A Rich Man’s Paradise 1910: A Trip to the Finest Parlor House in Town
Night has fallen, the gaslights are blazing, and pleasure inevitably calls a gentleman of carnal inclinations such as yourself to the part of town not spoken of in polite company. Shoulder your way through the drunken hoi polloi and step into the spacious receiving room of the town’s finest parlor house, quite like Madame Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall, pictured above, the most famous high-class brothel in the most famous of American red-light districts, Storyville, New Orleans.
The furnishings are expensive, if more than a touch ostentatious, but a man of standing in the community will feel right at home amidst the luxurious carpets, gilt-framed oil paintings, and fragrant fresh flowers.
The maid will lead you to Madame, arrayed in silk, diamonds, and pearls, a sign that her establishment is thriving. She will welcome you warmly, knowing that you are a trusted regular customer or a friend of the same. Have no worry that news of your visit will reach the wrong ears. Madame is always discreet. She makes sure to provide the local police with a weekly “consideration” and keeps a doctor on call to spirit you away to a respectable location should you fall ill on the premises from your exertions.
Enjoy a glass of champagne and the toe-tapping ragtime tunes, courtesy of the “Professor” at the upright piano in the corner. While you chat with the gentlemen in your party, you appraise the lovely young women in attendance this evening. There are always pretty new faces to tickle your fancy, and the girls are sure to find you fascinating and admirably virile whatever your age. Their tongues are as silky as their negligee-clad forms.
Perhaps you are fortunate enough to attend on the night of a “circus,” which is much too vulgar to describe in words, although you can be sure young women of undeniable natural talent will sing and dance in various states of undress and perhaps make love to one another. Every act is designed to warm your blood for a trip upstairs after the show. For enjoying such entertainments, you may spend as much as fifty dollars.
Add a half hour in a bedroom upstairs with a girl of your choosing for five to twenty-five dollars, depending on her beauty. New girls demand a higher price. If you spend the whole night, it will set you back another thirty-five to fifty greenbacks. This luxury is denied to men at the humbler houses that cater to the lusts of the middle class.
Of course, money is no object for you.
Perhaps you’ve chosen a house that specializes in young things fresh from the countryside or “French” services involving unmentionable oral skills. According to its souvenir guidebook, the famous Mahogany Hall offers the attentions of charming octoroons, young women with one black great-grandmother and a white father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
If you’re in San Francisco, you might indulge in a bit of voyeurism in one of the French resorts on Commercial Street. The maid will lead you to a secret closet, where, for a mere five dollars, you can gaze through peep-holes to enjoy the spectacle of a greenhorn fellow deflowering a “virgin” for triple the usual full-service fee. Although the comely lass might seem shy and inexperienced, be assured she will repeat the same performance tomorrow as she did last night.
When you leave the premises well after midnight—your wallet much lighter or your running account with Madame well-padded with extra charges—you won’t bother yourself with plebian daytime considerations like honesty or authenticity. You understand that such establishments are like Carnival or Halloween all year round, a chance to indulge yourself in make-believe and express your forbidden desires.
You straighten your tie and toss away the boutonniere the night’s temporary companion pinned to your lapel to mark you should you stop at a saloon for a nightcap. The girls in the quarter watch out for each other, and even a high-class parlor house girl might as well save her poorer “sister” the trouble of flirting with a gentleman who has already been satisfied.
Your manly desires are indeed sated and you’re headed to your comfortable home in the finest part of town. It’s 1910 and life is sweet for a man in your fine leather shoes, if, to be honest, even a fortunate fellow like you can feel a bit melancholy in the wee hours of the morning.
A man brushes past you—a shopkeeper perhaps or a clerk by the look of his clothes—intent on his own escape from reality. Where is he going? Which girl will wrap him in her soft arms within the hour?
Join me next month to find out!
(This sketch of a well-heeled gentleman’s evening in the best parlor house in town was inspired by descriptions in Al Rose’s Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District, Herbert Asbury’s The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld, and Ruth Rosen’s The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918.
The photographs are from Storyville, New Orleans. If you’re interested in red-light districts in the early twentieth century, check out this evocative reference of a time gone by!)