I’ve been taking some amazing walking tours offered by City Guides, including one called Bawdy and Naughty. This one was a stroll down Maiden Lane, offering us a chance to look back in time at the most famous red light district in SF during the gold rush.
In 1848 when gold was first discovered at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra foothills, thousands of gold seekers flocked to the shores of San Francisco. In 1849, 40,000 immigrants traveled to SF by boat alone, creating a ratio of 50 men to every women. As you can imagine, this lead to a flourishing prostitution business. During these early years there were 1,000 women working in a two block stretch of Morton Street, known today as Maiden Lane.
“The only aristocracy we had here at the time were the gamblers and prostitutes.”
By the late 1800s the ratio of men to women became less radical with 12 men to every woman. Men began bringing their wives to the city, and these women were shocked and appalled at the booming prostitution business and at the city’s relaxed attitude towards its blatant existence. These wives started vigilance groups and helped to put into place regulations that didn’t end prostitution but that whittled down the parlour houses and brothels to three distinct red light districts: Morton Street (aka Maiden Lane), the Tenderloin and the Barbary Coast – now Jackson Square.
Maiden Lane became a notorious red light district for many reasons. Foremost, Maiden Lane was set apart from the rest of SF due to prostitution being the only business in those two blocks. Other red light districts allowed customers to indulge in prostitution, gambling and liquor. But if you came to Maiden Lane you only had one thing on your mind – SEX. Also Maiden Lane was a dangerous place, during the height of activity police were reporting 12 murders a month. But what also set it apart was that it was only blocks away from SF’s down town.
The worst cribs in San Francisco were probably those which lined both sides of Morton Street (Maiden Lane). . . And not only were the Morton Street cribs the lowest in San Francisco’s red light district; they were also the most popular, partly because of the great variety and extraordinary depravity of the women to be found there, and partly because the police seldom entered the street…” Herbert Asbery, The Barbary Coast
The red light district came to an end when the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the brothel and crib lined streets. Today Maiden Lane is much more tame, instead of brothels the lane is full of cafes and high-end stores including Gucci and Chanel!
Source: historic pictures from San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library