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Olympia's Red-Light District, ca. 1860-1911

As we work towards defining areas of archaeological concern for downtown Olympia, we want to understand the boundaries of Olympia's entertainment district in the Territorial Period (1846-1899), and more specifically the boundaries of the red-light district (circa 1860 to 1911). Here, we briefly explore a preliminary boundary for Olympia's red-light district, and the importance of sites such as these.

Olympia’s Dead Zone

In 1880, Olympia passed an ordinance creating a “dead zone” where enforcement of gambling, drinking, drug use, and prostitution would lax. The police chief collected monthly fees from Dead Zone residents. Sanborn maps from the 1880s–1890s record a concentration of saloons, billiard halls, “female boarding houses,” and ruined structures in this district. The density of brothels increases in this area by the 1900s.

For a brief overview of the Dead Zone/Red-Light District go to:

What is an Archaeological District?

The National Park Service defines a district as "a geographically definable area, urban or rural, possessing a significant concentration, linkage, or continuity of sites, buildings, structures, or objects united by past events or aesthetically by plan or physical development. A district may also comprise individual elements separated geographically but linked by association or history (36CFR60.3d)."

In Olympia, the Olympia Heritage Commission is charged with the establishment or expansion of Historic Districts (Olympia Municipal Code 18.12.55). Archaeological districts may listed on the City Heritage Register if they have "significant character, interest or value as part of the development, heritage or cultural characteristics of the City, state or nation" and under Criterion F "has yielded or may be likely to yield archaeological information important in pre-history or history."

What Information Could a Red-Light Archaeological District Yield?

Red-light histories dominate our understanding of circa 1900s women's history in the West. These places are significant for innumerable reasons, but it is important to note that the reason these dominate our understanding of women in the West is because they are literally one of the sexiest kinds of history/archaeology. Red-light stories fascinate us, and that's okay, they were entertainment sites so why not carry that energy into the present? But please remember, women are literally half (okay, 50.8%) of all people. All sites are women's history sites, but the history of red-light districts allows us to explore unique aspects of women's (and men's!) lives in the Progressive Era. In Olympia, this history intersects with Black and Asian Pacific American Diaspora histories, local/regional political history, the development of the City of Olympia, recreation, performance and consumer habits in Olympia, construction practice history in Olympia, and residential and industrial histories, to name a few. This district is a place where persons of all genders, classes, and backgrounds met, and those stories are critical for our understanding of the Olympia and Washington State of 2021.

Olympia's Red-Light District

The 1908 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map provides a good starting place for the definition of a historic district. Some additional historical information gleaned from census records, directories, and legal documents, was also considered for this initial boundary. For now, the preliminary boundary of the Olympia Red-Light District includes portions of Blocks 1, 2, 3, 10, and 11. Stay tuned to future blog posts as we work to refine this district. Without further ado:

Olympia Red-Light District on 1908 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map
Olympia Red-Light District on Street Map
Olympia Red-Light District on Aerial Map

If you are curious about the history of Olympia, and would like to explore Sanborn Maps, the Olympia Historical Society webpage hosts a wonderful set of georectified maps produced by Brian Hovis. This series of map overlays allows you to explore the Sanborn Maps in greater detail, overlaid on maps of downtown Olympia. What other potential districts do you see?


The Morning Olympian

1910A Pastor Scores Citizens of Olympia for Tolerating Vice. February 15, 1910.

1910B District Passes Away. December 2, 1910.

R.L. Polk & Co.

1902 Olympia and Thurston County Directory. R.L. Polk & Co. Publishers, Tacoma, WA.

Sanborn Map Company

1908 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Olympia, Thurston County, Washington.

United States Federal Census

1900 Second Ward Olympia City, Thurston County, Washington. Twelfth Census of the United States.

Washington State Archives

2020A Budd’s Inlet, Puget Sound, W.T. Map. U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Accessed 20 January 2020.

2020B Port of Olympia Map. Accessed 20 January 2020.

2020C Frontier Justice: Guide to the Court Records of Washington Territory—Thurston County (Civil Files) 1859-1889. Access 7 August 2020.

2020D Olympia City Council Ordinances, 1859-2018. Accessed 15 August 2020.

Washington State Historical Society

2020A Olympia, W.T. sketch by James M. Alden. Catalog ID Number 1932.83.17. Accessed 18 January 2020.

2020B Olympia, Lower Main Street photograph by Asahel Curtis. Catalog ID Number 1943.42.1415. Accessed 18 January 2020.

2020C Views of Olympia, WT. Accessed 18 August 2020.

Yamin, Rebecca, and Donna J. Seifert

2019 The Archaeology of Prostitution and Clandestine Pursuits. University Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

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