The Naughty Retail History of Canalside – Buffalo, NY


This a redesign of the original 1893 “Map of the Retail Places of Business.” It is available for purchase by clicking through to the main site.

When the Erie Canal opened in 1825, Buffalo quickly grew to become a rough and tumble town where buying, selling, trading, and all other forms of commerce sprang out of (and around) its varied canal system.

Coming from the west were the massive freighters and steam ships of the Great Lakes. Often, crew were paid in Buffalo and, after a lengthy stay onboard, the men were keen to spend freely and party like, well, drunken sailors.

In Buffalo’s early days, there were plenty of places to enjoy along the harbor – stores, restaurants, salons and a host of free theatre saloons. What most caught the sailors attention, however, were the 107 saloons where they could quench even their deepest thirst.

And, for those whose thirst was of a slightly more naughty variety, they had their choice of 75 different brothels – noted in this 1893 map’s index as “Houses of Ill Fame.” During large segments of the 1800s legalized prostitution was alive and well in Buffalo, and across the United States.

A wide variety of business was bountiful during this high time in Buffalo’s history, and prostitution was no exception. As more visitors and tradesmen flooded in from the east, the need for goods and services increased rapidly.

It’s common in today’s capitalistic world to hear stories of ‘turf wars’ … but none quite like the brawl that occurred in Buffalo in the days surrounding the 1901 Pan-American Exposition.

The Pan-Am Expo was the World’s Fair of its day, and it was proudly being held in Buffalo. People from all around the world traveled to the Queen City to see the latest wonders, including the famed Electric Tower.

Seeing the international event as an opportunity to increase their own business, prostitutes from New York City began to travel to the area. Their plan was to oust the so-calledBuffalo Galsfrom their own city. But, as explained in Love for Sale, the Buffalo Gals would have none of it:

When word of their endeavor got out, Buffalo’s night women temporarily set aside their differences in an effort to fight back: armed with clubs, knives, and stiletto heels, at the end of it all, not only were the pride and bodies of the invading women severely wounded, but they were personally escorted by police back to New York City on packet boats and trains.

I’m not sure if that particular win makes up for the Super Bowl loss, but it does seem to be an historic source of pride for some of us locals.

As Buffalo’s waterfront enjoys a well-deserved renaissance, business at Canalside is alive and well again, as it was 122 years ago. Even so, finding someone working in the “world’s oldest profession” might be a bit more difficult than simply looking on a map.

Bob Orrange was born and raised in Buffalo, NY and still makes Western New York his home. He considers its history a constant companion. 

This blog post is the first in our series Local History Lovers, where we will feature locals telling some of their favorite stories from the history of their hometowns. If you’d like to write your own, please contact us at any time!

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