When American Waitresses Were Labeled ‘Women of Ill Repute’

history, labor, Sexuality

WHEN NELL RETURNED TO THE breakroom, her waitress’ apron was full of money. Her coworkers, spotting the dollar bills, laughed. “Them ain’t tips,” said one waitress. “Them is dates, ain’t they, Nell?”

Nell displayed the cash to her friends. “Sure,” she said. “Be thankful for a dollar in these hard times!” Nell wasn’t the only waitress in the Chicago restaurant who found herself turning to some form of sex work, from casual dates in exchange for clothes or gifts, to sex acts in exchange for money. There was Marietta, who went on dates and engaged in other “unquotable” activities for tulips and candy, and Daisy, who beefed up her meager tips with sex acts under the table. But the sexualization wasn’t always so overt. As the women smoothed on their uniforms for another backbreaking shift, they knew a simple truth: If you want your tips, you’d better smile.

Read more at Atlas Obscura. Cover Image: Vice squad interrogates women in Illinois, circa 1912. Public Domain.

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