Bawdy babes and brothels in Napa's infamous red light-district

2010-03-21T00:00:00Z Bawdy babes and brothels in Napa's infamous red light-districtBy Lindsey Pogue, Special to the Register Napa Valley Register

Before wine tasting and five-star dining, Napa was infamous for its plethora of bawdy babes and brothels. Up until the 1930s, Napa was considered to have the biggest red-light district of any town its size in all of California. It wasn’t until 1950 that prostitution ceased to exist, or so they say.

Old newspapers report that in 1905, Napa’s “sexual tolerance” was at its highest. Both sides of Clinton Street, as well as surrounding areas, were lined with brothels — amounting to more than 20 “sin palaces” in establishment at a time.

The amount of prostitution was not unusual during this period. Before the 1900s, prostitution was an accepted occupation in society. Prostitutes were generally considered to be respectable women and often married into well-to-do families. Men of all ranks were allowed to enjoy the pleasures of “sin palaces” and although it was never favorable among the wives, society as a whole thought nothing much about it. As long as prostitution was practiced in a discreet manner, society attached little or no stigma to the profession.

There were a variety of pleasure houses suited for Napa’s diverse residents. For Napa’s uptown folks, May Howard presented a very prestigious and upscale dwelling for her patrons, which primarily consisted of bankers, ranch owners and other professionals. 

Her parlors were elegant and romantic and her women beautiful and pleasing. As a result of her high-class whorehouse, Howard was not only selective in her customers, but also a business woman. 

One past patron recalled her discreet procedure of always entering through the east side, by the railroad tracks, and never through the front door. It has also been recalled that her customers would have to check in and be appraised in order to be granted entrance. No man in uniform was allowed to enter her establishment, so a change of clothes was often provided outside of her business.

Perhaps it was her strict rules and discretion that kept her in the town’s good favor, but Howard often had the most upscale clientele. And whether it was her donation to charitable causes or her prompt payment of rent and bills, May Howard was known as one of the most profitable and respectable madams in Napa’s “Spanish Town” red light district before it closed in 1937. The shutting of her door marked the end of an entire era.

For the laborers, such as cowboys and farm hands, “China Mary” accommodated the men folk on the other side of the river; these men were generally poorer patrons with inexpensive tastes. Past news articles mention this area as “Chinatown” and that for Madam Mary, prostitution was more of a necessity than a career choice. She was often among the women trying to earn money while accommodating her visitors herself.

Napa County District Attorney James Boitano recalled the “unwritten policy” which, up until the 1930s, allowed a selected few houses to remain in operation. But eventually things began to change. General acceptance of brothels and prostitution dwindled. Prostitutes were fined, brothels were raided and deputies began posing as clientele in order to continue sting operations to shut down the establishments. May Howard was one of the last to remain open until city officials finally shut her down in 1937. Boitano believes the end of this era was a direct outcome of pressure from the state attorney general on local officials.

After more than 70 years of hosting bawdy clientele, Napa’s brothels ceased to exist. The last known establishment closed in the 1950s and since then, “sin palaces” have ceased to exist or have quietly escaped the official radar by going underground.

Pogue is an honorary board member with the Napa County Historical Society. Research for this article was conducted at the Napa County Historical Society, in the historic Goodman Library Building. The society is open Tuesday-Saturday from 12-4 p.m. and the Society’s Research Library is open Tuesday-Thursday, 12-4 p.m. The society houses an extensive research library, changing exhibition space and presents a variety of programs and events. The Society is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization. For more information or become a member visit or call 224-1739.

Copyright 2015 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(12) Comments

  1. AO1982
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    AO1982 - March 21, 2010 1:36 am
    Haha, its the Vintners Collective. How ironic that they sell some pretty racey games there. I should know, I bought one. ;-)
  2. XMAN
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    XMAN - March 21, 2010 4:41 am

    As a young man growing up in Napa in the 1950's there were two notorious bordellos in the entire County. One was May Howard's establishment on lower Clinton Street where it dead-ended at the railroad track. The other was Penny Parker's "Stone Bridge" operation near the Silverado Trail in St. Helena. Having never seen the inside of either place I do not know the intimacies of what went on there. Only what I was told by my acquaintances.
    May Howard was reputed to be a very professional business person who kept on the good side of the law at all times. I do recall having read in the Napa Register sometime in the early 1950's about a culprit who forcibly raped May Howard and his being arrested. Apparently the guy was drunk. May Howard was an old woman at the time as I recall. Penny Parker was reputed to be in her young forties and a former New York model. I never saw either lady. I was told that the fare at May Howards in her hay day was $2.50 for a conventional encounter.
  3. Old Time Napkin
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    Old Time Napkin - March 21, 2010 8:31 am
    XMAN, way to funny. We need to know the definition of a "conventional encounter".
  4. Sandra
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    Sandra - March 21, 2010 9:24 am
    I had heard that the large house on the corner of Yahome and Lincoln was also this type of establishment. In my teenage years it was called Yajome house by those who lived there and those that visited. It was rented out to quite a few napa young folks. My husband, and Brad Wagenchenekt being two of them...I remember it had 8 small bedrooms upstairs....I suppose it could of been a rooming house back in the day. Does anyone know?
  5. non_register_believer
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    non_register_believer - March 21, 2010 9:50 am
    Bring them back and tax them. LOL
  6. megapixel
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    megapixel - March 22, 2010 11:07 am
    non_register_believer said: "Bring them back and tax them. LOL"

    Just think how much revenue it would produce! I don't think it is such a bad idea.

    I'd love to hear the city council debate the issue. Julianna Inman would probably rail, "If one isn't enough, then there'll be none!"
  7. TruthSeeker
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    TruthSeeker - March 25, 2010 7:14 pm
    Interesting article. Since we have seen this topic covered in numerous Register articles since the 1960s, I would like to know why the Napa County Historical Society decided upon this topic. Was this article merely a reminder to the community that the NCHS is still downtown? Also, what were the sources for this article? Sources being books, articles, etc., not the repository where these items are located. By listing the sources of reference, researchers interested in this topic can further their own searches.
  8. RenoDeano
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    RenoDeano - March 26, 2010 8:01 am
    There was also a house of prostitution in South Napa County on American Canyon Road just up from Broadway.
  9. toxicavenger
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    toxicavenger - March 27, 2010 9:09 am
    Ahh the good old days.
  10. KAS
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    KAS - April 01, 2010 1:14 pm
    The information used to write this article came from manuscripts and newspaper articles housed at the Napa County Historical Society's Research Library. This topic was chosen because of public interest expressed to the Society.
  11. freeport56
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    freeport56 - April 03, 2010 11:37 am
    This article errors in stating May's place was shut down in 1937. Ms. Howard's "place of business" was located on Napa St, near Soscol. In the early 1940's my Mother (working part time at Carithers while in high school) sold Ms. Howard bathrobes for her girls. In the late 40's & 50's, Ms. Howard would come into my father's store, where she would buy $20 or more holiday cards at a time (when the avg price was 5 cents) to send to her 'clients'. My Dad spoke of helping deliver a file cabinet she purchased from his business to her Napa st location. Ms. Howard had a personal relationship with Mr. Schwarz, for years - they would meet in San Francisco. Mr. Schwarz was a prominate businessman at the time; his building was torn down by redevelopment. The state finally made the county close Howards and the one on Silverado trail.
  12. freeport56
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    freeport56 - April 03, 2010 11:40 am
    May Howard was always well dressed and conducted herself "as a lady"... and appears to have treated both her clients and 'girls" well... per my Grandmother and others...
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