The World for a Dollar: Assembly Line Sex for the Working Man, 1912
“You’ve got the world to discover here in San Francisco, boys, every size, shape and color of woman you can imagine.”
Joe’s uncle asked the old bartender to tell you and Joe a thing or two about having a good time on the Barbary Coast, and this fellow sure has plenty to say. It’s your first night on the town after your first whole week of work. You wired half of your wages back home this morning and felt pretty fine about being able to help the family. You had been planning to spend the evening at the boardinghouse catching up with the newspaper, but Joe’s uncle insisted on treating the two of you to a few rounds.
“Chinese girls, Japanese girls, French girls, Mexican girls, girls from back east and everywhere else in between. You can find ‘em all here, boys, and you don’t even need a passport!”
Joe leans forward. He’s always up for adventure. “Where do we go to find the pretty ones?”
“All the girls on the Barbary Coast are pretty—and mighty friendly. Just look for the lines on a Saturday night and that’ll lead you right to the prettiest ones. Walk on by the little row houses in every alley of the Coast and if the girl is free, she’ll be hanging out the window dressed in something frilly—or hardly dressed at all—calling out to you. But everyone says you can’t go wrong with the Municipal Crib over on Jackson Street. It’s a whole big building full of the best girls in the city. If there are no ladies on the trolley, the conductor hollers, ‘All out for the whore house!’ and every man clears out as if it’s the end of the line. I’ve seen it many a time. The police’ll send you there, too, if you ask ‘em where to go for a good time. Half the profit goes into the pockets of the City Council is why. But that means the boys in blue won’t ever give you any trouble when you go there.”
“How much does it set you back?” Joe asks. You’re happy just to listen. This old fellow’s giving you quite an earful.
“Well, now, it depends on what you’re in the mood for. Over there at the Municipal, they’ve got four stories. The basement has the Mexican girls for twenty-five cents. They always have a shrine to the Virgin in their sitting rooms, but you don’t have to see nothing like in the back where you do your business. The Negresses are up on the fourth floor—fifty cents with a discount for two or more, which is why it pays to take a friend. It’s seventy-five cents on the second floor, and a dollar on the third. Most all of those are the French girls. Seventy-five cents will get you the French special. You have to try that at least once to see how you like it.”
“What’s that? The ‘French special’?” you ask. Your curiosity is getting the better of you.
“You are green, sonny! Why, they use their mouth on you instead of the usual way. Like I said, you have to try it once. Most fellows don’t settle for just once.” He winks.
You try to put that dirty image from your mind. Seventy-five cents is half a day’s wages. But then again, it doesn’t cost a cent to think about it, you suppose. You’ve never met a French girl. They must be real pretty. Dainty like a doll.
“Now the guys with money in their pockets, they favor the red-headed Jewesses. They say they’re the most passionate girls on earth. A fellow who knows these things says there’s a young beauty with auburn tresses to her knees who just arrived at the Municipal. The line outside her door winds down the stairs and wraps around the block. She’ll run you two dollars at least, but she won’t let you dawdle. Five minutes tops—but five minutes you won’t forget.”
Your mind is really painting pictures now as fast as the bartender can prattle. You see yourself standing in a long line, waiting for your time with that beautiful red-head. Florence Riley back home had a reddish glow in her hair in certain light, but you’ve never seen hair you’d call full red. Yet wouldn’t it be queer to know that the man in front of you and the man behind you would be sharing the same girl?
“Two dollars? That’s awfully dear,” Joe says.
“There’s pleasure for every wallet in the Barbary Coast, boys,” says the bartender, handing you both another round. “If you’re looking for something you can’t find back home, the Chinese girls will give you a ‘lookee’ for fifty cents. If you’re brave enough to prowl around the darkest corners of Chinatown, you can get the same for one dime.”
“Now you have to explain that to us country boys. You know we’re green as the grass in springtime,” you say.
“Every man is curious, don’t you know, to see if those Chinese girls are made the same as the whites. They’ll show you for a price. Look, but don’t touch. Touching will cost you more.”
“Are they made different?” Joe asks.
“Well, now, there was a professor who made a careful study and published his findings in a magazine. I forget now if he said they were the same or different. I reckon you have to see for yourself!”
“At least you won’t get the clap,” Joe says.
“Good news, boys! You don’t have to worry about the clap in San Francisco. There’s a clinic the city opened just last year. The girls have to go every week to be checked by a special doctor and they have a book the doctor stamps to show they’re healthy. No one gets sick in San Francisco these days, and the special wards for the scarlet women have plenty of free beds. It’s well nigh a miracle.”
Joe says. “So you can be sure all the girls are clean?”
“As sure as a man can be, sonny. But you still have to be careful. There are all kinds of crooks in the Barbary Coast. The Municipal is safe, that’s why I tell everyone to go there. If you wander around looking for fun on the cheap, you might be sorry. Here’s a tip for you. The honest crib girl won’t let you take off anything but your hat. Not even your boots. They put oilcloth on the bottom of the bed, so your boots don’t dirty the sheets. But an honest girl will make you keep everything else on you. And if a girl tells you to take off your clothes and hang ‘em in the closet, you turn right around and run right out of that crib. Because she’s got her pimp waiting on the other side of the wall and while you’re lost in your business, he lifts your wallet, and maybe even your boots, if they’re new. He takes all your hard-earned money and replaces it with nothing but a shiny new dime for your trolley fare home.”
Now your mind conjures a shady character lifting your wallet, taking out the money you sweated so hard for. Suddenly you realize it’s gotten mighty late. You stand and put a nickel on the bar as a tip. It was sure nice of Joe’s uncle to treat you, but you’re feeling the weariness of a long week.
“Heading out, boys? You have yourselves a fine time tonight and tell them at the Municipal that Harvey sent you. If you can’t find what you want in San Francisco, it doesn’t exist. This is the wickedest, wildest city on earth,” says the bartender. “Now, remember 620 Jackson Street is the Municipal. The conductor will let you know. ‘All out for the whore house!’ You see if I’m not telling you true.” The man laughs. “You all come back next Saturday and tell me how it goes.”
Joe nods and you both head out into the street.
“You wanna go over and see what there is to see?” Joe asks.
Truth be told, he doesn’t sound that keen to go.
“I’m going back to hit the hay. But you can go and tell me what there is to see. Maybe you’ll get a look at that new girl with the red hair,” you say.
“Nah, I’m mighty tired, too. Maybe next week?”
You nod, thinking that was quite a tale that old man told you. Was it true that the Coast was full of girls from every country in the world, all of them clean and willing? Did the trolley conductor really yell out the stop for the whore house without a speck of shame? And did a long line of fellows really wait for hours for five minutes with a pretty red-haired girl? Maybe next week you’ll just go to see, but not touch.
One thing you know for sure–life in the big city is sure different from back home.
Historical Note: All advice about a working man’s choices for a good time in San Francisco in 1912, including the racism, comes from The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld by Herbert Asbury.
The photo of “higher-class cribs with indoor plumbing” is courtesy of Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District by Al Rose (p. 170). Prostitutes in San Francisco, New Orleans and other cities rented specially constructed “cribs”—much like small partitioned rooms where prostitutes ply their trade in Amsterdam’s red light district today.