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Of painted women and patrons: an analysis of personal items and identity at a Victorian-era red light district in Ouray, Colorado




Gensmer, Kristin A., author
Van Buren, Mary, advisor
Carlson, Linda, committee member
Kwaitkowski, Lynn, committee member

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Archaeological investigations of prostitution tend to focus on identifying the presence of females in male spaces and differentiating brothel assemblages from surrounding households. These approaches often focus on upper-class establishments and define prostitutes solely by their labor. Additionally, these scholars neglect the fact that prostitution could not exist without customers. Although often ignored, personal items represent one of the few means of addressing such oversights. In this thesis, I analyze a sample of 948 personal items recovered from the Vanoli Site (5OR30) in conjunction with data gleaned from historic documents including censuses and photographs in order to discuss Victorian-era prostitution in Ouray, Colorado. This project was designed to 1) explore the premise that the prostitute was a performative identity constructed through the manipulation of clothing, accessories, cosmetics, and hygiene by sex workers as part of their work; 2) examine the similarities between prostitutes and other working-class women in Ouray, 3) provide information about the otherwise invisible customers. The personal items and documentary evidence indicate that women and men on the Vanoli block were presenting a clean, well-groomed, and thoroughly working-class appearance. This study concludes that the male patrons defined their larger identities through their labor, and their identities as customers through their interactions with the sex workers, and therefore did not alter their appearances specifically to participate in leisure culture. Furthermore, while prostitutes were using perfumes and hygiene-products to construct a sweet-smelling, healthy appearance, they were not wearing specialized make up or clothing as part of their labor. Instead of using personal items to alter their physical appearance to create the performative identity of the prostitute, these women constructed their identities in leisure culture through their participation in prostitution and through their work. My results emphasize the importance of including personal items in examinations of prostitution in order to further dispel the stereotypical image of the Wild West.


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personal item
red light


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