Back Story

A short history of bordellos in San Francisco

San Francisco’s harbo circa 1850, where the wold’s oldest profession was being readily plied photo: wikimedia commons

This rambunctious and disorderly essay concerns the history of San Francisco bordellos, bagnios, brothels, and perhaps the most appealing of the genre — parlor houses. But our account of this fascinating aspect of life in the history of our city requires more space and bravura than allowed. There will probably be a sequel, or perhaps two.

Also, it’s my hope that readers will not become blue-nosed about this subject. Bordellos are very much a part of San Francisco history. We all love history don’t we? But if reading about the sporting life — as it is sometimes referred to — causes nervous tics, just turn the page, and get on with it.

Before the California Gold Rush began in 1849, women were few and far between in the sleepy Mexican village called Yerba Buena. There were only about 500 inhabitants, mostly men, the rare spouse, and a few prostitutes from Mexico or South America. But the Gold Rush changed everything. Once those yellow tracings were discovered at Sutter’s Mill and word got out, almost 25,000 gold seekers arrived within six months in what had by then become San Francisco. Of this number only about 500 were women. It’s not necessary to be a skilled sociologist to find that off-balance ratio intriguing
as well as instructive.

As early as the winter of 1849–1850, there were already crude bordellos in San Francisco. They were found in tents and lean-tos around Portsmouth Square, along the nearby waterfront, and on the slopes of Telegraph Hill. Over the next 50 or 60 years the figure grew exponentially, and San Francisco gained a worldwide reputation as a wide-open town.

The true parlor house wasn’t just all about sex. Much like that other communal institution, the saloon, the parlor house was a sanctuary, a retreat from the rigors of the day — a friendly hideaway, a place of conviviality where everyone knew your name, or at least did within a few minutes of your arrival. It was a private club of sorts, artfully furnished. It cosseted visitors and lavished them with attention: conversation, champagne, good food. There was frequently music for dancing; in the early days a mechanical, coin-operated machine or sometimes a pianist. For those guests who occasionally spent more than just an hour or so and languished for the entire night, a restorative breakfast was served. Clothes were pressed. Shoes were shined. Lore has it the “girls” were bright, witty and beautiful, and the madams had hearts of gold just like in the movies.

While the parlor houses played to male audiences, it was even whispered that there was at least one equal opportunity house where frisky, establishment ladies could discreetly engage resident male companions. Early accounts of San Francisco’s bawdy and wanton past confirm this.

But if the lavish parlor houses attracted a never-ending clientele, so did the many cribs and dives of the infamous Barbary Coast, where harlots plied their trade. The Barbary Coast sprang to life during the Gold Rush and operated openly until 1914, when the California legislature passed the Red Light Abatement Act. As early as 1854 the city had enacted an anti-prostitution law, but it was enforced only irregularly and with discrimination against Chinese and other minorities. These efforts toward reform didn’t really slow things down.

Then along came the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. That interrupted the lucrative trade, but not for long. Soon it was business as usual. The bordellos continued to operate right through World War II, when amazingly (as reported in my August 2011 story), a bordello on Telegraph Hill was operated by a U.S. government spook agency surreptitiously conducting mind-control experiments with LSD on nocturnal visitors. The illicit but tolerated businesses continued though the 1980s — and perhaps later.

Are there bordellos in the City now? It’s not easy to confirm. Today the economics of keeping up a fancy parlor house don’t seem to work anymore. Property values, rental costs, all the trappings of elegant mansions decorated on a grand scale and occupied by dedicated and charming “boarders” represents an investment that seems out of sync with the times.

Further, the telephone (now certainly the cell phone) has altered the course of prostitution. The call girl, the street hooker, and the conscientious amateur who engages in her own individual enterprise, have eclipsed those grand social palaces of yesteryear.

Undoubtedly the colorful history of bordellos in San Francisco is best told through intriguing portraits of a few of the many madams who brought them to life. Students of this off-color palate of the City would do well to remember that the difference between a madam and a prostitute may be marginal. One can lead to the other. Nevertheless, San Francisco’s madams have always been a bit like her celebrity chefs — colorful, single-minded, and with an ability to whip up a flashy array of hors d’oeuvres and entrées.

In the next installment of this saga of San Francisco bordellos, I’ll flesh it out a bit with a few resumes of some of the better-known madams — Irene McReady, Ah Toy, Belle Cora, Madame Mustache, Diamond Jessie Hayman, Tessie Wall, and Sally Stanford.

It’s tempting to call our writer Ernest Beyl our bordello editor but we will refrain and simply say he is our Back Story editor. Meanwhile, reach him at [email protected].
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