In many frontier towns or settlements of the Old West, women were significantly outnumbered by men. This had to do with the reason for the conurbation being there in the first place. It might, for example, have grown up around a fur-trapping industry or a mine, or it might be situated on the route of one of the cattle drives.
Even if wives were present in the town, they would not be frequenting saloons and hobnobbing with t
he rough elements who went there to slake their thirst, so the unmarried worker would be starved of female company. It wasn’t necessarily sex that he needed – just feminine conversation, perhaps because he missed his mother or sister at home, and many of these men were true gentlemen.
Into this breach stepped the saloon girl. She would have come from the countryside, from a farm or a mill, lured by the possibility of less heavy work than she was used to, and higher wages. She might equally be a widow with no husband to support her. The saloon itself employed her, giving her a weekly salary which would be well worth its while because a good ‘girl’ could be of great benefit to its profits.
A saloon girl acted a little like an escort girl provided by the house in the sense that she would entertain a client for a while, listening to his stories and laughing at his jokes, and of course encouraging him to buy drinks for which she received a commission. She would appear to drink to keep him company although in reality she would be served cold tea or coloured water bought by him at the price of whiskey. The saloon owner wouldn’t be happy if she devoted too much time to any one patron because he would be afraid of losing her to marriage – which happened all too often. She was instead expected to move from one customer to another and spread her cheer generally, singing and dancing for the benefit of all.
Saloon girls were sometimes known as painted ladies because they wore make-up and dyed their hair. Unlike the matrons who never set foot in the saloon, they wore midi-length, ruffled dresses in bright colours over multiple petticoats, and up above, they emphasised their busts with low-cut bodices. They used sequins and fringes for decoration on their dresses, and tassels on their kid boots. Often a pistol or a jewelled dagger was secreted about their person because, although the saloon was right behind them in banning any rowdy patrons, a jealous or over-pushy man could cause trouble in an instant and violent deaths were common among saloon girls.
Mostly, though, saloon girls were treated like ladies. They considered themselves ladies, too, and a cut above prostitutes with whom they would never associate. In the lower class of saloon it did happen that a saloon girl would be a prostitute as well, but generally speaking each type of woman had an entirely different status and function.