Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Oyster Saloons and Brothels - a History of "Red-Light District"

I first learned of the association between red lights and prostitution from the Police’s song, Roxanne.

Roxanne, you don’t have to put out the red light . . . .
The Police, 1977.

But red lights had been associated with prostitution since long before Sting's plaintive plea to leave her profession.

The expression “red light district,” meaning “a district in which houses of prostitution are frequent” (see Merriam-Webster Online), dates to at least as early as August 21, 1893, when it appeared in a story about twice-convicted murderer Albert Wing, a brother of Edward Rumsey Wing, the former United States Ambassador to Ecuador.  Albert Wing was no diplomat, but he was persuasive in his own way in service of his own, arguably sordid ends.

Albert Wing seduced his childhood sweetheart, Miriam Eames, and convinced her to move with him to St. Louis, where he "installed her in a bordello" and "accomplished her ruin."  Strangely, however, he became so enraged to find a stranger in her room one evening that he shot him dead, resulting in his first murder conviction and a ten year sentence.  

The politically-connected Wing somehow secured a pardon and early release from his first conviction.  Upon release, the ever-persuasive Wing convinced Miriam's father to bring her home from the convent where she had been hidden away, and quickly convinced Miriam to run off with him to Louisville to get married. 

It didn't end well.

Immediately he took her to a hotel called the Astor House, now no longer in existence.  Through long drink and his term in the penitentiary he had lost his manhood and did not want work.  Finally the funds gave out and the landlord would no longer trust them, so Wing took his young wife to the bordello of Madam Mertie Edwards, on West Green street, the red-light district of Louisville.

The Cincinnati Enquirer (Ohio), August 21, 1893, page 1.

 This is the earliest example of the expression I could find in print.  Several more of the earliest examples refer to Louisville’s red-light district.  The expression then appeared further down river, in St. Louis (1895) and New Orleans (1897), before cropping up out West in Missoula, Montana, San Antonio, Texas and Perry, Oklahoma in early 1898.

The expression first appeared in the New York press in late-1898, in connection with efforts by the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to clean up the East Side.

October 15 [1898]. (Case Nos. 119,508, 120,354.)

Those wretched institutions of the east side, located in what has become known as “the red-light district,” so named because of the numerous red lights displayed within its precincts, marking the location of so-called “cafes,” have been very much in evidence during the past year, and the Society has given its best efforts toward the uprooting of these breeding places of immorality.  They are located in and among the densely populated tenements, and in close contact with the young, and the influences spreading from them are at once subtle and degrading.  Numerous cases have come to lights where young girls have been received and harbored in these places by the miserable women by whom the “cafes” are maintanined, and numbers have been rescued therefrom.[i]

The Society’s efforts may have put political pressure on city officials to take action – and take action they did:

Order to Purify the Tenderloin.

Police Captain George S. Chapman, famous for his activity in the tenderloin district [in New York City], received an unwelcome Thanksgiving present last night from Chief Devery in the form of an order that he should relinquish the command of Mercer street station and assume that of the Eldridge street precinct.  The order was accompanied by instructions that the “red light” district should be purified.[ii]

The police action may have gone a bit overboard:

Police Wreck 30 Cafes.
“Tenderloin” District in New York Being Cleaned Out.

New York, Dec. 2. Led by Captain Chapman, a squad of detectives . . . descended upon the cafes in the “red light” district, comprising Allen, Forysyth, Chrystie, Bayard, Hester, Division, Suffolk and Norfolk streets.

When their work was finished thirty cafes were wrecked, much as if they had received a visit from a western cyclone. . . .

The men and women in charge of the despoiled cafes were furious at the work of the police.  Threats in a dozen dialects were hurled at them, and several times it seemed as if there would be a riot. . . .

Late last night the captain and his men took a new tack.  They visited women who have furnished rooms in the tenements for immoral purposes, and forty such women were told they had to move. . . .

