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Which San Francisco Streets are Named After Famous Prostitutes?

HouseOfPleasures3Maybe you’ve heard the rumor that some San Francisco streets are named after famous female courtesans of the Gold Rush era. It’s true! But only in a couple of cases. We busted out our history books, mythbusters and trips to the San Francisco Library History Center to determine which San Francisco streets are named after prostitutes and which streets are named after your typical garden variety non-sex-working socialite females of the 1860s.

A NOTE ABOUT HISTORICAL ACCURACY

It is not possible to prove whether or not a person ever took money for sex 150 years ago. Furthermore, prostitution was fully legal at the time and one or two occasions of taking money for sex did not make you a prostitute. In fact, letting a wealthier man pay for sex with your wife was a perfectly acceptable way for men to get ahead in the female-starved San Francisco of the Gold Rush era. Some of the women named below have established historical records as famous sex workers. But any street-eponymous woman with no historical record of sex work will be given the lily white designation of “Not a Prostitute” on this list.

A NOTE ABOUT THE WORD “PROSTITUTE”

These days they prefer to be called “sex workers”. I respect that. But by citing historical law and record, I cannot write this article without using that word. My sincere apologies to anyone I’m offending by referring to 1860s-era sex workers as “prostitutes”.

So which SF streets are and are not named after Gold Rush-era prostit— sex workers?

MINNA STREET

Named After a Prostitute?: YES

Minna

Only surviving photos of Minna Rae Simpson, via http://exploresanfrancisco.tumblr.com/

It was exciting to get confirmation that Minna St. was indeed named after a popular sex worker of the era! It dampened my excitement to see this news is  from her 1875 memoir My Life as a Child Prostitute.

Her name full name was Minna Rae Simpson. No copies of her memoir still exist today. It was ghostwritten anonymously, probably by one of her male clients. While the book was used as a rallying point by temperance and anti-sex work campaigns of the WWI era, Minna remained a prominent local courtesan into her adulthood. Some elected official liked Minna enough to name a street for her in the 1870s that still bears her name today.

MAIDEN LANE

Named After a Prostitute?: NO

HouseOfPleasures1

Image: “House of Pleasures”, IFC Films 2011

Maiden Lane was indeed the Ground Zero brothel district of the Barbary Coast era. But it was called Morton Street at the time. The current “Maiden Lane” name was not applied until after the 1906 earthquake, when the brothels and everything else on Morton St. were destroyed. The rebuilt street was named after another larger Maiden Lane in New York that has no historical sex trade connections and just happens to be called “Maiden Lane”.

CORA STREET

Named After a Prostitute?: YES

HouseOfPleasures2

Image: “House of Pleasures”, IFC Films 2011

Belle Cora was technically a madam, not a courtesan. But that’s still sex work. She flourished as San Francisco’s most successful madam and is buried in the venerable Mission Dolores cemetery.

OCTAVIA STREET, CLEMENTINA STREET, CLARA STREET

Named After a Prostitute?: NO

Wimmin$prostitutes-salon

Image: San Francisco Library History Center

These streets are named after wives, sisters and daughters of powerful Gold Rush-era landowners. But these women have no historical record of sex work.

As Melissa Gira Grant writes at Alternet the first law against sex work was the Mann Act of 1910, known as the “white slave traffic act” (funny, most US human trafficking victims at the time weren’t white but were Latina or Chinese). By the end of World War I, prostitution was illegal in nearly all of America and streets were no longer being named for sex workers.

We should note that sex work was a squalid life at the time, often involving syphilis and a short life span. Women with streets named after them were able to work on a separate level of advantage through birthright and wealth.  We still should celebrate their legacies, just as we should celebrate the legacies of the women who were not sex workers. They made their names in a San Francisco whose culture was completely male-dominated, a struggle that female San Franciscans can still probably relate to in our tech bro San Francisco of today.

 

 

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Joe Kukura- Millionaire in Training

Joe Kukura- Millionaire in Training

Joe Kukura is a two-bit marketing writer who excels at the homoerotic double-entendre. He is training to run a full marathon completely drunk and high, and his work has appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal on days when their editors made particularly curious decisions.

  • Guest

    Why apologize? A ho is a ho.

  • I was stoked when I saw this and then immediately bummed to find out Clara St. is not named after a sex worker.

  • murfle

    So you claim you can’t write this without referring to them as “prostitutes”, but then go on to refer to them as sex workers for the majority of the piece. Presumably, you’re just deliberately trying to be a dick to sex workers, which is pretty obnoxious behavior.

  • devon_Chulick

    I knew this was gonna happen.