Note: this is the second piece in a short series on Lola Montez. The first article, ” Lola Montez as a ‘Western Woman’?” provides an introduction to Lola Montez, and the third article, “Lola Montez Denies Conventions in Her Image” centers on visual representations of the starlet. 


The years Lola spent in California, 1853 to 1855, coincided with a period of transformation in the Gold Rush ethos, and her megastar status reflects how she, perhaps unwittingly, poised herself to take advantage of this; I understand her performance as occupying a liminal space during the shift that occurred in 1853 away from male-centered leisure and towards more respectable theatre and family-friendly amusements. This change in popular culture was concomitant with and largely a product of urbanization and a new sense of social and economic stability that San Francisco residents experienced. A constant throughout this first decade of major Anglo settlement in California was internationalism, an aspect of society that was reflected in popular culture but also extended into labor life. Large populations of individuals of Latin American and Spanish descent characterized the multiethnic setting of California, and Lola’s constructed identity as a “Spanish dancer” played into this contested status of race, as Anglo Americans in California oscillated between appreciating and rejecting aspects of non-white cultures.

San Francisco urbanized rapidly due to the population influx of the Gold Rush, which drew migrants from many continents; nonetheless, several years passed before “the instant city” truly took shape as an urban setting rather than a frontier outpost.[1] In the early years of the rush, 1848 to 1852, settlements were more transient.[2] Frequent fires in San Francisco during these years burned down structures, providing opportunities to replace rudimentary structures and redesign the civic space of the urban environment to better reflect the city’s evolving cultural values.[3]

Since the earliest days of the Gold Rush, leisure activities greatly shaped society in California as a complement to and distraction from hard labor and miserable life in the digging camps. Even amid the flurry to strike gold, Sunday was reserved as a day for social and leisure pursuits.[4] As early as 1848 when the first gold seekers arrived and assembled makeshift canvas structures for shelter, gambling and drinking saloons emerged to provide amusement for miners in their free time.[5] These taverns were typified by riotous atmospheres that contrasted with the tamer taverns of the hometowns of these miners; as historian Gary Kurutz succinctly explains, “Away from the moral constraints of home, the saloon gave gold-rushers a playground without restriction.”[6] These “moral constraints” were often reinforced by the presence of women, but California society in the early Gold Rush period was dominated by bachelors or husbands with plans to strike gold in California then return eastward to rejoin their families. Thus, the lack of a feminine moral authority unleashed havoc.

Particularly for those just arriving to the West or those frustrated from a fruitless season of laborious mining, the extravagantly decorated saloons were attractions that represented the dream that the Argonauts had come westward in search of.

Gambling and drinking were such staple activities of Gold Rush society in these formative years that nearly every Argonaut who wrote letters home or maintained a journal commented on this uproarious aspect of life out west and the women they encountered in gambling and drinking saloons. San Francisco, specifically, was home to several of the largest, most famed establishments, including the El Dorado, a gaming house.[7] Particularly for those just arriving to the West or those frustrated from a fruitless season of laborious mining, the extravagantly decorated saloons were attractions that represented the dream that the Argonauts had come westward in search of.[8] Given the gender imbalance in the California mining communities, particularly the lack of Anglo-American women during the early years of the Gold Rush, owners of drinking saloons and gambling houses “exploited the lack of women by placing them behind the gaming tables and liquor bars,” an attempt to attract female-deprived Anglo-American clientele.[9]

In these early years, theaters were often associated with or physically conjoined to drinking saloons and gambling hells, and their burlesque shows drew an entirely male audience seeking the same rambunctious evening as those at taverns and saloons.[10] Prostitution was fairly common, and some theater owners struck deals with prostitutes to allow them free entry to performances, populating the audience with women to entice miners to see the show.[11]

