Barbary Coast Sex: Satisfaction Guaranteed

It’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.

Welcome to San Francisco: The Wildest City in America

…Or so it was in the last half of the 19th Century. This was a different kind of San Francisco. Well, okay, city by the bay is still wild, but not in the same detrimental way. This wasn’t the San Francisco of pot-smoking, orgy-attending crystal-rubbing hippies on Haight. There were no bears getting frisky in Castro bars; no party-till-dawn clubbers in Soma. San Francisco of 150 years ago was filled with petty thieves and prostitutes, sailors and sojourners, Chinese opium smokers and cheats; it was a city of ill repute. And the epicenter of it all was a neighborhood called the Barbary Coast.

Named because the neighborhood’s infamy reminded observers of the dangerous, pirate-swarmed North African waters and the feared Berber cameleers who lingered just off the southern Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast occupied what is today parts of Chinatown, Jackson Square, North Beach, and the Financial District. These days, the area is much more civilized. But there was a time when San Fracisco was the wildest city in America, thanks to the salacious and cut throat world of the Barbary Coast.

Unfortunately for fans of debauchery and unlawfulness (and, really, who’s not?), this infamous 19th-century San Francisco neighborhood eventually disappeared from the map; sunk by the 1906 earthquake and then its dark heart pierced by the silver dagger of political reforms and “vice squads” that wiped the grime from the area for good by the second decade fo the 20th century.

I’m going to be spending much of August in San Francisco trying to dig it back up. The leftover physical remnants as well as the lingering cultural relics born out of the area.

Fortunately, I’ll have a few people to help me with the digging during this month-long series on Gadling.

A few years ago, the city created a 4-mile Barbary Coast Trail, where 20 bronze medallions embedded in the sidewalk wend through Chinatown and Little Italy and other parts of downtown to take visitors by historic pubs, the first Asian temple in North America, the recently restored old U.S. mint, and old St. Mary’s Cathedral, built in 1854, whose entryway still shows an engraved warning to young men about the brothels that once surrounded the area. Historian Daniel Bacon leads regular tours of the trail.

But that’s not all. Celebrity chef Tyler Florence’s new restaurant, Wayfare Tavern, intentionally harkens back to the days of the Barbary Coast. So does the Comstock Saloon, a restaurant with an emphasis on cocktails that embraces mid-19th-century San Francisco history (it’s named after a famous Gold Rusher). Both restaurants are right on the Barbary Coast trail. On top of all that, some denizens of the area have been lobbying to officially re-name this part of town the Barbary Coast again. Five years ago they founded the Barbary Coast Neighborhood Association and, recently, the San Francisco Board of Realtors recognized it as an official neighborhood.

During the month I’ll be visiting these spots that are leading a resurgent interest in all things Barbary Coast. In the meantime, there’ll be some primer posts on what made the Barbary Coast so infamous and the cultural legacy you didn’t know the neighborhood had contributed to popular culture and the American lexicon.

Until then, stay debaucherous my friends.