As a result of the wrecking of the latter places in the earlier part of the day, the “red light” district was quiet last night.  Only one arrest was made that of a woman at Nol 149 Chrystie street.[iii]

But the changes were not permanent – many of the “cafes” reopened when Captain Chapman was transferred out of the precinct a few months later:

When on Wednesday afternoon the news flashed around the east side that Capt. Chapman had been transferred there was great excitement in the red-light district.  Soon there were signs of life in many houses which for months have been apparently untenanted.  Shutters were thrown back, curtains lifted up and from some houses sounds of rejoicing were heard.[iv]

Origins of the Expression

The two best-known folk-etymologies are almost certainly untrue.  One fanciful story holds that railroad workers hung their red lanterns in front of the brothels so their crew could find them in the event of emergency.  But one of the earliest references (1852) to “colored lanterns before the oyster saloons” was reportedly written by a “railway switchman,” thereby derailing, perhaps, that theory.  Another story suggests that the “Red Light Saloon” in Dodge City, Kansas started, or at least popularized, the expression.   Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, there were, in fact, dozens of saloons called the “Red Light Saloon,” many of them in Kansas, but I could find no contemporary reference to a “Red Light” saloon in Dodge City until long after 1893 when the expression first came to light in print in Louisville.

A surprising third possibility, which admittedly may seem absurd at first blush, is more likely true – “oyster saloons.”  

Oyster Saloons

The connection between “oyster saloons” and prostitution may seem odd to modern readers, apart from their well-known (and possibly true) reputation as an aphrodisiac and their supposed similarities to female genetalia.  For my part, my early exposure to oysters, or at least the concept of oysters (didn’t get many any oysters in Iowa), was mostly colored by pop-culture references to “oysters Rockefeller” and “oysters on the half shell,” in circumstances that suggested refined, high-class, high-priced dining.

But in the nineteenth century, oysters were more common, apparently much cheaper, and a regular part of many diets.  They were also a popular after-hours, casual dining option for theater-goers, club-goers and partiers in general.

The typical American oyster saloon was a subterranean dive accessed by a dark staircase leading down from the sidewalk or street.  The space was generally partitioned into booths with privacy curtains to keep away prying eyes and perhaps encouraging illicit behavior.  And, in an age before electric light, oyster saloons were easy to find, even at night, because they were generally designated by a red light.

The reason why oyster saloons are designated by a red light is said to be that in ancient times oystermen had portable furnaces before their booths upon which they cooked the bivalves for their customers.  The light of these furnaces when seen at a distance in the night appeared to be red, and indicated to the public that the oystermen were ready for business.  When these furnaces fell into disuse, and the cooking was done indoors, the red light was still hung out to let the people know that cooked oysters could still be had.

The National Republican (Washington DC), October 14, 1876.

I cannot vouch for the truth of the story as it applies to oyster saloons.  But true or not, the well-known red lights of the oyster saloons may well be the origin of the tradition of using red lights in the original “red-light districts.”  

It is not clear how early oyster saloons became dens of iniquity, but at least one “oyster house” apparently had a seedy reputation as early as 1634.  A letter, dated June 1634, and preserved in State Papers from the reign of King Charles I of England, notes that the “gallant” Thomas Windebank “treats his friends en Prince, and they are resolved to eat oysters at the Dog [(an “oyster house”)], notwithstanding all the proclamations.”[v]    We are left to guess as to the nature of any such “proclamations.”  Was there a prohibition against going to “the Dog” because of illicit activity there?  We may never know. 

But we do not know that British oyster saloons had developed a more unambiguously notorious reputation by by the 1820s.


. . . Some idea may be formed of the prevalence of the most disgusting and disgraceful receptacles of vice in that city [(London)], from the following statement given by the Sun, of the abodes of thieves and prostitutes in the immediate vicinity of Bow street office, which of all placed might be supposed to be least infected by such wretches.

. . . Returning in the direction of Bridges street and Catharine street, we met with that horrid sink of iniquity the oyster saloon, where the most disgusting scenes of profligacy are nightly pursued, and the neighborhood continually disturbed until even three or four o’clock on the Sabbath morning, by the departure of drunken, abandoned characters, with beastly squalling prostitutes.

In Wych street is another, and in all the surrounding neighbourhood numerous other bagnios, oyster and coffee shops, where it is notorious thieves and prostitutes of the lowest class continually meet to dispose of their plunder.

The Maryland Gazette (Annapolis, Maryland), December 20, 1827, page 4.

The Hall of Infamy, Alias the Oyster Saloon in Bridges St. or New Covent Garden Hall.
 From, C. M. Westmacott, The English Spy: An Original Work, Characteristic, Satirical, and Humorous, by Bernard Blackmantle (pseudo), illustrations designed by Robert Cruikshank, London, Methuen, originally published by Sherwood, Jones & Co. 1825, reprint published by Methuen & Co. 1907, page 354.

