I didn’t expect that a trip to Alaska this past summer would become an ongoing tour of brothel museums, but it did. Along with spectacular scenery, bountiful wildlife, and delicious food, Alaska tourism served up plenty of quirky history. Casting prostitutes and madams of the gold rush era as heroic female entrepreneurs who purveyed both sex and alcohol, which were scarce and valuable leisure commodities, these museums demonstrate how the act of deeming behaviors or practices “historic” can sanitize them for present-day audiences.
My first stop was Dolly’s House Museum, located on Creek Street in Ketchikan, Alaska, where the former red-light district has been reimagined as a tourist attraction. Women in period garb stood outside the building, inviting passers-by to come in. Although my two young sons have accompanied me on many museum tours, this time I let them stay with other family members and went inside by myself. The tour guide provided an orientation in the “men’s waiting room,” emphasizing how prosperous Dolly Arthur, the proprietor of the house, became from selling both her favors and bootleg liquor. Her rate was $3, with an additional $1 charge for a half shot of alcohol and $2 for a full shot. The tour guide contrasted these amounts with the daily wage of $1 earned by most miners at that time. The tour was self-guided through the remaining rooms, where video screens and accompanying text recounted Dolly’s life story and other details about prostitution and local history in Ketchikan.
Although there were no hands-on activities or interactive exhibits, the museum had a certain liveliness, showcasing Dolly’s personality and witticisms, and exhibiting cases were full of her clothing, hats, and other artifacts. Dolly’s House came to be known as the place “where you could get hammered and nailed.” Dolly is also quoted as having said, “If I ain’t in my house, I ain’t making no money.” Even the tagline for the house museum today – “Dolly’s Little Place of Business Where Both the Men and the Salmon Came up Stream to Spawn” – is highly suggestive. The gift shop sells T-shirts with that slogan, as well as postcards with a portrait of a glamorous Dolly in silhouette and the declaration, implicitly attributed to her, “If you can’t find your husband…He’s in here!” The overall tone of the museum conveyed respect for Dolly’s business acumen and determination, leavened by sexual humor, as when the tour guide told me to make sure to notice the rosettes on the shower curtain, sewn by Dolly from French condoms because why waste silk?
The next stop was the Red Onion Saloon in Skagway, which bills itself “Alaska’s most exclusive brothel.” Whereas Dolly’s is open solely as a house museum today, the Red Onion is a functioning bar and restaurant where one waits for the tour as if waiting for a table. After paying my fee (“$5 for 15 minutes, just like 1898”), I joined a group as we followed the guide up the stairs to begin. The guide emphasized the small size of the rooms, or “cribs,” in which the prostitutes worked, and how they had to send the money they received down to the bar through a system of tubes. Even with these details, however, the overall narrative remained largely celebratory. The guides themselves, as well as the waitresses on the ground floor, were dressed in what I think of as classic Victorian bordello wear, with cash tips tucked in the tops of their corsets. In this, the restaurant reminded me of nothing so much as historical Hooters. They also engaged in suggestive banter with the men in the group. For the miners who indulged at intervals, a visit to Dolly’s or the Red Onion was outside of everyday life. Similarly, this experience today is packaged as a leisure commodity, one where I can consume history itself along with my microbrew and “Gold Rush Chili” (preferring not to order a sandwich called “Harlot” or “Strumpet”).
In these versions of Alaska history, the prostitutes and madams are portrayed as the counterpoint to the largely male miners who flooded into the area at the turn of the twentieth century. Interestingly, these women are presented as more successful than the men ever were. The longevity of Dolly and others, and the extant structures associated with their businesses, convey a sense of permanence and success that contrasts with the failure or even disaster many miners encountered on the Chilkoot Trail in a futile search for gold. The miners who found gold could be profligate in their spending, whereas the prostitutes, especially the madams, are depicted as savvy businesswomen who made a rational choice to become prostitutes in the first place given the limited employment options they faced. They found a way to benefit, financially at least, from the men’s desires, as some of the women were also bootleggers. Many women who were not bootleggers were at least shrewd enough to ensure a substantial cut of the liquor sales in their establishment.
The tour guides today claim a legacy of hard work for these women. For example, the “girls” at Dolly’s House Museum request tips but make sure that visitors understand that the money will go into their college funds. This scrappy and independent female character is so important in the memory of the gold rush era that even a family-friendly musical dinner theater about Alaska history featured a “dancer” who was simply a tamer version of Dolly and her compatriots.
Sex work and binge drinking still go on, of course, perhaps even in those very communities—but if so, they were invisible to me as a tourist with my family. Just as we enjoyed seeing grizzly bears up close from the safety of the tour bus in Denali National Park, so we could gaze at this vice complex through a secure buffer of nostalgia. Memorializing these behaviors in a museum allows us to romanticize what they might have been like in the past and can easily lull us into thinking that they do not continue in the present.