Note: This post is an excerpt of a longer essay in the LNP, “Sex and Our City,” Part II. Brinkman Hall, described here, is one stop on the Lancaster Vice Historic Walking tour, which you can book at

It’s not surprising that Lancaster was famous for rough or “vulgar” dancing, such as the “Grizzly Bear” or the “Turkey Trot,” in the early 1900s. We already know that Lancaster was a “wide open” city for commercial sex, gambling and drinking at that time. City officials encouraged and even participated in these activities, which were easily accessible and highly visible. Dance halls fueled vice.

Located throughout downtown Lancaster (on Orange and Duke streets, for example), Lancaster’s dance halls were popular among wage-earning women and men. Dance halls were loud, smoky, hot, and crowded. Sawdust covered the floors, to absorb sweat and any tobacco juice that missed the cuspidors. Women often wore black to conceal perspiration. Women shocked observers when they smoked cigarettes alongside men between dances. Popular ragtime music, associated with Black musicians, enhanced the scandalous reputation of the dance halls.

Sheet music, 1913, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society

The leading reformers of Lancaster (and the investigators they invited to town in 1913) believed that dance halls supported commercial sex in several ways. First, sex workers met clients at the dances. As the Reverend Clifford Twombly, the rector of Saint James Episcopal Church, explained, “At present, there is nothing to prevent the prostitute from plying their trade at these places.”

Second, brothel keepers recruited new sex workers in the dance halls. This is why investigators worried when they saw the wage-earning women mingling with the full-time prostitutes at dances and in beer gardens downtown. One undercover investigator described this scene at Turn Verein, a German social and political club on North Water Street, that held concerts and dances: 

Young girls whom I had previously seen walking about the streets were seated among the prostitutes and pimps, of whom there were a great many. … The women of the streets were also well represented and it can truly be said that most of the prostitutes in town were present.

Paul Kinsie, a 24-year-old investigator from New York, noticed that May Snyder, the manager of a brothel on Washington Street, seemed to be recruiting new workers at Brinkman Hall at 28 E. Orange St. (where the Lancaster Bar Association currently has its offices): “I am of the opinion that May comes to these dances not to get trade (clients), as the girls usually predominate, but to induce some of these beautiful girls to come to her house.”

Brinkman Hall, at 28 E. Orange Street, hosted dances on the second floor. Across the alley is the First Reformed Church.

Near the end of his monthlong investigation, Kinsie condemned Brubaker’s Dance Hall on North Duke Street:

This place, in my opinion, is the cause of the ruination of the majority of girls. Night after night the same faces can be seen in the hall, and about the streets. I have observed and learned that young girls who wish to go to the dance loiter about in the locality, and actually solicit young men to take them. I, myself, have never been solicited, which is due to the fact that the girls travel in pairs and I was always alone, but I have seen these girls flirt with fellows and within ten minutes, arm and arm, enter the dance hall. … The dancing at this hall is disgraceful. The place has won the approval of the youthful element, who frequent it, because of the fact that all suggestive and immoral dances are permitted.

After 10 o’clock, there are numerous prostitutes about the streets. They openly and boldly solicit along King, Queen, Duke, and Prince Streets. The police in many cases, know the prostitutes, and see them solicit, but do not interfere.

Leading reformers tried to close the dance halls. Twombly lobbied city officials to regulate dance halls by appointing an inspector who had the power to shut dance halls down if they allowed immoral dancing, if anyone was intoxicated, or if prostitutes were admitted. But Lancaster City Council resoundingly voted down this proposal in 1914.

Part of the proposed ordinance, published in the Morning Journal, 2 Apr. 1914.

Reformers, however, did succeed in passing a curfew ordinance in 1913. From April 1 to Oct. 1, young people under the age of 16 had to be home by 9:30 p.m. (factory whistles blew at 9:15 p.m. to call children home). The curfew was 9 p.m. for the rest of the year. Mayor Francis (“Frank”) McClain had misgivings about the curfew — which is not surprising, because his approach to vice was “live and let live.” Some leading citizens complained that police enforcement and the $1 fine were light.

These measures focused on dampening down Lancaster’s nightlife and limiting young people’s access to it. Yet such regulations hardly struck at the roots of commercial sex — the financial needs that drew women (and sometimes men) to sell sex and the gender power imbalances that marginalized women politically and socially. Dance halls, after all, did not cause of the “ruination” of women.

Resource List:

McBee, Randy. Dance Hall Days: Intimacy and Leisure Among Working-Class Immigrants in the United States. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Nasaw, David. Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

“Regulation of Dance Halls Latest Move.” Lancaster Morning Journal, 2 Apr. 1914.

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