Credited as being one of the last women to run a brothel in the legally recognized redlight district in Fairbanks, Alaska, Carol Erwin was amongst the many enterprising entrepreneurs who helped settle the Far North. Born in the heart of the American West in the early 1900s to a family of nomadic gamblers and farm laborers, Carol carved a life for herself that reflected her remarkable resilience and unwavering independence.
Carol Erwin’s early years instilled in her a tenacious spirit that thrived amid constant change. Setting off on her own at the age of 14 she started working as a waitress in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Soon after, she started jumping trains and moving from town to town, becoming one of few women to thrive in a dangerous subculture.
Although she met many madams throughout her travels and was familiar with bawdy houses, Carol Erwin didn’t establish her own house until just after the end of World War I, in 1919. Her first house was in a boomtown in Wyoming where she recruited women and learned how to appease local law enforcement and fellow business owners; skills that would serve her well over the next five decades. By all accounts Carol Erwin was a straightforward business woman who treated her customers and employees well.
After traveling the country setting up brothels and meeting a wide variety of characters, Carol Erwin moved to Alaska during WWII where she opened a house in the famously thriving red light district in Fairbanks, which had been operating unaccosted for decades. She joined a well established community of proud practitioners of the oldest profession and also developed a respectable reputation as a painter. When the federal government finally cracked down on the line, agents padlocked Carol Erwin’s brothel. She spent the rest of her life traveling from town to town, offering to paint people’s houses.
Carol Erwin’s life was a series of nomadic ventures that underscored her restlessness and insatiable curiosity. Defying the conventions of her gender and class, Carol Erwin was a notable figure to all those she met and deserves a place in the history of Alaska and the Wild West.
A special shoutout to Alaska based sex worker rights advocate Tara Burns for drawing our attention to this amazing woman.
The Oldest Profession Podcast reminds listeners that sex workers have always been part of the story. Each episode focuses on an “old pro” from history, contextualizing that figure in their own time and connecting their story to the ongoing struggle for sex worker rights. Kaytlin Bailey created The Oldest Profession Podcast to be an accessible and entertaining resource for anyone who wants to learn more about sex workers and our place in history.
Erwin, Carol. The Orderly Disorderly House. 1960.
In The Orderly Disorderly House, Carol Erwin provides a comprehensive and engaging exploration of the history and culture surrounding the phenomenon of brothels in the American West during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Drawing from meticulous research and primary sources, Erwin delves into the lives of the women who worked in these establishments and the social, economic, and legal contexts in which they operated. The author skillfully navigates the complex dynamics of prostitution, shedding light on the motivations, challenges, and societal perceptions of both sex workers and their clients. Erwin’s work challenges stereotypical notions and offers a nuanced portrayal of the women who sought economic independence through this line of work. Through detailed narratives and historical analysis, Erwin paints a vivid picture of the women’s struggles and triumphs, creating a valuable resource for those interested in gender studies, social history, and the multifaceted stories of women in the American West.
Morgan, Lael. Good Time Girls of the Alaska Gold Rush. 1998.
Lael Morgan’s Good Time Girls of the Alaska Gold Rush provides a captivating and informative exploration of the lives and experiences of women who flocked to Alaska during the gold rush era. Through meticulous research and engaging storytelling, Morgan unearths the stories of these “good time girls,” shedding light on their varied backgrounds, motivations, and the challenges they faced in a rugged and male-dominated frontier environment. The book challenges prevailing stereotypes and misconceptions, offering a nuanced perspective on the women who carved out their own paths in the face of adversity. Morgan skillfully intertwines historical accounts, personal anecdotes, and contextual analysis, providing readers with a rich and multifaceted view of these women’s lives. By delving into their struggles, triumphs, and contributions, Morgan’s work not only brings these forgotten stories to the forefront but also contributes to a broader understanding of gender, migration, and the social fabric of the American West during a transformative period in its history.
National Park Service U.S. Department of Interior Alaska Support Office Anchorage, Alaska. 2003. Alaska Park Science: Connections to Natural and Cultural Resource Studies in Alaska’s National Parks. [page 29]. Retrieved from this URL.
This source offers a comprehensive portrayal of Carol Erwin, one of the last “ladies on the Line.” Through her autobiography The Orderly Disorderly House (1960), Erwin’s experiences are unveiled, recounting her transition from managing bawdyhouses in Texas to her Alaskan ventures. As a talented artist with a penchant for landscape painting, Erwin’s story includes her artistic pursuits and the unique intersection between Line ladies and respectable women. The Seward Women’s Club’s sponsorship of her art show symbolizes the unexpected connections between these two worlds, demonstrating Erwin’s influence in fostering understanding and collaboration between different segments of society.