May 14, 2020

In the Library: Uncovering History Series, A Dance Hall Girl, Part 3

Our new blog series “In the Library: Uncovering History” will give you a glimpse into the world of the CHS researcher. Each week we will post a piece from a different writer about their experience—what they were seeking and, in particular, what they discovered. Without them, and without the thousands of manuscripts, photographs, maps, books, periodicals, and ephemera that make up the CHS collection, how many California histories would remain hidden, out of sight, and perhaps out of mind? First up is Tom O’Donnell three-part series for CHS on the hidden voices of San Francisco’s working women in the early 1900s.

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In the Library: Uncovering History Series, A Dance Hall Girl, Part 3


Tom O’Donnell’s three-part series for CHS on the hidden voices of San Francisco’s working women in the early 1900s is based on the weeks of research he did at the CHS library – delving into boxes containing the League of Women Voters records and the papers of former mayor, James Rolph Jr. The James Rolph papers alone comprise over 100 boxes of manuscript material spanning the years 1904–1934. His tenure as mayor of San Francisco (1912–1931) included many major events and issues that impacted the city, such as the continued rebuilding after the 1906 earthquake and fire, the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, World War I, the 1918 influenza epidemic, and business and labor relations. Also documented in his papers and those of the League of Women Voters are the many voices involved in the “cleanup” of the Barbary Coast in the first several decades of the twentieth century. It was amongst these that Tom found the “Dance Hall Girl” letters that helped him tell the story of some of those hidden histories.

A Dance Hall Girl, Part 3

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this miniseries, we have seen two examples of the response by working women in the Barbary Coast affected by the September, 1913 Police Commission order to separate drinking and dancing. Hundreds of women worked in the saloons and dance halls earning a commission on the drinks they sold. For a brief moment, they lost control over the terms of their employment. But they did not simply accept defeat and become housecleaners as some reformers had hoped; in fact, they adapted in ways which, in the end, did not dramatically alter those terms of employment.

Despite the reluctance voiced by some toward Police Commissioner Roche’s suggestion that the clubwomen of the city try to help the dance hall workers, the San Francisco Center almost immediately took up the cause of trying to find the women new jobs.[1] However, they did not fare well. According to a summary of their efforts, the police visited the dance halls and took down the names, ages, and addresses “of about three hundred of the girls” that they then passed along to the Center to contact and offer assistance.[2] Warned by the police that they “would not be received kindly” because the workers “blamed the clubwomen for the closing of the Coast, and resented it bitterly,” SFC members tried to convince the workers that they were not “a clubwoman or reformer,” merely a “friend,” a ruse, based on the response they received, that only seemed convincing to the women of the Center.

A handwritten list of those names titled, “Dance Hall girls interviewed who refused aid,” recorded the responses they received (or did not) from fifty three of the women. Most of the addresses they followed up on were bogus, others responded “prefers night life” or “intends to remain in dance halls.” At least two responses were recorded as “will go into sporting life,” which could have meant prostitution, but seems at least as likely to refer to earning an income in the city’s commercialized leisure sites using their sexuality in ways short of prostitution.

List of “Dance Hall girls interviewed who refused aid.” Read the full list here.

The problems the reformers faced finding new lines of work did not end there. Most workers demanded such a high wage that the clubwomen knew there was little they could do. Often the best they had to offer were employers willing to hire a housekeeper or “kitchen mechanic.” In one case, a clubwoman tried to recruit a woman to work as a billing clerk but when she approached a former dance hall worker, she was told “She was going into the sporting life. She felt that this position would not bring her more than $40 or $50 a month, and even if it paid her $60, she could earn so much more money in the dance halls.”

No small concern for many dance hall workers as both letter writers made clear was their need to support dependents. Rather than working for “pin money” or to dress in the latest fashion (common accusations made by those who objected to young women in the work force), SFC volunteers acknowledged that “Many of those assisted have invalid husbands and children to support.” (Note, for example, on the hand-written list of workers, the number of women who are titled “Mrs.”) For many of the dance hall workers, their rejection of the Center’s assistance and unwillingness to “reform” was born of economic necessity and the opportunity to meet those needs through employment in the city’s growing commercialized amusements.

