In the nineteenth-century American West, sex workers played vital social and economic roles in towns like Hays City, Kansas (now Hays, Kansas). Uncovering their roles in community building can prove challenging due in large part to a lack of surviving written records, particularly for rural locations. What makes this task more daunting is that sex workers frequently used assumed names and were rather transient. The longer one remained in a town, the less exciting they were to clientele. They also lied about their birth years to appear younger and thus, more profitable. Though imperfect, census records can provide a glimpse into the patchwork of locations individual sex workers resided over the course of their career.
When researching Hays City sex workers for “The Frontier Demimonde: Prostitution in Early Hays City, 1867-1883”, I became fascinated with one individual: Nettie Baldwin. Though Baldwin stayed in Hays City for a number of years, she was much more transient prior to her arrival, working in at least four Kansas towns within two years. In fact, she moved so quickly that she appears on two census records for Kansas locations in 1870.
Typically, Kansas census records list no occupation for those engaged in sex work, although some note “house of ill-fame” off to the side of houses of prostitution. The 1870 Junction City, Kansas census, where Nettie Baldwin appears as “Ettie Baldwin,” unusually lists her occupation as “courtezan” [sic]. Leavenworth, Kansas listed the occupations of sex workers as “prostitute.” Like most other cities, however, Hays City, where Baldwin moved by late 1871 or early 1872, listed no occupation for sex workers..
The 1870 census for Ellsworth, Kansas, does list occupations for sex workers, but only for one house, which happened to be the house in which Nettie Baldwin worked. Off to the side of this dwelling, the home of George and Elizabeth Palmer, whose occupations are listed as ‘farmer’ and ‘keeps house’ respectively, the enumerator wrote “house of ill-fame.” This same enumerator wrote “house of ill-fame” on several dwellings in Ellsworth, but this is the only one in which he recorded occupations. In this record, 18-year-old Libby Thompson’s occupation is “diddles.” Harriet Parmenter, a 23-year-old, “does horizontal work.” Lizzie Harries, a 24-year-old, has the occupation of “ogles fools.” Nettie Baldwin, listed as Ettie, “squirms in the dark.”
Since this enumerator left no occupations for any of the other Ellsworth sex workers, we can imagine a playful interaction between the enumerator and these women or perhaps snarky sex workers using colorful expressions and creative word choices to describe their legitimate profession, having a laugh at the expense of the enumerator. Finding the unexpected in the census records not only makes the research fun and exciting, but it also gives a more nuanced look at these women and their interactions in the spaces they occupied. Seeing humor in written records reminds us of the humanity of our subjects and invites us to see nineteenth-century sex work in a new light.
Hollie Marquess is a Lecturer in the Department of History at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas. She teaches the History of Sexuality, LGBTQ+ History, WWII, and Women’s History courses. She has published on the crucial roles sex workers played in the American West. She tweets from @Hollie_Marquess.
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