This evening I had an evening with the girls… literally and figuratively. A friend of mine invited me to go with another friend of hers on a “Sin and Gin” historic walking tour in my hometown. The tour explores the seedier side of town, from the earliest founding of the communities that eventually formed Bellingham, all the way up to World War II. Most of it was concentrated around the turn of the 20th century – the Victorian era. Obviously the Gin part is the history of the drinking establishments in the area. The Sin part is prostitution. Yep… Brothels. Who knew that up until 1910, Bellingham had a legal red light district? It was complete with a police and health department registration process, and weekly medical checks.
So, I had always known that Bellingham was founded on three main industries: logging, mining and fishing, and that the four communities that eventually merged into Bellingham (Whatcom, Sehome, Fairhaven and Bellingham) were rough and tumble communities. And I even knew that there were brothels and a red light district. But I had no idea that the brothels were so widespread! This tour focused only on what is now downtown Bellingham (there is a separate tour for Fairhaven).
As a prostitute, you worked for a madam, who provided you with room, board, and meals in exchange for a cut of your profits. However, if you were a man, it was illegal in Bellingham to be a pimp. In fact, if it was found out that you were profiting from a “fallen woman”, you would literally be run out of town. And apparently there are documented occurrences of men being run out of town.
There were two main areas in Bellingham that housed brothels. One was the legal red light district, running approximately from C Street to F Street out along the piers. All of the area from C to F along Holly was actually over the water at that time (we filled in this whole area of town with scrap lumber and other garbage later) and the brothels were built on pilings over the water, along with lots of other businesses. As this was the designated area for prostitution, you could be seen out and about and get your business done in that section of town – have your clothes laundered, get a bite to eat, pick up some groceries, etc. However, most of the brothels employed errand boys to do that work for you, if you so chose. This is where the lowliest ladies worked, because a respectable gentleman wouldn’t dare be seen going into the red light district, because you would know what he was up to!
So, for those more respectable gentleman, there were also at least a dozen brothels in the upper part of downtown Bellingham, generally along what is now Railroad Avenue. It was illegal to operate a brothel here, but apparently the police were well aware and did little to stop it. In fact, they filled the City’s coffers with revenues from the raids on brothels. All the prostitutes’ money would be seized and a fine would be levied, and then the brothel would go right back to business as usual. Prostitutes in this area were also required to register with the police and the health department, so it would be hard to say the police didn’t know these prostitutes were operating outside of the legal district. The fact is, as long as the City got its revenues, they didn’t care. 11% of the City’s budget came from revenue from the prostitution industry! Apparently they didn’t consider that to be ‘profiting from a fallen woman’, as long as they could pay for a new fire truck.
It was a bit different up in this area though. Bellingham had a law against street-walking outside of the red light district, so if you were a known prostitute (and remember you had to register), you could be arrested for even being out on the street. Your madam would have errand boys do your errands for you. The madams had an ingenious way of advertising though – when they had a new girl and they wanted to get the word out, they would take the girl shopping. This wasn’t illegal street-walking because the girl wasn’t a prostitute – yet. Men would know if you were out walking with a madam, then they would soon be able to find you at that madam’s brothel.
There were different societal levels for prostitutes here too. The upper strata of prostitution was to work in a parlor house, basically where you live in the madam’s house and men would come and socialize with the ladies in the parlor, before choosing their fun for the evening. These women were educated and sophisticated, and could play instruments and speak multiple languages.
Then came the boarding house ladies. The upper rooms of a hotel or boarding house would be dedicated to prostitution. Men came in the back staircase, to avoid calling attention to themselves and what they were doing. The brothels along Railroad Avenue, outside of the red-light district, were boarding house brothels. Many of the buildings along Railroad had boarding house brothels on the second floor, including, the Avenue Bread Company, and the Helena, which is now low income housing. I’ve never been inside the Helena, but the guide told us that if you go upstairs, the windows in the rooms face the hallway. This was so the men could go upstairs, check out the girls available through the windows into the rooms, and then come back downstairs to settle up with the madam.
The lowest level were the cribs. These were the brothels on the waterfront, with rows of small rooms that housed the prostitutes. Men here paid by the minute, rather than by the act. 15 minutes of sex cost about $1. To put it in perspective, a female teacher during that time could make $60 per month. So even the lowest level of prostitute could make more than a teacher if she had two clients per day, for a total of 30 minutes. A cannery worker, stuffing salmon into cans by hand for 10 hours per day, made $1.25. So, whatever your thought is on the red light industry, a lot of women were drawn to the idea of being able to make more money more quickly. The “cribs” along the waterfront are all gone now, demolished when all the turn-of-the-century pilings and docks came down.
I asked the guide about the ages of these girls, and she explained that no madam in Bellingham would employ a local girl. So this lowered the rate of young girls becoming prostitutes, because you had to be from out of town, and you had to have gotten yourself here. The guide said that most of the women listed on the registration records of the time indicated that they were in their late teens to early twenties.
And one last story… Up to World War II, even though the brothels were technically illegal now, business went on as it always had, with the police and health department registration and the weekly health checks. And the police raids and fines to fill the City’s coffers. Navy officials at the Navy base in Oak Harbor told the sailors to go on leave in Bellingham, rather than Seattle or Vancouver, because they knew that prostitution was regulated here. And when you got back from your leave, you had to report who you had slept with – her full name. That way, if you got syphilis or another STD, they could go back to the source. And if you were the unlucky girl who got the finger pointed at you, you could look forward to a 30 day quarantine in the basement of the old City Hall.
So that’s what I learned – at the end of our tour, we were treated to cocktails at Bayou on the Bay. My girlfriends and I all had the No Shrinking Violet, a delicious concoction made of gin, simple syrup, Creme de Violette, and one other ingredient that slips my mind. We had a great time with lots of laughter, and gained a new appreciation for the seedier history of my hometown.