Barbary Coast Sex: Satisfaction Guaranteed

Barbary Coast Sex: Satisfaction GuaranteedIt’s not very often when a madam guarantees you’ll have the best sex of your life. Or at least so satisfying you’ll walk out of there thinking your twenty-five cents was very well spent. Such was the case in Barbary Coast-era San Francisco. Having walked from the Old Mint, the beginnings of the Barbary Coast trail, across wide Market Street (the city’s answer to the Champs Elysées), past the tourists queuing for a cable car on Powell Street, and, finally, across Union Square, I found myself standing on Maiden Lane. In the 1870s this narrow street, stretching from Union Square to Kearney Street, was the home of 1,000 prostitutes. Their houses of ill repute were called cribs.

I stood there trying to imagine the topless women hanging out of first-floor windows, yelling “Touch one breast for ten cents, two breasts for fifteen cents, or come on in for twenty-five cents.”

The men were encouraged to hang up their clothes in a closet. And once the they were, uh, preoccupied with their lady, a colleague from another room would remove the back panel of the closet and take the rest of the John’s cash.

I joined up with a walking tour on Maiden Lane. Sponsored in part by the San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco City Guides gives free tours throughout the city. This particular one, called “Bawdy & Naughty” focused on Barbary Coast-era prostitutes. Specifically, though, on Maiden Lane, today a posh pedestrianized street flanked by Chanel, Prada, Paul Smith, and Hermes shops.

The guide, John Ferriera, walked the group (of which there was a guy who bore a striking resemblance to everyone’s favorite news pontificator and Mexican immigration lover, Lou Dobbs) down the two-block street, regaling us with salacious stories of 19th-century San Francisco. As we stood in front of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building at #140, Ferriera told us about Bertha Kahn, a famous Maiden Lane madam who coined the term “Satisfaction guaranteed.” If you weren’t satisfied with your amorous encounter, she’d give you a token to come back and try again.


Today, randy San Franciscans can go to the Tenderloin to pretend they’re in Barbary Coast-era Maiden Lane. It’s highly doubtful, however, that anyone there is putting a guarantee on satisfaction. And it certainly will cost you more than twenty-five cents.