Prostitution in the Mining Community of Wallace, Idaho

In the late-nineteenth century, silver was discovered in northern Idaho and mining quickly became a thriving industry in the region. The town of Wallace, Idaho, was established to meet the needs of the incoming miners to the area. With this influx of young, single men there was a perceived “lack of women.” The few women that were there provided many services to the miners such as laundry, cooking,and sex work.

In the period between the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, silver mining in Wallace, Idaho was in full swing. During this era, many brothels were established. Prostitution contributed a great deal to the economic prosperity of Wallace by meeting miner's desires, contributing to local industry, and providing economic opportunities for women.

Prostitution was central to the economic system of many small mining towns. Wallace recognized this fact and decriminalizing prostitution while remaining illegal at the state level. Prostitution in Wallace was highly regulated to appease the consciousness of some citizens. Houses of prostitution operated with a strict code of conduct, paid taxes, and workers submitted to frequent health examinations. These regulations pacified critics without eliminating the practice of prostitution.

The main argument for the need of prostitution was that it kept other “respectable” women safer from the rugged miners. According to the mayor of Wallace in 1905, prostitution was a “necessary evil” to keep refined women from being raped by uncontrollable male sexuality. Ultimately, by allowing women to participate in sex work, Wallace officials ensured a strong economy. Another major factor that led to community acceptance was the income and tax revenue made by prostitutes. In 1913 “tax revenues form prostitution, gambling and the sale of liquor enabled Wallace to pave its streets and fund a general infrastructure upgrade” making the town better for everyone. Because of regulations put on brothels at the turn of the century, Wallace generated considerable revenue.

Prostitution in this period gave women economic opportunity and even political influence in a society where the same were sometimes limited. The struggles and the risk of disease and pregnancy, however, made it a difficult way to earn a living. At the Oasis brothel, for example, women could have up to sixty customers a night and worked long, unrelenting shifts. The women would also be seen by a doctor weekly to check for diseases and pregnancy. If a prostitute contracted an STD or fell pregnant she could be out of a job. For some, these risks outweighed the economic incentives of sex work while for others, it did not.

Prostitution was not officially criminalized in Wallace until the early 1990s.