Revisiting ‘Soiled Doves’

While doing research for a western series I’m planning, I combed through my wide and varied western library and came across a book titled “No Step Backward.”

Most of these books came from travels west and the small state and federal landmarks/attractions along the way. It’s amazing what you can find there.

This book is about women and family on the Rocky Mountain Frontier, Helena, Montana, 1865-1900.

What particularly caught my interest was a long chapter on the city’s “soiled doves.”

Several others on this blog have delved into this fascinating subject, but what amazed me was how successful these women became in this western outpost.

According to this book, “one group of Helena’s working women – the prostitute – created an economic empire within the city, and the chronicle of the expansion and contraction of their holdings . . . mirrored Helena’s own development between 1865 and 1900. These capitalists . . . represented the largest class of working women until 1900 and assisted in redefining frontier womanhood both for themselves and other women.”

When the secretary of the Helena Board of Trade submitted his first report in 1876, he included mention of wages: Laborers wages, $2.50 to $4.00 per day; miners, $4 to $5 dollars per day; mechanics, $5 to $7 per day; farm laborer, $50 per month; female labor, cooks and general house work, $30 to $40 a month.

Compare that to the monthly earnings of seven prostitutes who maintained bank accounts in the city’s two major banks. They ranged from $179 a month to $337 per month.

Unlike the oft-portrayed poor and mistreated “soiled doves’ in films, the real life prostitute in Helena did very well and often ended up owning substantial real estate. The majority of Helena’s prostitutes were native born and had property. Twelve women, or one-third of the white demimonde population, reported having an average of $2,500 in personal wealth and fifteen of them owned property.

These women of the demimonde accumulated capital and became a real force in the community. Quite a few bought property that became saloons, a ‘hurley gurdy’ or a simple prostitute proprietorship. One even bought a piece of new property by mortgaging all she had, plus all her underwear (three dozen pair underclothes) for $3,000 at two percent per month.

There were also instances of more than a few prostitutes who moved out of that field and up into the tenderloin’s hierarchy.

But by 1886, a growing concern for moral improvement spread in Helena. The Daily Independent reported numerous complaints against Ming’s Opera House, charging the house with the indiscriminate seating of members of the demimonde in the dress circle and ‘parquette.’ In response the manager replied that he had no wish to bar the ‘soiled doves’ but their seating would be confined to a less conspicuous area.

Five indignant ‘doves’ stole habits from the Sisters of Charity and, so disguised, presented themselves and tickets for the five demimonde seats at an evening performance.

I think what amazed me was the long acceptance of these women as an integral part of the community. Some took their money and disappeared, probably to establish a “respectable” live somewhere else. But others were integrated into the community, their children went to private schools and they became an accepted part of the community.

It gave me a glimpse of a side of the west we seldom see in films or books, although one of my westerns, “Notorious”, has an ex-prostitute heroine who owned a saloon. I love strong heroines, particularly those who overcome huge obstacles.

So, in recognition of Helena’s soiled doves, I would love to send a copy to two of those who post on this blog. I’ll announce the winners next week.


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18 thoughts on “Revisiting ‘Soiled Doves’”

  1. Pat, great subject! I’m always amazed at how resilient the early day prostitute was. They certainly maintained a place in society and oftentimes rose to good standing. I’m sure their earnings had a lot to do with their acceptance. It was hard for the upper class to snub their noses at women who earned several times more than most did.

    Excellent post! 🙂

  2. Hmm… That reminds me of the documentary about the Catholic church I saw recently. Evidently, the Catholic church used to own some brothels.

  3. Despite the financial success and acceptance of prostitutes, I always remember on…I think it was Oprah…but maybe some other talk show, a woman who worked with hookers to get them off the streets, two comments she made.
    1) Prostitutes had all been sexually abused as children. She said there might be exceptions but she’d never found one.
    2) Prostitutes were all addicts.
    The combination drove them to the life they lived.
    Maybe things were different back then but I doubt it. I find prostitution to be the saddest thing on the earth. There’s no honor or romance or courage in it. Just a lot of hurt little girls who learned to measure their value with a very twisted yardstick.

  4. Hi, Pat! I’ve accumulated quite a few books on soiled doves and have done a fair amount of reading on them. They are, indeed, a fascinating lot, mostly because, I suspect, their lives were something we could hardly imagine for ourselves.

    Prostitution has been around since the beginning of time, but one aspect has always remained the same. Survival. For each woman, it meant something different, or something similar, but in the end, it meant needing the money, a place to stay, or to be surrounded by human contact. Perhaps a need to be loved.

    It was how they handled that need that set one woman apart from the other. The smart ones turned themselves into a business; the lost ones only sunk deeper into moral decay.

    Interesting stuff!

  5. Pat – I’ve written two stories about prostitutes and find the research fascinating. Both stories centered around the Virgina City area in Nevada and I’ve visited and spoke with locals about the brothels. It’s sooo interesting. I think there were high class brothels, like today’s “call girls” and there were also pathetic women whose souls were lost working in those pens called cribs. Disease, and famine and abuse hit them hard. Just like anything else there were degrees of the trade, but I didn’t know how many women in Helena were landowners. Great research.

  6. I agree with Mary that the vast majority (if not all)of prostitutes are victims, either of early abuse or circumstances. In “Notorious,” my heroine grew up in a house of prostitution and was later sexually abused by the man who said he would protect her. Although some were opium addicts, most practiced the trade out of economic necessity. They had no skills and simply had no other way of surviving. In this book though, it seems that at least a few of the soiled doves stayed in the business long after earning enough money to leave it.

  7. I am with you I love strong heroines. I don’t like a week women. I also love reading about soiled doves. You find them alot is historical romances. I think thats why I like historicals so much. Even in Gone With the Wind one of my all time favorite books.

  8. Wow! That was very interesting. I have never actually heard the term soiled doves. I think it is amazing that some were execpted into the community. You really wouldn’t think with there past that would happen. I love strong heroines and I would think that those women would have to be very strong to do what they did for a living.

  9. What a great post!
    You know women are very strong in survival.
    I can’t judge a woman who had to do what she had to do to survive.

  10. I also think it’s a matter of degrees and it’s all relative – and it’s too easy to judge others. It takes two and unfortunately most of the time it’s only the woman that gets penalized. Great post.

  11. Fascinating post, Patricia. Hmm, I may have to change a few things in my wip now that I’ve read that! I currently have the hero owning the saloon where the ‘girls’ work-and it is a major plot line as it is the main conflict between h/h. I wonder though, if making the ‘girls’ the owners wouldn’t make it better? Or having them buy him out?

    Inspiration strikes at the oddest times, doens’t it.

  12. Interesting post! Strong heroines are an important component of Historical romances and they contribute a great deal to this era.

  13. I’ve been reading about “Soiled doves” for a workshop I’m giving and there were several different levels of prostitution. The Parlor Houses were the ladies who gave to the community, had clean rooms and women, and made their mark on society. They were strong individuals who knew what they wanted and they wanted money and status just like the men.

    Then you have several levels below that. These women were alcoholics, drug users, and abused women. The weaker women who used the only thing they knew to try and stay alive.

    Protitution is like any other profession in society. You have the ones on top who make money and don’t suffer and you have the ones on the bottom who suffer and scrape to stay alive.

    Great post Pat!

  14. Fascinating post which appeals to me. I liked this to Josephine Marcus in the movie Tombstone. She was strong, had principles and values and was a special woman.

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