The 1920’s: An era of prostitution, bootlegging, bank robberies, gambling

by Rodney Schroeter
For The Beacon


Disorderly houses, road houses, houses of ill fame, bawdy houses, houses of ill repute, chicken ranches.

These were some names euphemistically used in newspapers of years past to refer to brothels.

Beth Dippel, Executive Director at the Sheboygan County Historical Research Center, recently gave a talk at Generations in Plymouth. Her subject: Sheboygan County Brothels.

“Establishments changed names,” she said. “They changed owners. It really depended on who ran the place.”

“The 1920s were very exciting times,” Dippel said. “More Americans lived in cities than on farms for the first time. People had expendable money. They traveled more than ever before. By 1921, there was one car on the road for ever five Americans.”

The 20s was also the decade of Prohibition. Millions of Americans broke the law by drinking. While most Americans thought Temperance was a good idea, there were unintended consequences, like criminal production and distribution of alcohol.

“The 20s and 30s in Sheboygan county was a time of Prohibition, prostitution, bootlegging, bank robberies, and gambling,” Dippel said. She recommended reading old newspapers, for those having the opportunity. “Just go in, choose your own town, and go in to the 20s and 30s and start reading.”

Why would a woman become a prostitute? Dippel said it was out of economic necessity. They were generally very young, poorly educated, came from broken homes, and had absolutely no support. Economic opportunities for women were few, and prostitutes could make as much as ten times more than a woman (or even a man) who did find a job.

Many prostitutes had long-range plans to save up enough money to quit that life after a decade, and move somewhere to start a new life.

Brothels would be closed, Dippel said, and owners/operators would be fined. The women working there (referred to in the papers as “inmates”) were rarely arrested, but were often ordered to leave town within a few days. Newspaper accounts have told of citizens helping the women to pack and get onto trains, and being treated with a level of compassion that Dippel said surprised her.

On the other hand, when women of a brothel were beaten by customers, the police would come, gather facts, and then fine the women who’d been beaten.

Over the years, pressure to close the brothels came from different sources. Often, it was not primarily the prostitution that brought negative attention to an establishment, but other crimes. Prohibition allowed closing establishments where liquor was served. Excessive fines closed some places for good. By the 1950s, few actual brothels were left.

Dippel said photographs of brothels are scarce. She encourages anyone having such photos to contact the SCHRC. The photos can be scanned and returned to the owner.

The next topic in the SCHRC’s “History on the Move” series will be Sheboygan County Bootlegging in the 1920s and 1930s. It will again be held at Generations, 1500 Douglas Drive, Plymouth, from 2 to 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 1.

For more information, call the SCHRC at (920) 467-4667, or visit their website at

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