By: David C. Humphrey

Type: General Entry

Published: January 1, 1996

Updated: January 7, 2021

Prostitution has long been a feature of the Texas social landscape. In 1817, when Texas was still a Spanish province, nine prostitutes were expelled from San Fernando de Béxar (San Antonio). Spanish-speaking prostitutes resided in San Antonio from its early days under Texan rule. Anglo prostitutes joined them during the 1840s and 1850s, and by 1865 both groups were entrenched. Galveston had prostitutes from its beginning in the 1830s, while the city of Houston was barely three years old when, in 1839, a local newspaper decried the town's houses of ill fame. Gen. Zachary Taylor's army was catered to by prostitutes during its eight-month stay in the Corpus Christi area before invading Mexico in 1846, and in 1850 an observer noted that the newly incorporated town of Brownsville was "infected with lewd and abandoned women" who kept "dens of corruption." Indianola and Jefferson, on the other hand, survived their first years relatively free of prostitution, but during the 1850s an influx of prostitutes spurred both towns to pass ordinances suppressing bawdy houses. Prostitution was thus not an uncommon phenomenon in antebellum Texas, but neither was it rampant. In many communities it was either unknown or occurred on such a small scale that little public notice was taken.

From the Civil War to World War I, especially from 1870 to 1910, prostitution flourished in Texas as elsewhere. Each of the state's eight largest cities developed at least one vice district encompassing several city blocks-"Guy Town" in Austin, "Frogtown" and "Boggy Bayou" in Dallas, the Utah Street reservation in El Paso, "Hell's Half Acre " in Fort Worth, the Postoffice Street district in Galveston, "Happy Hollow" in Houston, the "District" in San Antonio, and "Two Street" in Waco. The vice zones, usually located within a few blocks of the downtown business district and the railroad depot, featured saloons, gambling houses, and prostitutes who worked mainly in bawdy houses and shack-like cribs but also in dance halls and variety theaters. At a price of twenty-five cents to three or even five dollars, prostitutes attracted local residents from all walks of life and an array of visitors that, while varying from town to town, generally embraced sizable numbers of cowboys, farm hands, other laborers, ranchers, businessmen, conventioneers, soldiers, politicians, students, gamblers, and drifters. In El Paso and San Antonio, and undoubtedly in other cities, some prostitutes had pimps, but brothel prostitutes were managed and protected primarily by madams. Prostitution also became common on the Texas frontier after the Civil War. It thrived at army forts, in cow towns and railroad towns, and at other gathering points. From the late 1860s to the 1880s soldiers stationed at federal military posts in West Texas and along the Mexican border generated a lively commerce in prostitution. Camp laundresses sometimes doubled as prostitutes, and prostitutes also congregated at the sordid settlements that sprang up near such army posts as Saint Angela (the future San Angelo), across the Concho River from Fort Concho, and "the Flat" below Fort Griffin. Elsewhere in West Texas the spread of prostitution reflected the burgeoning ranching industry and the expanding railroad network. The construction of the Texas and Pacific Railroad precipitated the founding in the early 1880s of Abilene, Colorado, and Big Spring, three ranching centers where saloons, gambling dens, and prostitutes attracted cowhands and other West Texans from throughout the region. In the Panhandle during the 1880s the boisterous but short-lived cattle towns of Tascosa and Mobeetie drew numerous cowboys to their vice districts, "Hog Town" and "Feather Hill," respectively. During the 1890s Amarillo became a major cattle-shipping center and home to a wide-open red-light district. Prostitution flourished in fast-growing communities elsewhere in Texas between 1870 and 1910. In Denison, Texarkana, Palestine, and Laredo, an upsurge in prostitution accompanied the economic boom triggered in each town by the coming of the railroad during the 1870s and 1880s. In Beaumont, Gladys City (near Spindletop), Humble, and the Big Thicket hamlets of Sour Lake, Saratoga, and Batson, the first major oil boom in the state attracted a swarm of prostitutes during the initial decade of the twentieth century. Catering primarily to oilfield workers, some 200 prostitutes crowded into Batson alone at the peak of the boom, many of them working in bawdy houses on the town's main street.