Some working women apparently preferred the oyster saloons to prowling the theater:

Saloons of this nefarious kind operate very much against the theatrical saloons, as many of the prostitutes, who know that they can meet their “pals” or their “flats” at the former, prefer three and sixpence worth of gin and oysters, to the chance of picking up a customer at the latter.

The London Times, September 18, 1827, page 2.

Oyster houses were common enough in New York City by 1812 that a “law for the removal of filth and dirt from the streets” specifically forbid throwing “oysters, clams or shells of any kind from any oyster-stand or oyster-cellar, under the penalty of ten dollars for each offence.”  The only other businesses specifically singled out by the ordinance were foundries, forges and blacksmith’s shops.[vi]

The diary of an English traveler visiting Philadelphia in 1819 describes all of the features of a typical American oyster house, with the exception of the red light that later achieved such notoriety.  The excerpt also suggests the origin of the American expression, “dive,” for a “shabby and disreputable establishment.”

Returning home, my companion proposed to dive into one of the oyster cellars, to which agreeing we vanished in a trice; and entering the informal abode, the heat of which was at least that of a hothouse, we found a room well lighted and boxes arranged like those in our coffee houses, except that the partitions were carried to the ceiling, with the addition of curtains in front.  We supped well upon stewed oysters brought upon a chafing dish, and a salad of finely shredded raw cabbage and celery which I found very palatable.  For these, with the beer, we paid half a dollar.[vii]

Oyster cellars in New York City that same year were apparently very profitable, even for people who might otherwise have been relegated to the margins of “polite” society.

Saving Bank. – The deposits on Monday the 9th, and Saturday evening 14th inst., amounted to $7,443. . . .

The largest deposit was by a free coloured woman, keeper of an oyster cellar, amounting to $1,800.

The Evening Post (New York), August 16, 1819, page 2.

We can speculate about why serving oysters might have been so profitable in 1819, but it might have been because oyster cellars fostered prostitution, which could lead to the ruination of young women:

A den of infamy, unparalleled in atrocitiy, has lately been discovered by the police in the upper part of the city.  A person, who kept an oyster cellar and cook shop, has been accused by some of the unfortunate females themselves, of being in the constant habit of enticing young and unguarded girls from the lower walks of life, into his store.  There, in the society of sailors and idle young men, their morals and virtue have been gradually worked upon, till finally, many have fallen victims to the deadly snares of prostitution. 

The Evening Post (New York), June 12, 1827, page 1. 

. . . and the ruination of young men:

[T]he poor little things are hurried as fast as possible into the condition of young ladies and gentlemen, by the aid of fashionable boarding-schools for the former, and of billiard-rooms, cigar-shops with pretty cigar girls behind the counters, oyster saloons, fast-trotting horses, dinner parties at the Astor, Champagne, brandy-julaps, gold watches, and unlimited credit with the tailors for the latter.

The Greensboro Patriot (Greensboro, North Carolina), April 1, 1843, page 1 (reprinted from The New York Commercial Advertiser).

The oyster saloons in Philadelphia were no better: 

A case of abduction committed in this city . . . has been reported to us . . . .  As we proceed to lay the statement before them, we cannot master those strong feelings of indignation, which naturally arise, when we look at the age and innocence of the youth girl abducted, and the infamous character of the other parties implicated in this most foul and rascally transaction . . . .

It seems that a Mr. and Mrs. Stathem keeps an oyster establishment in Exchange Row, and that the character they both bear, is infamous.  On Sunday week last, they enticed to their house a little girl, about 13 or 14 years of age, (whose name we suppress) through the instrumentality of their own daughter, who is a supernumerary on the Walnut street theatre stage. . . . 

These officers found about the house in the course of their examination, indications sufficient to warrant a belief of its lewd and infamous character.  Four or five young brazen females were in and about the premises, and throughout the whole of this infamous affair are scattered abundant and damnatory proofs of the vile artifices and most reprehensible conduct of these pandars. . . .

[N]o doubt can exist as to the conviction of the offenders, who have established an oyster house in Exchange Row, which they dignify by the euphonious name of the “Texas Oyster House.” 

Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), June 2, 1836, page 2.

In December of the same year, two oyster cellars featured prominently in separate crimes reported in the same Philadelphia police report. 

