I didn’t expect that a trip to Alaska this past summer would become an ongoing tour of brothel museums, but it did. Along with spectacular scenery, bountiful wildlife, and delicious food, Alaska tourism served up plenty of quirky history. Casting prostitutes and madams of the gold rush era as heroic female entrepreneurs who purveyed both sex and alcohol, which were scarce and valuable leisure commodities, these museums demonstrate how the act of deeming behaviors or practices “historic” can sanitize them for present-day audiences.
My first stop was Dolly’s House Museum, located on Creek Street in Ketchikan, Alaska, where the former red-light district has been reimagined as a tourist attraction. Women in period garb stood outside the building, inviting passers-by to come in. Although my two young sons have accompanied me on many museum tours, this time I let them stay with other family members and went inside by myself. The tour guide provided an orientation in the “men’s waiting room,” emphasizing how prosperous Dolly Arthur, the proprietor of the house, became from selling both her favors and bootleg liquor. Her rate was $3, with an additional $1 charge for a half shot of alcohol and $2 for a full shot. The tour guide contrasted these amounts with the daily wage of $1 earned by most miners at that time. The tour was self-guided through the remaining rooms, where video screens and accompanying text recounted Dolly’s life story and other details about prostitution and local history in Ketchikan.
Although there were no hands-on activities or interactive exhibits, the museum had a certain liveliness, showcasing Dolly’s personality and witticisms, and exhibiting cases were full of her clothing, hats, and other artifacts. Dolly’s House came to be known as the place “where you could get hammered and nailed.” Dolly is also quoted as having said, “If I ain’t in my house, I ain’t making no money.” Even the tagline for the house museum today – “Dolly’s Little Place of Business Where Both the Men and the Salmon Came up Stream to Spawn” – is highly suggestive. The gift shop sells T-shirts with that slogan, as well as postcards with a portrait of a glamorous Dolly in silhouette and the declaration, implicitly attributed to her, “If you can’t find your husband…He’s in here!” The overall tone of the museum conveyed respect for Dolly’s business acumen and determination, leavened by sexual humor, as when the tour guide told me to make sure to notice the rosettes on the shower curtain, sewn by Dolly from French condoms because why waste silk?