Although the managers of Texas brothels during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries included a good many well-known madams-Blanche Dumont in Austin and Mary Porter in Fort Worth, for instance-most prostitutes labored in relative obscurity. They ranged in age from the teens to the sixties but were usually in their twenties. They were frequently on the go, prompted to move by the cyclical and seasonal fortunes of Texas towns and by recurrent surges of antivice activity. Some worked part-time while holding other jobs or engaged intermittently in prostitution when money was short. At any one time, several of the larger cities in the state probably had more than 100 prostitutes each during the 1880s and at least two to three times that number by 1910.

Both White and Black women figured prominently among Texas prostitutes. In Austin half or more of the prostitutes during the 1880s and 1890s were White, most of them born in the United States, while about 40 percent were Blacks and some 7 percent Hispanics. In Houston in 1917, 60 percent of the women who headed households of prostitutes in the vice reservation were Anglo, 35 percent Black, and 5 percent Hispanic. Hispanic prostitutes were more common in San Antonio, El Paso, and Laredo, at army forts in West and South Texas, and generally in communities closer to the Mexican border. Anglo and Black prostitutes lived and worked near each other in vice districts, but race had a significant bearing on how the districts operated. Whites predominated in brothels, while Blacks predominated in cribs. Most bawdy houses maintained color separation in their employees, and Anglo houses refused as a rule to accommodate Black men. On the other hand, many White men patronized Black as well as White prostitutes.

Regardless of ethnicity, the life of Texas prostitutes was hard. Though prostitution paid better than most jobs open to women, few prostitutes prospered. Most were poor or not far from it, owned little personal property, and were beset by the ever-present threats of violence, venereal disease, and harassment by city officials. Many prostitutes used such drugs as opium, morphine, and cocaine, not uncommonly to commit suicide.

Many Texas communities routinely passed ordinances outlawing prostitution during the nineteenth century but paid only sporadic attention to them, influenced as their leaders were by the conventional wisdom that prostitution was ineradicable and therefore might as well be controlled. Community officials also had a keen appreciation of the hefty fines and rents prostitutes paid and the legions of male consumers they lured to town. Towns thus condoned prostitution under certain conditions. Prostitutes were commonly expected to work within vice districts, maintain fairly low profiles, and acquiesce in regular assessments of fines. Waco, El Paso, Dallas, and Houston experimented with legal vice zones. Waco enacted ordinances by 1889 that not only provided for licensing of prostitutes and bawdy houses and required medical examinations, but also explicitly legalized prostitution within a precisely defined district. The system lasted about a dozen years. Despite the accommodation with prostitution in many towns between 1870 and 1910, the era was also marked by periodic outbursts of antiprostitution fervor. Often leading the way were crusading ministers, reform-minded politicians, women's church groups, and angry citizens provoked by the encroachment of prostitution upon their neighborhoods. Before 1910 the reformers' success in eliminating prostitution in larger cities was nil, but between 1911 and 1915 antiprostitution groups waged a more sustained and successful campaign that shut down vice districts in Dallas, Austin, and Amarillo. Vice zones in other cities survived the assault, as entrenched political groups, some policemen, many businessmen, and liquor and vice interests backed the districts. These supporters contended that eliminating vice districts would only disperse prostitutes into other parts of town, beyond the control of the police. In 1917 antiprostitution crusaders gained a powerful ally in Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, who ordered that American soldiers training for the First World War be protected from prostitution and venereal disease. To Texas cities that already had substantial military camps, such as El Paso, San Antonio, and Galveston, and to those that wanted them, such as Fort Worth, Waco, and Houston, the War Department minced no words: close your vice districts and enforce antiprostitution laws or suffer the consequences. Between March and August 1917, Fort Worth, Houston, El Paso, Galveston, San Antonio, and Waco officially shut down their vice districts and stepped up arrests of prostitutes, although they by no means eliminated prostitution.

