Entertainment in the Old West

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Entertainment in the Old West

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Before the movies, Radio and Television, what did people in the Old West do with their leisure time? What types of entertainment grew out of the West itself? The following pages offer a concise look at some of what may have been available. Not all of it pretty and nice. As always in Old West Daily Reader; History Riders watch where you step…

Brothels, Gambling Hells and such…

We have all seen the Western movie versions of such places and people. It always seems to be the background theme in any story about the West and to some extent it actually was. You want to remember that there were few women in the early west and the majority of the cowboys, miners, freighters and most other workers were young men far from home. Soldiers, as has it always been, had their camp followers and the brothels and hog farms (see: References – Dictionary) sprang up wherever they went. Some even turned into towns and cities. Then too, in many places if not most, the handmaidens of gambling and prostitution were legal. Often the Madames of the parlor houses were respected citizens in the community. Many were noted and lauded for their charity and generosity to women with children who had lost their husbands through accidents at work, out of work miners and the indigent and poor in general. Such stories abound in the West.
Saloons and Dance halls were often owned by prominent men in the community, politicians and businessmen who had a vital interest in entertaining those who brought commerce to their town. The various “facilities”, often contained in a “district” offered a way to provide the services required, earn the money and yet keep the darker side of life somewhat separate from the more genteel, “civilized” folks. Included here is a sampling of the people, places and activities of the Sporting World.

Brothels, Saloons, Dance Halls, Gambling
Doves and Nighthawks
Ladies of the Evening Photos

Theater, Side Shows & Expositions

Early theater in the Old West probably consisted primarily of various forms of bawdy review. Later, more sophisticated entertainment filtered in, as acting companies from both the east and west coasts toured the Terminus Cities, mining camps and cow towns. There was a certain amount of home-grown entertainment as well. The strange show described in Huckleberry Finn might not have been far off the mark at times. Certainly the Shows put on by Ned Buntline, the Ford brothers and that of George Maledon were unusual to say the least. Any growing city had to build an opera house to obtain proper status. Here are a few of the theaters and some of the shows.

Theater Side Shows and Expositions

Rodeos and Wild West Shows

Here we have two different breeds of cats thrown together because the contestants/performers are really the same group of people.
Rodeo is all about skill. Stockmen (cowboys) got together to test and show off the tools and activities of the trade. Gradually, over time, the situation became more formalized and has resulted in Rodeo, amateur and professional as we know it today.
The wild west shows sought to bring the entire set of Western skills and the story of the west to the audiences of the American East and then to Europe. Extravagance and spectacle was the name of the game. Queen Victoria certainly like Buffalo Bill‘s show.

Rodeos and Wild West Shows


The quieter side of Old West personal entertainment is reflected in the book lists and The WEEKS articles on art, books, magazines, and dime novels found throughout The Reader.
Most of the above and the more modern side of things are noted in following lists:

Books used as Reference – many from my own collection; most seem to be available somewhere out there…

Newspapers – some are still around, some aren’t.

Magazines – some are still around, some aren’t.

Websites – usually set up as links to the listed site.

Dictionary – Growin’ well, gettin’ down right useful…

Books Novels & History (non-ref) – Anything noted in the weeks but not in the above Reference listings.


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