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.