Hurdy-Gurdies and Dancing Halls

I didn’t write the passage below, but thought it a great collection of info on Hurdy-Gurdies and Dancing Halls during the mining boom, a colorful part of western mining towns, one that started off for the most part as wholesome entertainment.

In the first years after the California gold rush of 1848, the first saloons and dance halls of the West were tents or primitive cabins with pounded dirt floors, but quick prosperity soon created a range of styles and degrees of elegance, so that by the late ‘7Os and early ‘8Os, establishments of luxury and opulence vied for the attention — and the money — of the miners.

Dance Hall Girls
The lure of money and gold soon brought the amenities of civilization, meaning more available women, drugs, gaming, and entertainment. The mining and trail towns of the West, such as Leadville, Cripple Creek, Deadwood, Tombstone, and Abilene, soon earned unsavory reputations as sinks of depravity, and while they probably could not compare to the contemporary urban scene, they were truly wild by 19th century standards. Large mobile populations, free of the restraints of family, anonymous, with no reputations to protect, created an environment of violent death, unbridled morals, and general rowdiness to match. Many of the dance hall girls as well as the men fell prey to death in the violent gunfights, venereal disease, and the widespread use of such narcotics as opium and laudanum.
“Fights in Leadville kept life from being monotonous,” a local historian wrote. “Misunderstandings ended in knifings, shootings, and free-for-alls. Men fought on the streets, in saloons, in dance halls, in hotels, at the theatres.”
By most accounts, the earliest dance hall girls were considered good girls, at least by Western standards. The very first women in the mining camps of California were German girls who were called hurdy-gurdy girls after the musical instruments of the same name, and the name also became attached to the dance hall. While a long way from virginal status, the first girls were so prized that they did not have to participate in prostitution. Because they were so few, women in the early dance halls were expected to follow a respectable code of behavior and men were expected to keep their distance. One old miner recalled seeing a sign in a hurdy-gurdy house: “A SKIRT IS A SKIRT AND MUST BE RESPECTED AS SUCH!” The owner of the Alhambra, a hall in Silverton, Colorado, posted the following set of rules:
Rule 1. No lady will leave the house during evening working hours without permission.
Rule 2. No lady will accompany a gentleman to his lodgings.
Rule 3. No kicking at the orchestra, especially from the stage.
Rule 4. Every lady will be required to dance on the floor after the show.
Rule 5. No fighting or quarrelling will be allowed.

As competition grew rapidly, the fine line between prostitution and the dance hall thinned, blurred, and finally disappeared.

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16 thoughts on “Hurdy-Gurdies and Dancing Halls”

  1. Stacey, I’d loved to have been a fly on the wall at one of those dance halls. I can imagine the men trying to dance and the girls who pampered their trampled feet afterward. I’m sure those dance halls were very busy places. They definitely served a purpose. And I imagine those rules were broken quite often. 🙂

  2. Very interesting post. Too bad the rules fell by the wayside but I guess that is a part of our historical west.

  3. Can you imagine a world where women are so rare that just seeing one, dancing with one, was somethng you’d pay for.

    I read somewhere…a Louis L’Amour book maybe…or maybe here…or maybe both…that sometimes children would be taken around and just stood on stage and men would pay money to see a child. That’s all no entertainment, nothing, a child was just so rare.

    There’s a line in The Husband Tree that is something like this…

    “Don’t mind my boy, he don’t mean no harm by starting at your baby. My boy’s never seen a baby before…well, maybe an Indian baby, from a distance, at a trading post, but they never let him near them. He wouldn’t be more fascinated if a leprechaun came sliding down a rainbow right in front of him.”

  4. What a wonderful post, Stacey! Like Margaret, I found that passage, “Kicking the orchestra” interesting — the troubles they must have had. Delightful research.

  5. Hi, all! Yeah, that “No kicking the orchestra” cracked me up too 😀 I learned about the Hurdy-Gurdie Girls during those history courses back in college, just another colorful image to fuel my western romance imagination that stuck with me.

    Cheryl’s post on the Harvey Girls is a favorite of mine, and has some similarities.

    Thanks for stopping in to read and share!

  6. Mary, love that line from The Husband Tree! Wow. Hard to imagine just how huge the west was and the isolated lives so many lived. I’ve read some fascinating memoirs of pioneer prairie life, children who’d been born and raised in that ocean of sod, and really saw so few people at all in their lifetime.

  7. We really do take our “civilization” for granted. There a very few places we can go where we wouldn’t see another person or family for months at a time. When something is rare, it is appreciated and cherished. I’ve read accounts of miners coming out just to be able to see a woman passing through with her family. We think of miners and trappers as rough, rowdy men not caring about anything but money, drinking and loose women. We often forget that many were men trying to make a better life for themselves and their families.
    Good post. Enjoyed it.

  8. Hi Stacey,
    I enjoyed this post. I have a saloon scene in my new release, “Promise Me” and did a lot of research on this topic. They also had “hurdy-gurdy” machines in the houses of ill-repute, and so the women and the music became linked.
    But sometimes, all a man wanted to do was hold a woman in his arms and dance.

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