May Howard's brothel in the Sam Kee Laundry building
Sometime after World War II, Napa madam May Howard scaled down her operation and moved to the Sam Kee Laundry (Pfeiffer Building) on Main and Clinton streets. Photo courtesy of Napa County Historical Society

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.

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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 www.napahistory.org or call 224-1739.

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