were prime targets. Early on in the 1850s, the “girls” set up tent shops in the gold fields, or worked the gold country saloons. They sold sex, of course, but also companionship. As small towns, such as Petaluma, developed, the ratio of saloons to other businesses was quite large. In our tiny Petaluma of 1885, there were 17 saloons, and a few of those provided ‘extra services upstairs’’ from those women, who were to become dubbed the “Fallen Angels” of The Old West.
But, by the early 1900s, Petaluma sported such things as electricity, and our first telephone had been installed in The Herold Drug Company on Kentucky and Washington. The second phone installed was for our Fire Department and after that — you guessed it — “The House” on C Street, run by a Miss Fanny Brown, scored the number three telephone in town. In an interview about 25 years ago, one of our early telephone operators (she was 84 at the time) told me that the operators used to let the “girls” call-out of the ‘House’ for free, because they felt so sorry for them.
I’ve also been told by sources that upstairs in the Lan Mart, down the hall from Old Chicago Pizza — as well as upstairs over what is now Seared Restaurant — were located small sparse rooms where many of these ‘extra services’ occurred. These rooms were usually rented-out by the half-hour at a set fee.
Fanny Brown’s “House” was decidedly more refined.
My sources say that the building at the end of C Street, overlooking the Creek — aka the Petaluma River — featured an actual red light, facing the water to attract the sailors from the scow schooners. A girl could make $25 a day working at the House, compared to $25 a month as a proper laundress or shop clerk. From the 1870s to the mid-1880s, prostitution was the single largest occupation for women in the Western United States.