Squeezing the Middle Class 1910: A Night of Delight in a Two-Dollar Brothel
It’s been a while since you treated yourself to a night in the district. Work’s been busy and you’ve been watching your pennies. You know enough to go equipped with the proper change: a dollar to treat the girls in the parlor with wine, four quarters for the mechanical piano, a two-dollar bill for the girl you take upstairs, and two fifty-cent pieces for “extras.” You’ll see your Maker before you see them make proper change for any service in brothel.
Still, your blood is warming with thoughts about what lies ahead tonight. Since it’s been a while, why not splurge on a good two-dollar house where the girls are guaranteed to be pretty? You have your standards—those fifty-cent cribs are just too damned sad and it’s all over in five minutes. On the other extreme, well, they say the places that cater to the city fathers put on circuses where the girls do things God never intended for a decent man or woman at a ticket price of three months of a working man’s wages. That’s a sauce too rich for the likes of you. Good, fresh bread and butter will serve your hunger tonight.
Your favorite house has a parlor that reminds you of home. Neat and comfortable, except of course, back home you wouldn’t find three or four pink-cheeked girls lounging around in lacy negligees. The maid asks if you’d like to treat the girls to some wine, and you hand over that dollar-bill for a glass all around, because otherwise you won’t get your pick. You sit on the sofa and joke with the girls for a minute or two. They tell you their names: Violet, Lulu, Marguerite, and Maisie. You wonder what their real names are as you give a false name for yourself. Not that you have anyone at home to worry about. It’s part of the game.
One of those quarters starts up the mechanical piano, and you have a turn on the floor with the blonde on the loveseat. She presses herself against you and whispers in your ear that she can take you to heaven and, my, is she jonesing to be alone with a handsome fellow like you, the best-looking gentleman to walk in the door all evening. Now your blood is really running hot, but you want to give that brunette a try, the one lounging against the pillow with her stockings exposed. She has a mighty fine leg, if you do say so yourself. She called herself “Marguerite,” if you recall correctly. After a glass of that cheap wine, your head’s a bit fuzzy and you wonder if they put something in it.
Now this girl Marguerite is a handful, warm and buxom in your arms, but it’s what she’s crooning in your ear that tells you she’s the one tonight. It’s a dirty ditty about a man and a maid frolicking in the bedroom, a trip around the world with Frenching and doing it through the backdoor the “Italian way.” It’s just words, but she sure seems like a wild one. You decide to keep your two extra quarters from that hungry piano and take this gal upstairs. There’s always another night to sample the others.
Marguerite walks languidly up the stairs and you follow, admiring her lacy, hourglass form from behind. She leads you into a boudoir, turns the gas on low. She looks mighty pretty in the soft glow. You just want to gaze for a while. She seems to understand, for she stands there and smiles. The new girls are always in such a hurry. Marguerite clearly knows how to read customer.
You place the two-dollar bill on the nightstand. Her eyes sparkle.
“Say, Johnny, you seem like the kind of gentleman who likes undressing a girl for himself. It’s only a little bit extra.”
There goes one of those fifty-cent pieces. The girls usually keep their stockings on and you really want see her legs bare.
You promise yourself you’ll take it slow, but your hands are shaking and impatient, and she’s standing there just the way God made her in no time flat. She gestures for you to take off your shoes and trousers, which is all they’ll have in these places. Then comes the examination—a good, hard squeeze of your privates to see if you’re healthy. After that, a quick wash with water mixed with a purple tincture that’s supposed to keep the clap away.
She looks up at you, wash cloth in hand. Such a wicked gleam in her eyes. “Now you strike me as a fellow who likes a little adventure. Like maybe a cowgirl ride?”
The two-fifty on the table becomes three. She gestures for you to lie down on the bed. You don’t usually do it this way, and you’re excited at the thought of having her on top. You can see more that way and you like to look. With a sly smile, she climbs on the mattress. What she does next surprises you. She turns and mounts you with her back to you. Now that is a nice view. She rides you, up and down, slower than most girls, to your delight.
“Now, darling, wouldn’t you like me to turn around so you can see?”
Well damned if you don’t. She sees right through you. The two extra quarters will join the rest on the nightstand when you’re through.
Sensing she’s gotten everything she can, Marguerite pulls off, pivots and settles down facing you. And yes, right then, you’re glad for the “extra” look.
But then she does what they all do in the end. She takes over so you can hardly tell right from left or day from night and you finish faster than you’d like, because to be honest, you want this part to last all night.
In a wink, you find yourself back in your trousers and out on the street, pockets empty. Not half an hour has passed since you walked into the parlor. All things said and done, though, Marguerite gave you a pretty good time as those things go.
You see a fellow wandering past, glancing back and forth in awe. You guess he’s a stranger in this city. Some girl is going to give him a good fleecing tonight, although he looks a bit down in the heel, so she may not get much. Maybe he’s headed for the cribs where fifty cents will get you all of five minutes of heaven. You’ve heard some of those places have a secret panel on the back wall, so that while you’re at your business, the pimp can reach in and steal your wallet. Some even filch a man’s pants and boots to pawn, or so they say, and the poor rube has to go home barefoot in his drawers.
Greenhorns get wise soon enough.
You take the streetcar back to your boardinghouse, pour yourself a glass of whisky, and lie back on your single bed. It’s then your thoughts turn melancholy. Marguerite satisfied you in one way, for sure, but you’re still yearning for something more. More time, more laughter, better still, a feeling that you aren’t alone in the world. Maybe you’ll find a girl who will give you all of that some day. Maybe you’ll find her in the district, take her out of that life and marry her, make her respectable. You think of that imaginary girl lying beside you now, warm and smiling, with your whole life to spend together.
But why waste your time on something that isn’t real?
You think about having another whisky, but you’ve got work tomorrow, bright and early. A man’s got to earn a living.
This sketch of a working man’s evening in a middle-class parlor house was inspired by descriptions in Al Rose’s Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District and Ruth Rosen’s The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918.
The photograph of Marguerite Griffin by Ernest Belloq is also from Storyville, New Orleans. If you’re interested in red-light districts in the early twentieth century, I recommend a copy of this evocative reference of a time gone by for your library!