The clubwomen felt assured in the sincerity and righteousness of their endeavor and thus seemed mostly at a loss to understand the resistance they encountered. The summary of their efforts grasped at several explanations, all of which blamed the working women to different degrees. Fear that they had been “branded” or “fallen” from their line of work and thus no longer welcome in “respectable” society left some working women with little hope that they might be redeemed. Increasingly, however, the women in these urban, nightlife endeavors (as employees or patrons) did not share the same value system around sexuality. The clubwomen noted that these women of “the underworld” had “friends, certain customs, manners and dress” that reflected different “codes and principles” from those who proclaimed themselves “respectable.”

The contrast between the concerns of the reformers and the workers signaled a cultural shift that emerged from a generational divide. The reforming class of San Francisco operated within the confines of a Victorian-era sexual ideology that prized female purity. Certainly, Rolph’s petitioner expressed a concern about being accepted by the socio-economic class the clubwomen moved in, but most of the talk about “fallen women” and “loose morals” came from the clubwomen themselves, projecting a concern these dance hall workers simply did not feel. Describing the attitudes of the young women who worked in the dance halls, they noted with perhaps more honesty then they intended that “the dancing, music and gayety, also the careless freedom of ‘not being under a boss’” was a preferable form of employment. In San Francisco in the early twentieth century, indeed, around the country, young working women failed to share older values concerning sex and did not judge too harshly the notion of enjoying a night of dancing and drinking in a heterosocial crowd.[3]

Unidentified author to San Francisco Center, September 24, 1913, LWV, folder “Public Dance Halls,” CHS. Read the full text here.

Other explanations were less sociological and more moralistic. Describing them as “poor deluded creatures,” these young workers were subservient to the “sensuality, drink and sin” of the Barbary Coast and unaware of “the awful bondage they are subject to.” In their single-minded focus “to take every cent from the man visiting the Coast,” they claimed a woman could make “hundreds” of dollars a night but lost it to liquor and “paramours” just as fast. The problem they felt was a lack of self control to resist the “glitter and so-called fun” of this “other world” that kept them in a state of “bondage.” It seems unlikely that the low opinion held by the clubwomen towards the workers could have been anything but obvious to all involved. In one of the most honest and evocative statements I have read by the reforming class towards the objects of their reform, the author of the Center’s summary described here completed her report by hoping and praying “that some of our efforts, which seemingly failed, were not pearls cast before swine.” Indeed “no amount of persuasion, or even argument” could induce most of the women to so easily give up their lucrative employment. They openly vowed to continue their former line of work “as long as the dance halls on the Coast kept open.” And, in fact, they eventually became part of an entirely new form of commercial leisure, the “taxi-dance hall,” specifically invented to skirt the police order.[4]

Make sure to read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

[1] The San Francisco Center of the California Civic League was founded by the College Equal Suffrage League immediately after suffrage was granted to the state’s women in 1911. In 1920, feminist Carrie Chapman Catt encouraged the California Civic League to merge with the recently formed League of Women Voters and in 1921 they adopted the name California Civic League of Women Voters. Their name was later changed in 1925 to the California League of Women Voters, and to the League of Women Voters of California in 1946.

[2] Letter to Miss Howard, October 9, 1913, and “Dance Hall girls cases. Report of Mary L. Sweeney [hand-written],” December 1, 1913, LWV, folder “Public Dance Halls,” CHS.

[3] A number of excellent histories have been written about working women and changes in attitudes toward sexuality in the early twentieth century. Sharon R. Ullman examines this issue looking at issues from Sacramento, Sex Seen: The Emergence of Modern Sexuality in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Mary E. Odem uses sources from Alameda county, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); several classic monographs include Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Joanne J. Meyerowitz, Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930. Women in Culture and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986).

[4] Unidentified author to San Francisco Center, September 24, 1913, LWV, folder “Public Dance Halls,” CHS.