The first incident involved a bartender engaging in after-hours, extra-curricular  activity:

At the corner of Sassafras and Mulberry alleys, there is an oyster cellar, kept by a man of the name of Taylor, where the wretched beings who infest that neighborhood, resort to spend the wages of their pollution, in rendering themselves still more beastly. . . .  [T]he watchman in passing by at 1 o’clock this morning, was surprised to hear a female inside laughing nd singing.  At 2 o’clock he again heard the sounds of merry-making . . . .  They [(the watchman and Taylor)] proceeded to the oyster house, and on opening the door, found Mr. Getts fondling and caressing in a most unequivocal situation a – faugh! – negro wench, of the most filthy and revolting appearance.

The Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), December 3, 1836, page 2.

The second incident involved “a young gentleman of color” who worked in the kitchen of the United States Hotel.  One evening, it seems, he decided to spend the evening like the wealthy “Chestnut street dandies” he so admired, although it’s unclear who came out looking more ridiculous, the white “gentlemen” or their black imitator.  This is also the earliest indication of the use of lights, albeit of an undisclosed color, to identify oyster saloons.

[H]e had often observed their gentlemanly conduct after a supper of champaigne and oyster.  Last night being his “night out,” he resoved to gratify his propensity to puppyism, and astonish the natives about Sixth and Small streets.  “Why shouldn’t I,” though he, “be as much of a gemman as that Mister Dick Dolittle, what never pays for nothing, and walks up and down the street all day with the ladies. . . .

Many were the conquests our hero made among the maidens of Small street and St. Mary street.  He waltzed with one, would have waltzed with all, but some of the prudent matrons forbid it, for said they “our daughters isn’t quality, and it wouldn’t be decent for them to let a stranger hug and squeeze them like the white trash do.”

. . . He got nearly to Spruce street, when he saw before him the lamp hanging over the oyster cellar of a Mr. William Powell.  Here was a chance to show his gentility?  He remembered that some of his prototypes had destroyed the transparencies in front of the Arcade – true such conduct would disgrace a chimney sweep, but what was that to him?  He was a gentleman, and this would give the finishing touch to his display.  Flourish went the cane, and smash went the lamp.

The Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), December 3, 1836, page 2.

In Boston, oyster saloons, designated by “showy lamps” of an undisclosed color, were also dangerous:

In the course of their investigations, the Grand Jury have had their attention directed to the increase of intemperance and dissipation by night, arising from oyster saloons, so called, which have multiplied of late in this city.  Many of these are fitted up in an attractive and elegant manner.  In some instances showy lamps are allowed to obstruct the sidewalk in front of the establishment.  To these places the youthful and inexperienced from the city and vicinity are attracted, and here they are furnished with the means of intoxication without restraint.

Robert Cassie Waterston, An Address on Pauperism: Its Extent, Causes, and the Best Means of Prevention, Boston, C. C. Little and J. Brown, 1844, page 27.

The famous temperance orator, JohnBartholomew Gough, lectured on the “dangers of Oyster Saloons”:

An English visitor noted:

Every hotel or tavern in New York is a political club, in which the question of the day is discussed over the whisky decanter; the oyster houses are dedicated to corruption and vice; the stage performances are ever attended with uproar and quarrels; the stillness of night is constantly broken by the noise of fighting in the streets, or of the fire-engines.

Manchester Guardian, May 31, 1845, page 4.

Anticipating Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign by more than a century, an opinion piece encouraged young men to just “say No” – to “oyster saloons”:

Say No. – Multitudes of young men are ruined by not have in decision to say No.  They meet with companions who invite them to step into an oyster saloon, a bowling alley or a bar-room . . . – but they have not firmness enough to say No.  When they allow themselves to be led astray once, they will again – and then they must return the compliment.  This is a beginning of that course which leads to drinking; to tavern suppers, to the theatre – to the house of her which is the way to hell; and then the ruin, the utter ruin of the young man is almost inevitable.

Liberty Advocate (Liberty, Mississippi), August 30, 1845, page 3.

But despite the warnings, many people said yes to oyster saloons, as suggested by this extensive description of a mid-nineteenth century oyster saloon, including its red light, nude artwork, private rooms and loose women:

The oyster-cellars with their bright lamps casting broad gleams of red light across the street, are now in full tide, and every instant sees them swallow up at one door a party of rowdy and drunken young men on their way to the theatre the gambling house the bowling-saloon or the brothel – or most likely to all in turn . . . . 

