Brothel Museums and How Women Won the West

The Dumas Brothel Museum, just down the street from the immense Berkley Pit in Butte, MT

I’m really, really excited to share my latest article at MEL Magazine with you, dearest readers! I visited two brothel museums off I-90, both within a few hours’ drive of my home in Missoula. The first was the Dumas Brothel Museum in Butte, MT–the longest-operating brothel in America, which was built to be a brothel in 1890 and finally closed in 1982 and reopened in the early 90s as a museum. And the second was the Oasis Bordello Museum in Wallace, Idaho, which became a brothel sometime after the turn of the century and operated as such until 1988. Both museums are rich in history, fascinating to tour, and delightfully spooky. The Dumas focuses much more on the earlier history of the brothel and is under restoration with the hope of eventually presenting the building as it looked a hundred years ago. The Oasis, on the other hand, stands almost exactly as it was when the employees cleared out suddenly in 1988 when an FBI investigation came to town–cigarettes in ashtrays, awful shag carpets, and all. The only addition to the Oasis is a small army of mannequins posed around the establishment, wearing the lingerie that the inhabitants left behind. My darling partner, Jayel Draco, took photos at both places, which were featured along with the article to give you a taste of these two different experiences.

Touring these museums really did a number on my brain. Sure, everyone knows about the Old West brothel in the abstract–gunslingers and cowboys and Indians and all that, right? But few of us know how long some of these institutions continued to serve their communities. By the time both brothels closed, prostitution in their respective home states was strictly illegal, but the services provided by the women who worked there were considered valuable to the towns in which they prospered. Sex work wasn’t seen as a dirty secret or a public menace. In fact, according to a book I bought about prostitution in Wallace, most people saw the brothels as important parts of the town’s history, economy, and wellness. They claimed that the red light district kept crime down and tourist money flowing. The women who worked there were important parts of the local culture and economy, who were often described as generous, friendly, and “perfectly ladylike.”

It’s interesting to think that in states that are now staunchly red, such liberal ideas once flourished. And not so very long ago, either. And it’s even more interesting to realize that these brothels contributed to the early days of white settlement in America. That settlement relied on genocide–both cultural and more literal–to take place in the first place, and it’s important to keep that in mind when doing any historical thinking about this region of the country, particularly. The histories we know were mostly written by white guys who valued military conquests and money over the day-to-day workings of the American frontier, so we don’t often hear about the slow suffocation of Native American cultures that went on for most of the time that these brothels operated. Nor do we hear about the brothels themselves, or the women who flocked to them for the money, the adventure, and the opportunity. But these lesser-discussed truths helped to make America what it is today, for better or worse. I’m so glad that brothel museums like the Dumas and the Oasis are out there to help preserve their memory.

If you’re interested in learning more about this terribly under-studied aspect of American history, I highly recommend the works of Jay Moynahan, who has spent his career documenting the lesser-known aspects of the Old West in works like Soiled Doves, Pioneer Prostitutes, and the Red Light Revelations series.

And don’t forget to read my article at MEL!

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