These types of amusements flourished in the early years, but by 1853, the frontier societal structure gave way to the emergence of a more permanent city, accompanied by changing societal attitudes towards leisure. Essentially, the air of permanence that swept the city brought with it an air of decency. Many more families, rather than single males, began to move westward, and with women came civilizing forces of upstanding society.[12] As moral codes were developed in the lawless west, popular entertainment and leisure activities were, in turn, reined in and transformed from boisterous to refined.[13] Associations of individuals calling for reforms of some of these disorderly institutions began to develop, decrying prostitution, lowbrow burlesque theatre, and the wild gambling and drinking saloons.[14] Additionally, as Kurutz explains, “Those who realized that California’s streets were not paved in gold saw a need to develop forms of amusement that would not only improve the mind but also create a stable foundation conducive to permanent settlement,” and this thinking ushered in more wholesome forms of recreation, including libraries and reading societies and respectable theatre.[15] Thus, theatre was no longer enmeshed with illicit pleasures of drinking and gambling. By 1853, “theater represented an uplifting, respectable pastime that countered the degrading, debilitating atmosphere of the gambling hells. Those who saw California as their home worried about its reputation, and the theater, along with the church and the atheneum, meant respectability.”[16] In the years after 1853, theater became a less male-centered diversion and transitioned to be considered a form of highbrow sophistication for audiences of both genders, a way for San Francisco residents to cultivate their minds.

In these years, “respectability” was intimately linked to the purity and moral authority of white women, yet many of the most popular diversions also reflected a keen interest in foreign cultures and this internationalism remained constant during the change in values of 1853. Fascination with everything foreign interplayed with the avarice of Anglo American miners and with their xenophobia, producing a paradoxical relationship to immigrants and their cultures.[17] A game of chance named monte was among the most popular in gambling saloons, and bullfights and bull-and-bear fights drew large crowds with many spectators placing bets on outcomes of the contests, these games and sport all of Mexican and Spanish origin.[18] Although Anglo-American miners appreciated these activities, they simultaneously expected assimilation of immigrants, displayed segregationist tendencies, and even oppressed non-whites in many instances.[19]

Most scholars agree that cosmopolitan settings in California were more tolerant of non-whites, but the racial antagonism should not go unmentioned, particularly since the population of San Francisco was over half non-whites.[20] In its more extreme form, aggression towards non-whites took the form of lynchings and assaults of Latin Americans, African Americans, and Native Americans.[21] In San Francisco, Anglo residents formed the Committee of Vigilance to clean up the city, and the extralegal activities of the heavily armed vigilante group included harassment of non-whites.[22] For women, as Nancy Taniguchi explains, “This gold-rush multiethnicity and internationalism worked to the disadvantage of some of the women, but opened new possibilities for others, at least until the moral civilizers that the men recognized—their own Yankee women—arrived in force.”[23] Many women enjoyed the more flexible social conventions of the West, but this flexibility was accompanied by newer racialized hierarchies of femininity. On the whole, popular culture embraced foreign cultures, and given the large population of Latin Americans in California, practices of Hispanic origin dominated, but the Hispanophile attitudes were unsettled by deeper racial tensions.

In these years, “respectability” was intimately linked to the purity and moral authority of white women, yet many of the most popular diversions also reflected a keen interest in foreign cultures and this internationalism remained constant during the change in values of 1853.

Entering the scene in 1853, Lola encountered Gosh Rush society in flux, and her act managed to evade classification as pornographic but also did not conform neatly to the formula for “respectable theatre.” There were many female theater managers in these years promoting wholesome entertainment, but Lola’s stardom attests to residual appetite for more salacious entertainment.[24] The wave of women and families westward occurred in 1853, and Lola caught the tail end of male-dominated city social landscape, still without women as partners and moral authorities. Thus, as a female performer and particularly with her more sensual routines, such as her “Spider Dance,” Lola greatly appealed to the miners as theatre patrons seeking entertainment with an erotic flavor. Her repertoire included dramatic interpretations of her embellished life biography and other stage plays centered on heroines of history, such as Lola Montes in Bavaria (her signature piece), Yelva; or, The Orphan Girl of Russia, Maritana; or, the Maid of Saragossa, and Charlotte Corday; or, Jacobins and Girondists.[25]