World War I was barely over when prostitution entered a new phase, marked by the persistence of red-light districts and traditional bawdy houses yet also by the increasing frequency of other forms of prostitution. During the 1920s and 1930s it became more common for prostitutes to work in hotels, apartments, and roominghouses and to communicate with customers by telephone. Prostitutes also adapted to the automobile by cruising the streets for clients, arranging with taxi drivers to supply customers, and working in roadhouses that sprang up just outside city limits. Red-light districts operated in a variety of cities and towns during the 1920s and 1930s, among them Beaumont, Borger, Corpus Christi, Corsicana, Dallas, El Paso, Galveston, San Angelo, and San Antonio. Galveston came closest to maintaining the turn-of-the century vice district; more than fifty Anglo brothels and at least two Hispanic brothels, housing a total of more than 300 prostitutes, were in operation there in 1929; 150 to 200 Black prostitutes worked in houses and cribs on adjacent streets and in the alleys. In all, Galveston had some 800 to 900 prostitutes in 1929. The vice district in San Antonio, by contrast, deteriorated like many such districts in the nation between the two world wars. Higher-priced prostitutes abandoned the district to operate as call girls in hotels, and many of the larger brothels closed down. Wretched slum housing, violence, and petty crime proliferated. The Great Depression brought additional women into the trade, drove down prices, and left many prostitutes on the edge of survival. By the late 1930s hundreds of low-priced prostitutes, charging from $.25 to $1.50, walked the streets and solicited from their jerry-built, one-room cribs. In the city as a whole in 1939 there were at least 2,000 prostitutes. Roughly 40 percent were Hispanic and 40 percent Anglo. Overall, prostitution in the older cities during the 1920s and 1930s was marked by a far greater variation from town to town than had been the case between 1870 and 1910.

Prostitution reached its most frenetic pace during the interwar years in the oil boomtowns. Thronged with single men earning relatively high wages, towns such as Borger in the Panhandle, Wink and McCamey in West Texas, and Kilgore in East Texas attracted dozens of prostitutes who moved with the tide of workers from one boomtown to another. Borger had 300 prostitutes when law officers raided the town in 1929. Prostitution continued to pay comparatively well for many women. Higher-priced prostitutes charged in the three-to-five-dollar range, but even a lower-priced crib prostitute in San Antonio earned more from a single customer a day than from steady work at hand sewing or pecan shelling. The road to prosperity was littered with many obstacles, however. During the depression desperate women flooded the market at a time when men had less money to spend. The best-known madam in La Grange started accepting chickens instead of cash as payment, and thus the infamous Chicken Ranch got its name. In addition, the high cost of doing business cut sharply into income. Prostitutes working in brothels and hotels routinely turned over half or so of their earnings to madams and hotel managers. Pimps, who became far more common during the interwar years than before 1910, also took a hefty cut. Many towns engaged in erratic, heavy-handed law enforcement that disrupted business; police raids were far more frequent and less predictable than prior to 1910.

Although towns stepped up their policing during the interwar years to control prostitution and associated criminal activities such as bootlegging, there was little crusading reminiscent of the Progressive era. Toleration was the only practical response, claimed city officials in Austin, Galveston, Corpus Christi, and El Paso. It took World War II to generate a massive attack on prostitution, based on the renewed fear that venereal disease threatened the fitness of the military. Base commanders asked Texas towns to crack down on prostitution and usually threatened to put uncooperative communities off limits. Many towns acquiesced, including Austin, Beaumont, Corpus Christi, El Paso, Galveston, and San Antonio. Nevertheless, prostitutes endured in Texas cities, finding as the war progressed that local officials were unable or unwilling to put them out of business entirely. The end of the war brought a resurgence of prostitution in many Texas communities, but the imprint of its nineteenth-century past became fainter than ever during the decade from 1945 to 1955. Openly tolerated red-light districts virtually disappeared. So did cribs. Traditional bawdy houses, another mainstay of vice districts, grew increasingly atypical, though they persisted longer in Texas than in most other parts of the country. Many Texas prostitutes operated in hotels (especially cheap ones), motels, tourist courts, massage parlors, cafes, taverns, and barrooms. The extent of prostitution varied from town to town and fluctuated markedly within individual communities. Although Dallas officials tolerated prostitution at a moderate level, Houston authorities successfully instituted a policy of repression during the early 1950s. So did officials in Corpus Christi, Harlingen, Amarillo, and Lubbock between 1951 and 1954; the last two towns thus reversed long-term policies of acceptance. Some cities, such as Port Arthur, played hide-and-seek with antiprostitution critics, cleaning up during periods of bad publicity but relaxing their vigilance as soon as interest subsided.

