The Yellow Ordinance: Fact or Fiction?

Originally Published June 24, 2010

According to several sources, in the 1890s, the city fathers, tired of hearing the city mothers complain about the number of ladies of the evening that inhabited an otherwise up and coming wealthy portion of Denver, decided to create an ordinance in which every one of these ladies was required to wear a yellow ribbon, a yellow armband, or yellow piece of clothing. (All of the sources vary as to which was the right one.)

Of course, this was upsetting to all the ladies of Denver; the fine upstanding mothers of the community complained that this prohibited them from wearing a much favored color, because they would then themselves be marked as a lady of the evening. The madams, the working girls, even the crib girls were equally upset – why should they mark themselves if they just wanted to go to the shops and were not working?

As the stories go, the fifteen madams of Denver got together and devised a plan. In my mind, it was probably more a few of the madams who were friends got together and in a friendly feast and complain session, this ingenious idea was tossed out as first a joke, and then taken seriously as the ladies talked more.
So dressmakers were contacted, milliners, shoe shops were all in a joy, as they prepared outfits for over one thousand women. And on the appointed day, the plan was implemented.
Forgoing their usual morning sleep in after working the night before, all the ladies of the evening got up, dressed in their lovely new clothes – all yellow. Hat, dress, shoes, accessories – all a lovely shade of bright yellow. And then all one thousand plus ladies went out on the town, flooding the shops, restaurants, and businesses of downtown Denver in a near literal sea of yellow. People were shocked, amazed, and the city council instantly repealed what came to be known as the yellow ordinance.

Good story, isn’t it? But that is indeed all it may be. The story originated with Forbes Parkhill, a noted newspaperman at the turn of the century, and later a prolific historian and author, whose research and work was usually very accurate. So accurate, that other authors in later years wrote about the event, citing Mr. Parkhill as a valid source. However, a search for the ordinance records yielded a slight problem; the books had cleverly hidden themselves in the Denver Public Library archives, and are currently still in hiding. Talking with the esteemed librarians of the Western History and Resource room, there is the idea floating about that this ordinance, perhaps, was a compete fabrication.
So was it a story made up by Mr. Parkhill, to further enhance the already wild times of Holladay Street, was it a story told to him by someone who had been a valid source before and who had hoped to impress Mr. Parkhill, or is it really the truth? Until the ordinances can be found, it remains a Denver Mystery.


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