Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Ladies Entrance

Ladies Entrance, McKenna's - Philadelphia
The Ladies Entrance

The Ladies Entrance was a side door, typically into a restaurant or tavern, that was intended for use by women patrons. In addition, the ladies entrance was also found at grand hotels and private clubs. It is usually said that the Ladies Entrance came into its own during the Victorian age, but some were still around and in use as late as the 1930s or even beyond.

These entrances and their signs elicit a variety of responses, even from feminists. Mary Jane Lupton seems to feel that these signs essentially signaled to women that you don't really belong here. That while we may admit you into this establishment, you are still an intruder here, unlike the men who sashay through the front door. 

By contrast, Madelon Powers argues that these Ladies Entrances, at least for the saloons, served as valued "portals" that allowed women to "step out" from their front doors--both literally and figuratively--into a world of public drinking and sociability. Moreover, the Ladies Entrance provided several tangible and practical advantages:

Ladies Entrance, Angelo Brocato (a bakery) - New Orleans
If the existence of the 'ladies' entrance' demonstrates that saloons did indeed have their female customers, it also reveals that the saloon trade regarded women as a special and separate class of customer. The purpose of the side door for women appears to have been threefold. First, it permitted them to enter inconspicuously and minimise public scrutiny of their comings and goings, an indication that even those bold enough to patronise saloons remained sensitive to the disapproving glances of their more conservative neighbours and peers. (On some occasions, men wishing to avoid public notice would also use the side entrance).

Second, and perhaps more important, women's entry through the side door eliminated the necessity of their running the gauntlet through the establishment's front room -- the barroom proper -- which in this era was still undisputed male territory with its stand-up bar, spittoons, moustache towels, brass foot rails, and other symbols of 'masculinity emancipate', in the words of journalist Travis Hoke. Adventuresome though most saloon going women were, they were not agitators; their aim was sociability, not social equality, and their stepping out did not include stepping into bar areas where they were not welcome.
Ladies Entrance, Cresson Inn - Philadelphia

Finally, the side door for women afforded them quick and convenient access both to the far end of the bar, where they could purchase carry-out alcohol, and to a second chamber in many saloons which was known as the 'backroom', where they could feast on free lunches and beer, socialise with their dates, attend social events, or watch small-scale vaudeville productions. By means of the ladies' entrance, the saloon trade both facilitated and circumscribed women's participation in saloon culture.

However, I suspect there is yet another dynamic at work here. And that is that on some unconscious level, entryways or portals have a powerful appeal to the human psyche. And when these portals are explicitly identified as a feminine passageway, there is a magical and sometimes even mesmerizing attraction for many women.

Ladies Entrance, Joyland Tavern - rural Pennsylvania

I don't think that it's a coincidence that many of the photographs displayed here and elsewhere on the Internet were taken by women.

There is also historical evidence.

For example, this particular article from 1914 announcing the "death knell"  (or abolition) of Ladies Entrance signs over "doors leading to cafes and wine rooms" within the City of Chicago.

Why such a drastic move?

Because "investigators" alleged that "thousands of girls were being lured into wine rooms every year by deceptive signs and ruined." Women in the gallery cheered when the City ordinance passed unanimously.

Wow. A Ladies Entrance sign had that much sway over women's lives? We can blame mere signage for male violence against women? Admittedly, some of the signage ordinance may have represented a bit of liberal naivete or Progressive Era overkill. 

However, that doesn't change the fact that there was apparently something riveting about a doorway that explicitly invited a lady to pass through.  Or that such a doorway somehow managed to cast a spell on a lot of struggling young women and girls.

And why shouldn't it? It's a very compelling archetypal image. Unfortunately, unscrupulous men within these "wine rooms" were able to exploit that attraction for their own purposes (i.e. rape and prostitution).

I am mostly focusing on Ladies Entrance images from ordinary bars and taverns here.  (If you're still interested, more images can be found on sites like flickr.)  We'll take a look at the fancy and elaborate ladies entrances associated with the fashionable hotels of this era some other time.
Ladies Entrance, unidentified bar - Albany, New York

Ladies Entrance, Nora's Cafe - Camden, New Jersey (1950s)
"Front" doorway, Nora's Cafe - Camden, New Jersey

Ladies Entrance, Jenny's Inn - Scranton, Pennsylvania
Ladies Entrance, South End Tavern - Troy, New York

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