These plays emphasized the female protagonist played by Lola, and she charmed her audience with her sex appeal in these acting roles, but it was her scandalous “Spider Dance” that truly gained her notoriety.[26] As the curtain closer, Lola’s frenzied dance of lifting her skirts and searching for prop spiders that were “crawling” about and inside her dress held particularly male audience members in rapture.[27] In fact, her plays and “Spider Dance” became so popular that Lola exploited the lack of precedence for an international starlet in the Western U.S., and she charged five times as much for tickets in San Francisco as she had during her runs on the East Coast.[28] But central to her success in San Francisco was her timing, arriving during the inception of efforts to “morally civilize” the city, and her dual performer identity as an actress in stage plays and a dancer with more lowbrow, raucous burlesque routines.

Lola’s stage name and “Spanish” heritage further favorably situated her in relation to changing attitudes of the Gold Rush era.  Her “Spider Dance” for its Spanish and Italian roots and Lola’s claims of Spanish heritage harnessed San Francisco’s surging interest in the foreign and the associated anti-foreign backlash that erupted occasionally. Marketing herself as a Spanish dancer, Lola capitalized on California’s rich Hispanic history and Anglo interest in Mexican, Latin American, and Spanish.[29] Lola most often claimed to be from Cuba or Spain, the child of gypsies, to legitimize her identity as a Spanish dancer and appeal to the mystique of the exotic.[30] Her “Spider Dance” supposedly evolved from a Spanish appropriation of the Italian folk dance “La Tarantella,” and Lola inconsistently billed the “Spider Dance” as “La Oleana,” “El Olé,” “La Tarantula,” and “El Zapteado,” to underline the internationalism of her show.

After her successful season in San Francisco and some travel throughout the state for performances, Lola had reaped enough profits to purchase a cottage in Grass Valley and support herself for a hiatus of bucolic life in California; she maintained her projection of Spanish identity through this period by taking a bear from the infamous bull-and-bear fights as a pet and creating the spectacle of going on walks with him throughout the Grass Valley settlement.[31] Although her status as Spanish was questionable, she was unarguably from Europe, and this may have helped Anglo American reformers accept her sensuous performances, since Anglo Americans tended to associate European cities with distinct codes of propriety and sometimes uninhibited women that were not part of Victorian ideals of womanhood.



Read more about Lola Montez:

The first article, ” Lola Montez as a ‘Western Woman’?” provides an introduction to Lola Montez, and the third article, “Lola Montez Denies Conventions in Her Image” centers on visual representations of the starlet. 


[1] Sean Smith, “A Woman’s Role: Gender and the ‘Legitimate’ Theater in Gold Rush San Francisco, 1848-1856” (ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 1999), 12. Smith writes of the conversion of San Francisco into an urban center, “San Francisco quickly lost its frontier character to the evolving metropolis. From 1848 to 1856, the population of the Golden Gate city increased from 1,000 to nearly 55,000 citizens. The influx of immigrants, as well as substantial sums of money generated from the mines that surrounded the city, led to more commercial and residential construction.” The phrase “instant city” to describe San Francisco appears in much of the scholarship, and it is never attributed to a particular primary source. It most likely comes from an unspecified writing of an Argonaut.

[2] Robert Phelps, “‘All Hands Have Gone Downtown’: Urban Places in Gold Rush California,” California History 79, no. 2 (2000): 116. As Phelps explains, while digging camps engendered transient lifestyles, the supplies and services necessitated by mining and the types of domestic comforts the miners yearned for spawned camps and towns with businesses that laid the groundwork for urbanization. He writes, “A transient urban system based on the exploitation of inland gold deposits, the patterns of urbanization laid out during the Gold Rush nevertheless provided the template for the state’s future urban development.”