By far the two most infamous centers of prostitution in Texas during the post-war years were San Antonio and especially Galveston. "If God couldn't stop prostitution, why should l?" queried the mayor of Galveston who held the post from 1947 to 1955. The mayor wanted Galveston wide open, and so did his allies and supporters, among them the city's powerful racketeers, the graft-ridden police department, and much of the citizenry, who believed that the local economy depended on maintaining a reputation for unimpeded gambling, drinking, and prostitution. In 1955 a leading national antiprostitution organization branded Galveston the "worst spot in the nation as far as prostitution is concerned." Antiprostitution forces encountered less resistance in other towns but still found their job a difficult one. When civic and religious groups, newspaper editors, and representatives from nearby military bases and national antiprostitution organizations turned on the pressure, police chiefs and other city officials pleaded a shortage of policemen, difficulty getting convictions, and weak county law enforcement that permitted unchecked vice just outside the city limits. Often underlying ineffective law enforcement were strong political pressures to go easy on vice, payoffs to policemen by vice interests, and faint public support for repression. Nevertheless, proponents of repression made significant headway during the 1950s. They publicized flagrant conditions, generated public concern, and joined forces with cooperative political and law-enforcement officials, including a number of police chiefs. In 1957 they gained a powerful ally in Texas attorney general Will Wilson, whose office led the way in breaking the back of the Galveston racketeers. Legal and media pressure forced many brothels to close and set the volume of prostitution on a downward course that continued into the 1960s. Wilson's office also pressed local law-enforcement officials into curbing prostitution in Big Spring, Cuero, Texarkana, and Victoria, although the Chicken Ranch at La Grange proved untouchable. In Beaumont and Port Arthur a thorough housecleaning ensued when the Texas House General Investigating Committee uncovered evidence in 1960 that prostitution operated openly and with immunity from law enforcement.

Prostitution remained a seemingly never-ending law-enforcement problem for police officials at the opening of the 1960s. Yet the fact that it was such a problem reflected an increased commitment to curbing it, not an increase in prostitution itself. The volume of prostitution actually declined during the 1950s and by 1960 was substantially below the level of the interwar years. Few city officials contended any longer that vice districts were an acceptable way to deal with prostitution and venereal disease. The practice was far from moribund, however. In 1977 some 200 prostitutes known to the police were working in El Paso. In 1983 a police spokesman in Austin stated that prostitution was "prevalent throughout the city." Most visible were the street prostitutes in Texas cities, including by the 1970s male homosexual prostitutes. Call girls also operated in significant numbers but much more discreetly. Other prostitutes worked most commonly in bars, hotels, and massage parlors but still were found on rare occasion in houses of prostitution, such as Theresa Brown's well-known establishment in San Antonio. Street prostitutes usually charged in the $5-to-$20 range during the 1970s, while call girls charged $50 to $100 and more. City officials during the 1970s and early 1980s hardly expected to extinguish prostitution, given their limited legal tools, scarce resources, and the escalating burden of other crime. Instead they sought to keep prostitution in check, focusing on its publicly offensive dimensions, such as solicitations on downtown streets, and on its ties to other criminal activity. The Chicken Ranch was closed in 1973 only after state officials, reacting to media pressure generated by a Houston television station, forced the hand of the local sheriff. Sometimes, as in Dallas in the mid-1970s, the police resources committed to fighting prostitution were so inadequate that prostitution flourished on a scale reminiscent of an earlier age. Public demand for repression continued to be sporadic rather than sustained. During the late twentieth century prostitution thus remained a significant part of the Texas social landscape, even if less pronounced and less openly accepted than earlier in the century.

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H. Gordon Frost, The Gentlemen's Club: The Story of Prostitution in El Paso (El Paso: Mangan, 1983). David C. Humphrey, "Prostitution and Public Policy in Austin, Texas, 1870–1915," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 86 (April 1983). David C. Humphrey, "Prostitution in Texas: From the 1830s to the 1960s," East Texas Historical Journal 33 (1995). Thomas C. Mackey, Red Lights Out: A Legal History of Prostitution, Disorderly Houses, and Vice Districts, 1870–1917 (New York: Garland, 1987). Richard F. Selcer, "Fort Worth and the Fraternity of Strange Women," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 96 (July 1992). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Lawless Activities and Outlawed Activity
  • Women
  • Outlaws, Criminals, Prostitutes, Gamblers, and Rebels

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

David C. Humphrey, “Prostitution,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 25, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1996
January 7, 2021

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: