‘Soiled doves’ was one of the more commonly used names for prostitutes in the Old West although there were plenty of others: ladies of the line, sporting women, daughters of sin, etc. They seem to have shared the term ‘painted lady’ with saloon girls who belonged to an altogether different class.
Prostitutes were often the first women to arrive in a newly-settled frontier town and they provided a very necessary service. They consisted of women who for various reasons needed to earn a living and had no other means of doing so; not many would have entered the life by choice. They might be widows, or daughters of prostitutes, or girls who had lost their virginity and were no longer acceptable in marriage. The average age was 23, which suggests of itself that young girls were obliged to join the profession.
Prostitutes had various ways of operating. At the top end of the market, they operated from a ‘bordello’ under a madam to whom they paid rent or who took a share of their wages. Gentlemen were received in a parlour, hence the name ‘parlour house’ and outside would be hung a red lantern, hence ‘red light district’. The madam employed a bouncer to deal with troublesome clients which was an immense relief for the women.
There were various grades even within the ‘bordellos’. Near the top end were French houses, which were much cleaner than their normal American counterparts and in which the girls had a more extensive knowledge of how to please. Naturally, the cost here was higher. At the bottom end of the brothels were the ‘honkytonks’ as they were sometimes called, after a southern African American term. Then came the girls who worked out of the saloons.
Some brothels maintained what were known as ‘cribs’ where the ‘rejects’ from the main parlour (older women who would let down the tone) could be sent to work while still bringing in some revenue for the owner. They were tiny, two-room, one-window establishments in which sometimes prostitutes worked entirely independently, as well.
Lower again were the streetwalkers, who plied their trade mostly just in cities and who carried a sheet to lay on the ground, and finally the prostitutes who served soldiers in remote forts and worked in a district known as ‘Hog Town’.
Brothels and prostitutes were mostly illegal and so would be fined every so often, but no-one could deny they were necessary and so for the most part they operated undisturbed. So embedded was the custom in society that a good many prostitutes were actually married, their earnings being seen as the wife’s contribution to the household. If a prostitute married and then retired from the profession, she would be no different from a lady who had been respectable all her life because in the Old West a person’s past remained in the past and wasn’t questioned.
A prostitute’s life might not end as happily as in a good marriage. Many died of disease – tuberculosis or venereal disease, especially syphilis, or as a result of violence, or of an abortion gone wrong. Abortion was in fact used as a method of birth control more frequently than devices or methods which prevented conception, and was particularly hazardous when the soiled dove performed it herself.