[3] Ibid. Smith also attributes fires and opportunities for rebuilding as expediting San Francisco’s urbanization. He explains, “The impetus for urban improvements was in large part the result of a series of fires between 1849 and 1853. These fires destroyed nearly half of the buildings in the city. Although tragic and devastating, the fires had a curiously positive effect on San Francisco… The enhancements to the city’s infrastructure, which made San Francisco a safer, more comfortable, and more attractive city, encouraged a less transient and less male-dominated society,” 20-21.

[4] Kurutz, “Popular Culture on the Golden Shore,” 281.

[5] Phelps, “All Hands Have Gone Downtown,” 125. Additionally, as Susan Lee Johnson explains in her article “Bulls, Bears, and Dancing Boys: Race, Gender, and Leisure in the California Gold Rush,” leisure activities were not reserved solely for Anglo-Americans. Rather, “people in all Gold Rush communities, immigrant and Indian, sought both diversion from the business of producing material life, and spiritual sustenance to enable that business or to give it meaning: they sang and prayed, they gambled and got drink, they danced to one another’s drumming or fiddle-playing, and cheered and bull-and-bear fights,” 7.

[6] Kurutz, “Popular Culture on the Golden Shore,” 284.

[7] Ibid., 285–286.

[8] Ibid., 286. Kurutz writes, “The gaming houses must have been absolutely incredible, elegant affairs, especially in the larger population centers. One can only imagine what it must have been like for a young Forty-niner from an isolated, protected New England village to enter into a place like the Big Tent in Sacramento or the El Dorado in San Francisco. Bright lights, mirrors with gilded frames, lascivious paintings, tables loaded with buckskin bags of gold dust, painted jezebels with enticing smiles and siren voices, dense clouds of tobacco smoke, a cacophony of swearing and cursing in multiple languages, liquor flowing like water, and the blare of music all combined to create a heady, irresistible atmosphere capable of shattering the staunchest moral spirit.”

[9] Ibid., 286.

[10] Smith, “A Woman’s Role,” 9. The first theatre in Gold Rush California was intimately associated with the saloon, called “saloon theatre.” Smith explains, “Most managers of these saloon theaters offered theatrical entertainment only as a way to entice customers into their saloons…The theatrical event was obviously secondary to the camaraderie, drinking, gambling, and sex.” Since the amusement was designed for a male audience, “The women one did expect to see at the theater worked there as prostitutes, waitresses, card dealers, or barmaids, and were usually considered lewd or fallen women there for the gratification of the male clientele,” 12.

[11] Ibid., 35. Although common, many scholars, including Joann Levy and Susan Lee Johnson, argue that scholarship prior to 1980 unfairly treated prostitutes as the only women out west, creating the impression that the institution was rampant. Rather, prostitution was one of many ways in which women worked in the Western U.S. during this period of mayhem. For more on prostitution in Gold Rush society, see Joann Levy’s “Improper Society” in her book They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush.

[12] Ibid., 15.

[13] Kurutz, “Popular Culture on the Golden Shore,” 280. Kurutz explains of this transition, “While hunting for gold was a rugged and dangerous business bringing out the worse features of many personalities, the stereotype of rough, carousing, cursing, crude miners quickly gave way to a population that appreciated the finer things of life.”

[14] Smith, “A Woman’s Role,” 16. He writes, “Beginning in the middle of 1851 and culminating in 1856, two distinct societal factions took shape in San Franciscan society—those who strove for the Gold Rush status quo of a male-dominated frontier society and those who wanted reform and continuing urbanization.” These reformers and city boosters aimed to eradicate prostitution, and they achieved a decline of gambling hells by 1854, according to Kurutz (289).

[15] Kurutz, “Popular Culture on the Golden Shore,” 280.

[16] Ibid., 289.

[17] Michelle Ferrari et al., The Gold Rush (Arlington, VA: PBS Home Video, 2006).