If we step down one of these wide entrances, we shall see a long counter gorgeously decked with chrystal decanters and glasses richly carved and gilt and the wall ornamented with a voluptuous picture of a naked Venus – perhaps the more seductive from being exquisitely painted. . . . .

At the other end of the room is a row of little stalls, each fitted up with its gas-burner, its red curtain, its little table and voluptuous picture and all occupied with busy eaters.  In the rear of those boxes is a range of larger apartments called ‘private rooms,’ where men and women enter promiscuously, eat, drink and make merry, and disturb the whole neighborhood with their obscene and disgusting revels prolonged far beyond midnight.  The women of course are all of one kind – but among the men you could find, if you looked, curiously, reverend judges and juvenile delinquents, pious and devout hypocrites and undisguised libertines and debauches. 

G. G. Foster, New York by Gas-Light, New York, Dewitt & Davenport, 1850, pages 8-9. 

An 1852 letter written by a “railway switchman” painted a similar picture.

By nine o’clock Broadway begins to show its night side. . . . The colored lanterns before the oyster saloons throw their varying hues upon group after group ascending and descending the broad flights of steps which lead to the subterranean regions devoted to the discussion of these bivalves. . . .  But the night side of Broadway shows something other and worse than eating, drinking and smoking. At every turn you are jostled by those whom we term euphemistically, and yet with unconscious pathos, “unfortunate women.” 

New York Times, November 8, 1852, page 3. 

The red lights of oyster saloons were common enough to be used figuratively to describe a red-faced man.

On the first of January, therefore, agreeable to appointment, his broad, pock-marked face – luminous as a colored lantern outside an oyster-saloon – and his gait more than usually diffusive, D--- was seen coming along from his lodgings . . . .

Margaret Conkling, The American Gentleman’s Guide to Politeness and Fashion, New York, Derby & Jackson, 1859, page 49. 

And at least one oyster shop called itself the “Red Light Saloon”:

Jackson Standard (Jackson Court House, Ohio), October 6, 1853, page 2.
Twenty-five years later, the red light was still considered a sign of the oyster saloon:

Oyster saloons, distinguished by their red balls of light, abounded in the city a quarter of a century ago, but of restaurants where a man could get an elaborate bill of fare and be sure of good articles thoroughly well prepared, there were only two or three at most. [In an article praising Lorenzo Delmonico and what he did for cookery in the US.] – N. Y. Sun.

Herkhimer Democrat (Herkimer, New York), October 26, 1881, page 1. 

A stranger would have been of the opinion that the little 12x14 room just below Customhouse street, on Franklin, was an oyster saloon, for a brilliant red light was displayed on the outside and almost as brilliant gas ones within.  It’s a gambling den.  . . . and who, like ourselves that it was an oyster shop somewhat prematurely opened.

New Orleans Bulletin, August 13, 1875, page 1.

Oyster Saloon and Restaurant,

Under Bamberger’s Clothing Store, at the junction of Market and Wall streets, is now open and prepared to furnish the public with the finest select oysters at all times, and in every style, at the very lowest possible prices. . . .

The new restaurant hangs out a red transparency [(a back-lit, translucent or transparent sign)].

Fort Scott Daily Monitor (Fort Scott, Kansas), October 13, 1875, page 4.

A cartoon from 1883 shows two clusters of lights (presumably red) gracing the entrance to an oyster saloon; a young “dude” (the word “dude” made its first appearance in print four days after the date of this cartoon) hustles his best-girl past the entrance.

Puck Volume, Volume 12, Number 305, January 10, 1883, page 294.

It was apparently a "thing" for men to avoid taking their girlfriends into an oyster saloon.  In this cartoon, the set of footsteps illustrated on the left represent a man leaping 15 feet with his best-girl in his arms to avoid entering an oyster shop.

Puck, Volume 30, Number 780, February 17, 1892, page 434.
It is unclear whether they were trying to shield her from the evils inside, to prevent her from meeting your mistress, or for a more innocent reason – the embarrassment of not being able to afford dinner and drinks.

Puck, Volume 12, Number 304, January 3, 1883, page 287.

Red-Light and “Red Light” Saloons

Over time, red lights and the name “Red Light” were increasingly applied to other types of saloons, generally, as well as to brothels.

