French Women in Gold Rush Days

The vast majority of people who poured into San Francisco during the early days of the Gold Rush were men. They had only one goal in mind: to strike it rich at the mines and then return to their families. In reality, few of them earned enough money to buy a boat ticket home. It was not long before this disproportionate male population attracted women--most of them prostitutes--from all over the world. According to a memoir left by Frenchman Albert Benard de Russailh, the most sought after women were those from France.

When I first arrived here [March 1851], there were only ten or twelve French women in San Francisco, but quite a number of American women had been here for some time, and were living in attractive houses with a certain amount of comfort and even luxury. They all had come from New York, New Orleans, Washington, or Philadelphia and had the stiff carriage typical of women in those cities. Men would look hopefully at them in the streets, at least men who had just come to California, but they much preferred the French women, who had the charm of novelty. Americans were irresistibly attracted by their graceful walk, their supple and easy bearing, and charming freedom of manner, qualities, after all, only to be found in France; and they trooped after a French woman whenever she put her nose out of doors, as if they could never see enough of her.

If the poor fellows had known what these women had been in Paris, how one could pick them up on the boulevards and have them for almost nothing, they might not have been so free with their offers of $500 or $600 a night. A little knowledge might have cooled them down a bit. But I'm sure the women were flattered by so much attention. Some of the first in the field made enough in a month to go home to France and live on their incomes; but many were not so lucky, and one still meets a few who have had a bad time and who are no better off financially than the day they stepped ashore. No doubt, they were blind to their own wrinkles and faded skins, and were too confident in their ability to deceive Americans regarding the dates on their birth-certificates.

Many ships have reached San Francisco during the past three or four months, and the number of women in town has greatly increased, but a woman is still sought after and earns a lot of money. Nearly all the saloons and gambling-houses employ French women. They lean on the bars, talking and laughing with the men, or sit at the card tables and attract players. Some of them walk about with trays of cigars hanging in front of them; others caterwaul for hours beside pianos, imagining they are singing like Madame Stoltz. Occasionally, you find one who hides her real business and pretends to be a dressmaker or a milliner; but most of them are quite shameless, often scrawling their names and reception-hours in big letters on their doors.

The above is an extract of an account in Malcolm E. Barker's book, San Francisco Memoirs 1835-1851: Eyewitness accounts of the birth of a city (Londonborn Publications, San Francisco 1994.

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