[18] Susan Lee Johnson, “Bulls, Bears, and Dancing Boys: Race, Gender, and Leisure in the California Gold Rush,” Radical History Review 1994, no. 60 (1994): 27-28. Johnson explains, “Gambling was far and away the chief entertainment in the diggings. Games of chance took on a special significance in a setting like California where they shared with the primary economic activity, placer mining, elements of unpredictability and irrationality.” She also explains that monte was exceedingly popular, particularly in the Southern mines where there were larger populations of Mexicans and Californios. For more on the bull-and-bear fights in which long-horned bulls and grizzly bears fought to the death, see Kurutz, “Popular Culture on the Golden Shore,” 300–303.

[19] Phelps, “All Hands Have Gone Downtown,” 131.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Kevin Starr, Richard J. Orsi, and California Historical Society, Rooted in Barbarous Soil?: People, Culture, and Community in Gold Rush California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 5. As Kevin Starr writes in the introduction to this volume of essays, the Gold Rush “represented an unprecedented instance of internationalism in world history. It can be argued, in fact, that the California Gold Rush more than any other event up to that time firstly and most boldly dramatized the increasingly global nature of American society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries…Native Americans were hunted down like so much vermin, including their extermination by state-supported militia operation. Latino, Chinese, and, in many instances, African American miners were driven from the most promising of the gold fields or otherwise suppressed, beaten, or outright murdered, excluded from the protections of the court system, degraded in their fundamental rights and humanity…In one sense, the Gold Rush represented—although it was perhaps not recognized at the time—a wake-up call to the United States that it would at some time in its future have to deal with the global nature of American culture.” Additionally, such persecution led to counter-attacks, from which cultural context emerged the legendary figure of Joaquín Murieta and his band of outlaws terrorizing the racist Anglo-Americans in California.

[22] Smith, “A Woman’s Role,” 17–18.

[23] Nancy Taniguchi, “Weaving a Different World: Women and the California Gold Rush,” California History 79, no. 2 (2000): 144.

[24] Jane Kathleen Curry, Nineteenth-Century American Women Theatre Managers, (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1994).

[25] Varley, Lola Montez, 120–127.

[26] Misha Berson, The San Francisco Stage, (San Francisco, Calif: San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum, 1989), 54–56.

[27] Fireman, “Beautiful Deceiver,” 38–39.

[28] Taniguchi, “Weaving a Different World,” 154 and Fireman, “Beautiful Deceiver,” 40..

[29] Fireman, “Beautiful Deceiver,” 41. In her analysis of Lola’s assumption of a Spanish identity, Fireman concludes that Lola deliberately used this posed heritage to her advantage: “That Lola Montez was Spanish—or posed as Spanish—does not seem to have been a factor in public disapproval, even though from colonial times Americans had inherited the Black Legend of Spain. The idea that by nature Spaniards—and all Hispanics by extension—were evil, greedy, bigoted, distrustful, and ignorance was attached by Anglo Americans to Mexicans in California, but often they referred to Mexican women as ‘Spanish’ to indicate their higher regard for women. Amidst this negative American attitude towards Hispanics, in the mid-nineteenth century—in Montez’s time—there was a reversal of Hispanophobia. Things Spanish became popular, and American writers like Washington Irving and William H. Prescott boosted an appreciation of lo español among the reading public. Spanish romanticism and issues involved in political upheavals in Spain appealed to American sensibilities. By the last two decades of the century, interest in Spanish culture became mainstream, and in fact became fashionable. This Hispanophile feeling centered in California, which was reinventing its past, largely through sentimentalism. Idealizing Spanish California gave impetus to Montez’s legacy and stimulated a host of biographies. The fact is, in her own time and after she left California, Lola Montez benefited from an uneven but growing interest in and appreciation for Spanish things that had previously been absent from Anglo culture on both sides of the Atlantic.”

[30] Varley, Lola Montez, 16.

[31] Morton, Lola Montez, 254–257 and Varley, Lola Montez, 155–173.

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