A very attractive red transparency was exhibited last night in front of Greuter’s saloon.  It is an original design of the proprietor of this establishment.

The York Daily (York, Pennsylvania), December 18, 1874, page 1.

A red lamp even identified an “Oyster Saloon” in Ireland:

Joe Wilson’s – Oysters! Oysters! Oyster! . . .
Mind the Red Lamp . . . .

The Morning News (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland), March 17, 1883, page 1.

Chicago’s State Street (“that great street”) was a red-light district in fact, if not in name, by 1882, four decades before Billy Sunday couldn’t shut down that “Toddling Town”[viii]:

The street of a Sunday night is as lively and much resembles New Orleans at Mardi Gras. . . .  [T[he passer-by is very frequently jostled and solicited by some frail one masquerading in a fresh coat of paint and powder and stiffly-starched skirts.  Her male counterpart – the pimp – is present in numbers, and is equally offensive both in language and in action. . . .

From this point south the brothels begin to grow numerous, and red lights and open hall-ways invite the attention of every passer.

Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1882, page 7.

Red lights on brothels were common enough in St. Joseph, Missouri that “red light” was used figuratively:

I’ll guarantee that reporting of prize-fights did most to strengthen the laws against them.  I think the mention of a house as disreputable hangs a red light on the gate to scare away the beginners.

The St. Joseph Herald (Missouri), June 20, 1883, page 4.

Saloons with the name “Red Light” were frequently dangerous places:

Shots were fired at the Red Light Saloon in a melee last Wednesday night, and one of the windows were broken.
     – Portsmouth, Ohio. [ix]

Raid by the Police.  The “Red Light” saloon and another in the same neighborhood, on Spring Garden avenue, Allegheny, was the scene of mirth and festivity on Saturday night, in fact both were in full blast, a large number of youths of both sexes mingling in the giddy dance.  The merriment however didn’t last later than midnight, owing to the mother of one of the youthful females at the Red Light invading the dance hall with a cowhide in her right hand.
     – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. [x]

And there were plenty of “Red Light” saloons in the Wild, Wild West, not just in Dodge, City:

Fort Worth. Cowboys on a Grand Frolic – Live Local Items. 

Fort Worth, April 10. – The cowboys made things lively last night, firing off their six-shooters at the Waco Tap and Red Light houses of prostitution.  Three were put in the calaboose and fined ten dollars and costs.
     – Fort Worth, Texas. [xi]

Marshall, Texas.  Marshal Sam Ball, of Sherman, who was seriously wounded in the shooting affray at the Red Light Saloon last Wednesday, died this evening.  Marshal Ball was a good, fearless officer.
     – Marshall, Texas.[xii]

Wild Cow-Boys on the Warpath. Headline pic.  Speed attempted to saddle a horse near the Red Light dance house, and while doing so was shot by some one of the citizens.
     – Leavenworth, Kansas.[xiii]

Bar-fight spills out from Jockbeck’s saloon to in front of the Red Light Saloon.
     – Topeka, Kansas.[xiv]

There was a report yesterday that the Red Light had been sold out, but investigation does not corroborate the story. . . .  There are respectable people in that quarter of the town, but they are not the majority.  The great body of the crooked population live over on that side.  The houses of ill shape, the “kept girls,” the sneak thieves and crooked people generally, live over there, even the chicken thieves. – Eagle. 
     – Witchita, Kansas.[xv]

They were engaged at a gaming table in the Red Light saloon.  A dispute arose in regard to cheating, when both men deliberately leveled their revolvers and began firing.
     – Eagle City, Colorado. [xvi]

An opium den over the Red Light saloon on Wyoming street was raided last night by Deputy Sheriffs Laist and Roe, and two men who were hitting the pipe were arrested . . . .   
     – Butte, Montana.[xvii]

The most interesting place in town is the Red Light saloon.
     – Las Vegas, New Mexico. [xviii]

J. J. McMenomy has just returned from San Francisco, after settling up the business of M. Ward & Co., in connection with the Red Light Saloon on Locust street [(conveniently located, just outside the San Francisco Presidio army base)] . . . .
     – San Francisco, California.[xix]

During the mid-1880s, one of the Madams of an itinerant, tented brothel – a kind of big top circus for cowboys – went by the name, “Red Light”:

A company of overland prostitutes raised sheol near the K. P. depo [(in North Topeka, Kansas)] on Saturday night.  They travel in wagons and tents, one of the female commanders being known as “Great Eastern” and the other as “Red Light.”  The city mashal interviewed them and gave them thirty minutes to get out of the city.  They got.  A fourteen year old girls who had been enticed by them away from Florence was taken charge of and sent home to her father. – McPherson Press.

