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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

Footbinding & Prostitution in the 1800s

Updated: Feb 20, 2020

The tradition of foot-binding, also called “lotus feet,” was a thousand-year-old tradition in China that was brought to the United States frontier—mostly California—during the Gold Rush. The tradition continued even into the 20th century in China and even the United States. The tradition began in Chinese upper classes around the 10th century but spread as an ideal of beauty in Chinese culture. By the 1800s, 40-50% of Chinese women had their feet bound.

Foot binding was the practice of wrapping girls’ feet to deform the foot and to bend the toes under the sole, increasing the arch of the foot to an extreme so that the toes and heel were brought as close together possible. The ideal foot was the “san to chin lien,” the three-inch golden lotus shape. Mothers, grandmothers, and nannies, believing bones to be more malleable in childhood, applied this painful and crippling procedure to young girls, ages 4-8. Sometimes little girls were given sweet sticky rice, believed to soften the girl’s feet in preparation for the binding. The next day her toes were broken and bent underneath her feet and the arch was also broken, so the foot could be bent downward and the toes and heal pressed together. Then the feet were wrapped tightly in wet bandages, which constricted when they dried. Foot binding became important aspects of femininity, womanhood and marriageability in Chinese society.

Infection, gangrene and death were common side effects of foot binding. Historians estimate that as many as 10% of girls who had their feet bound died of gangrene or sepsis. But, sometimes, gangrene of the toes was considered advantageous, for cutting off of the toes resulted in more narrow and, therefore, more desirable, feet. Sometimes the toenails were peeled back or removed completely to avoid ingrown toenails.

The origins of foot binding associated with desirability and erotica date back to 850A.D. when the Tang Dynasty poet Duan Chengshi wrote of a poor girl whose shoe was lost and married a king who returned her shoe. (The story is believed to be the precursor to the European fairytale, Cinderella.) The most desirable lotus feet were 3-4 inches long. Five inches or larger were the least desirable for marriage.

Bound feet were considered intensely erotic and the most intimate part of a woman’s body. (Erotic art of the Qing to Song periods showed genitalia but bound feet were always covered.) Sometimes revealing just a little part of a lotus foot was considered foreplay. Another erotic effect offered by a woman with bound feet was her “lotus gait,” which, not surprisingly was very dainty, cautious and unsteady. This accentuated her vulnerability and femininity. Some Chinese believed—astonishingly—that bound feet affected the interior of the vagina, making it smaller and more constricted. And, finally, foot binding was instrumental in limiting women’s mobility and freedom, thereby encouraging her chastity.

What does all this have to do with prostitution in California in the 1800s? When the Gold Rush began in 1849, large numbers of Chinese men came to California to work as miners, fanners, railroad workers, and unskilled laborers. Several factors contributed to the wave of Chinese immigration: social unrest and poverty in southeastern China caused by the Taiping Rebellion killed 20 MILLION between 1850-1864. Chinese were desperate to escape the country and the relative ease of travel by sea from China to the west coast of the United States was an obvious escape.

Chinese tong (gang) masters, brothel owners and entrepreneurs naturally understood that where there were so many Chinese men, there would be a market for Chinese prostitutes. Girls and women in China were desperate to escape starvation, poverty and slavery in their homeland and were easy targets for human trafficking. Some desperate families also sold their girls into slavery and prostitution. Foot binding traditions shuffled across the ocean from China to California, where the eroticism of the practice enhanced the desirability of prostitutes for Chinese men and also helped to control women. Many, perhaps most, Chinese girls and women were essentially slaves. The hierarchy of these trafficked females depended solely on appearance and countenance. The most attractive might be sold for as much as $1,000. The least attractive were kept in cages that faced the alleys of Chinatown for clients or were sent to mining camps or the “cribs,” small booths that charged 25¢ per client. These prostitutes serviced 10-25 men per day and were essentially condemned to a fate of syphilis. In the 1800s, syphilis was endemic and women would be left to die, their flesh rotting.

Few women survived these horrific fates, but there were some notable rare exceptions. One was Ah Toy, who became one of the most famous madams of San Francisco. She was a Cantonese young woman who was widowed on the voyage to America and was protected by the ship’s captain against the ravages of the other men. The captain fell in love with her and showered her with gifts. When she landed in San Francisco, she had enough riches from the captain to start a business. There were only about a dozen Chinese women in the city at the time and she was the loveliest. She decided to capitalize on her looks by charging men to watch her through a peephole dancing in a diaphanous gown. She charged an ounce of gold for the “lookie.”

She was a spectacular entrepreneur and very smart and was soon operating multiple brothels. She became the most well-known Asian woman in the Old West and would die a wealthy woman in Santa Clara County in 1928, just a month shy of her 100th birthday. She was so beautiful, reported a San Francisco newspaper, that white miners would line up around the block to pay an ounce of gold just to look at her. And, among Chinese men, she was known for her exquisitely tiny golden lotus feet!

PHOTOS: (1) Chinese woman in San Francisco showing her lotus feet. About 1865. American white church women were horrified by the practice of foot binding and thought it to be “barbaric” and “heathen.” (2) A young Chinese woman from Shandong with tiny “golden lotus” feet. She is holding an opium pipe. Around 1900. (3) Antique Chinese lotus shoes. Circa probably 1870s. (4-8) Photographs of lotus feet, with the arches and toes broken and folded under the arch of the foot. The process often resulted in gangrene or sepsis in which a woman could lose her toes, her feet, or her life. Historians estimate that the process was so dangerous and painful that about 10% of girls with bound feet died. (9) The famous San Francisco madam, Ah Toy, managed to survive being a prostitute herself and became wealthy building an empire of brothels. This photo believed to be the only surviving photograph of Ay Toy. Note her bound, golden lotus feet. (10) Chinese prostitutes were essentially slaves, kidnapped from China or deceived into coming to the United States. The worst fate for a prostitute was being exiled to a mining camp or a “crib,” a cage where she was forced to service 10-25 men a day, or more and sentenced to a fate of death by syphilis, starvation, or violence.


Posted September 24, 2019

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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