Hurdy gurdy girls were distributed all over Europe, Australia, and North America, but this article addresses only the girls who came to the American West--Canada and USA and territories. What's a hurdy gurdy? (Find out at Chris Eaton's website) Why were they called hurdy gurdy girls, and how did this all come about? The best site to answer this is The Universe of Bagpipes.
dancing, hurdy-gurdy playing girls. Quickly the dancing and music became ever more important and the pretty girls became ever better known...there was a lot of easy money to be made.
Hurdy gurdy girls could be found all over the West. Generally, prostitution was not involved. The girls, from poverty-stricken families in the duchies of Germany, were of strong moral fiber. They danced with men, and cajoled them to spend money on drinks, but services beyond that were taken care of by other women.
In 1913 Idaho Governor William McConnell wrote in his book Early History of Idaho:
The 1870 census is enlightening. In Granite Creek, Boise Basin, with its post office in Placerville, a "Hurdie Gurdie Troop" is listed as made up of Conrad Schneider, 43, his wife, Catherine, 35, and children ages 15, 11 and 2. Conrad was a violinist, as was his brother, George, 37, whose wife, Mary, was 34. A third violinist in the troop was Conrad Deihl, 19. Four dancing girls ranged in age from 15 to 27. All were from the Rhineland area of Germany.
There were two kinds of women in the Old West: good (meaning strong moral fiber) and bad (meaning sexually promiscuous). Hurdy gurdy girls were considered "good women" by men, but usually not by "respectable" ladies, the schoolmarms, and bankers' wives of the town. Because the dance hall owners had to make sure the girls were safe, hall patrons were expected to follow rules such as these posted at the Alhambra, a dance hall in Silverton, Colorado:
Rule 1. No lady will leave the house during evening working hours without permission.
Rule 2. No lady will accompany a gentleman to his lodgings.
Rule 3. No kicking at the orchestra, especially from the stage.
Rule 4. Every lady will be required to dance on the floor after the show.
Rule 5. No fighting or quarrelling will be allowed
The ladies to the left are hurdy gurdy girls in Barksville (I think), British Columbia, Canada. They danced as many as fifty dances a night, at a dollar per dance.
Later in the 19th Century, hurdy gurdy girls didn't just dance, but then they weren't from the Rhineland, either. The name became synonymous with soiled dove, and the girls' origins were not limited to a small area of Germany. However many of the original hurdy gurdy girls in the American West found husbands and made good homes for themselves and their new families.
Arthur Hart: IdahoStatesman.com