The Leavenworth Weekly Times (Kansas), August 6, 1885, page 3.

The term, “red-light,” was used as early as 1879 as an adjective to describe a brothel:

A Socialist’s Wife.

The reporter met her at the rear door of an up-town red-light saloon, and at her own invitation went in a set up the beer. . . .

The reporter felt very charitably toward the lady, who explained her exploits in the vicinity of a redlight saloon by the fact that she was obliged to earn what her husband had failed to work for of late days [while he attended revolutionary meetings].

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri), May 22, 1879, page 2.

By 1889, red lights were associated with “saloons,” generally, not just “oyster saloons.”

All the emigrants that the world can furnish will be peaceable if the saloon be gone. We know about anarchy in Chicago if any people do; we have made a study of it.  We have had occasion to deal with it heroically, and it was done.  Things came to a head in Chicago when anarchy knocked them on the head.  But I never knew a nest of Anarchists that was not in the basement of a saloon, or over a saloon, or in a saloon.  The red light of the saloon and the red flag of the anarchists go together – the devil has joined them.

Tyrone Daily Herald (Tyrone, Pennsylvania), July 17, 1889, page 4.

The expression "red-light district" appeared in Louisville a few years later, before travelling down river, out west and eventually back to New York City, where it appeared in reports of a violent crackdown in the "red-light district."

But the crackdown did not lead to permanent changes.  A few years later, “Big Florrie” (Florence J. Sullivan), the Tammany boss of New York City’s Eighth Ward, launched another crusade against the “Red Lights” in his jurisdiction.  But this time, instead of sending the police in break things, he took matters into his own hands.  He simply walked down the street, with police protection, and personally punched every “Cadet” (pimp) he saw in the face.

Pearsons Magazine, Volume 16, Number 5, page 562.

In the following decade, the expression “red-light district” received press attention in numerous anti-saloon crusades in cities across the country, as well as during the “white-slavery” panic of about 1910.  It is also possible that reformers could have brought the expression from Louisville to New York City. 

The Salvation Army was active in Louisville in December 1894, when the expression was still relatively new and hadn’t cropped up anywhere else yet.  

The Cincinnati Enquirer, December 12, 1894, page 4.

And Emma Booth-Tucker, the daughter of the couple who founded the Salvation Army, lectured on the evils of the “red-light district” in New York City in February 1889, just a couple months after the expression first appeared in New York in a report prepared by another reform-minded civic organization, Society for the Prevention of Children.

. . . homes where poverty and the very sediment of vice hide, the bitter woes of children of drunken, brutal parents, and the slum brigade, working in the dives and red light district – all will be shown, either in living pictures or stereopticon slides, made especially for this lecture.

The Topeka State Journal (Kansas), February 15, 1899, page 3.


The paper trail suggests that the expression “red-light district” originated along the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys, perhaps in Louisville, Kentucky in about 1893.  The expression quickly found traction out west before appearing in New York City in late-1898.  The use of red lights to designate brothels appears to be a vestige of an earlier tradition of using red lights to designated entrances to oyster cellars and oyster saloons, a tradition that was later applied to saloons in general, including places where prostitution was practiced. 

The suggestion of a western origin is supported by the fact that the phrase was considered a misnomer when it arrived in New York City in 1898.  In New York City (the city that never sleeps) at that time, red lights had come to be more suggestive of all-night eateries, generally, than they were of prostitution and vice.

The euphonious expression, “Red Light district,” inaccurately descriptive of certain region on the east side, seems likely to supersede in popular vogue the “Tenderloin,” as applied to a district further uptown.  But while the word Tenderloin has a special significance, that cannot be said of Red Light, as now employed.  The new phrase is based on misapprehension.

In New York it has long been a custom for restaurants, oyster houses, and minor lodging houses to display a red light at or near the door, the significance being that such a place is kept open all night.  New York has a very considerable part of its population employed at night.  There are, it is computed, in the market, railroad, hotel, shipping, and newspaper business, not less than 100,000 persons employed in New York at night.  A “Red Light” district, therefore, is properly one in which the number of persons engaged in legitimate pursuits at night is large, and in which all-night restaurants are numerous for their accommodation. 

Some years ago the Legislature made provision for this part of the population by authorizing “all-night licenses” for taverns and saloons in the neighborhood of ferries, markets, railway stations, and on or near the water front.

The Sun (New York), November 27, 1898, page 6.

The name may have been more accurate further west, where the influx of young, single men into railroad, agricultural, ranching and mining boom-towns may have resulted in circumstances in which prostitution flourished even more brazenly and ubiquitously than it had in the oyster cellars and saloons of Eastern Cities in earlier decades.  Red lights in the West may therefore have been as suggestive of prostitution as they were of the saloons where it took place.

And if the single origin-story for red lights on oyster saloons is true, the red lights on brothels may ultimately be based on the glowing red lights of portable oyster furnaces used by street vendors before oyster cellars came into fashion.


All of which begs the question - did oyster saloons become sex palaces under the influence of aphrodisiac oysters, or did the sex palaces serve oysters to take advantage of their aphrodisiac qualities?  Or were they just tasty and plentiful - the sex being incidental?

The oyster has been esteemed as an article of food from the time of the Romans down to the present day.  They are easy of digestion, but not very nutritious, and more provocative of appetite than of its satisfaction.  They are eaten by all nations and both sexes.  Oysters are a favorite with all classes and ages - the child of tender years and the feeble old man both delight in eating the juicy bivalves.  They are, however, sought out for the aphrodisiac qualities which they are supposed to possess, and are greatly esteemed for their stimulating properties.  In conclusion, we believe we can say with the wag who upon swallowing an oyster always exclaimed, 

     . . . . “Good-by, valve.”

The Evening Star (Washington DC), December 1, 1869, page 3.

This image of a “Hurdy Gurdy House” in British Columbia during the Yukon Gold Rush may give a sense of what “red light” saloons in the United States looked like a decade or so earlier.  Kansas City Journal (Missouri), January 23, 1898, page 17.

[i] New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Children, Twenty-Fourth Annual Report, December 31, 1898, New York, 1899.
[ii] The Baltimore Sun (Maryland), November 24, 1898, page 2.
[iii] The Topeka State Journal, December 2, 1898, page 3.
[iv] The Sun (New York), February 17, 1899, page 9.
[v] Calendar of state papers, of the reign of Charles I, preserved in the state Paper Department of Her Majesty’s Public Office, Volume 7 1634-1635, First published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office London 1864, Nendeln, Liechtenstein, Kraus Reprint Ltd, 1967, page 75.  The General Index, at page 640, refers to “Dog, the,” as an “oyster house.” 
[vi] The New York Evening Post, April 11, 1812, page 2.
[vii] Reuben Gold Thwaites, editor, Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, a Series of Annotated Reprints, Volume 12, Cleveland, Ohio, The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1905, page 299 (in a reprint of Adlard Welby, Esq., A Visit to North America and the English Settlements in Illinois, with a Winter Residence at Philadelphia, London, J. Drury, 1821, page 167 of original).
[viii] Chicago became a “Toddling Town” around 1920 due to the local popularity of the “Toddle” dance craze. See my earlier post, “Gimme a Shimmy – Hold the Shiver – Why Chicago was a “Toddling Town”.
[ix] Portsmouth Daily Times (Portsmouth, Ohio), June 21, 1879, page 3.
[x] Pittsburgh Daily Post (Pennsylvania), July 28, 1879, page 4.
[xi] Galveston Daily News (Texas), April 11, 1878, page 1. 
[xii] The Cincinnati Daily Star (Ohio), February 4, 1880, page 1.
[xiii] The Leavenworth Weekly Times (Kansas), December 22, 1881, page 3.
[xiv] The Daily Commonwealth (Topeka, Kansas), December 10, 1879, page 3.
[xv] The Wichita Beacon, June 16, 1886, page 1. 
[xvi] The Junction City Weekly Union (Junction City, Kansas), November 8, 1879, page 7.
[xvii] The Butte Daily Post (Montana), February 23, 1891, page 4.
[xviii] The Las Vegas Gazette (Las Vegas, New Mexico), February 3, 1886 page 4. 
[xix] Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel (Santa Cruz, California), November 8, 1879, page 3.  

NOTE: Edited July 30, 2019, added details in the story of Albert Wing and his wife, Miriam.