In New Orleans at the end of the 18th Century, a wealthy white man would generally live on his plantation with his wife and children, but he would also have a townhouse in New Orleans where his other family lived: his quadroon mistress and the children he had made with her.
To the men and women involved, these marriages de la main gauche (left-handed marriages) were honourable arrangements. The women were faithful to their protectors, and the men were expected to provide for their children. It was what a gentleman did.
Girls were as carefully raised and protected as their white counterparts, and, when they were old enough, introduced to wealthy white men at the weekly quadroon balls – elegant affairs that only white men and quadroon women were permitted to attend. A man attracted to a particular girl would need to negotiate with her mother, and she would probably insist of various protections in writing before the girl was allowed to move into the house her new protectors would purchase for her.
As time passed, institutionalised racism grew, and the system was no longer officially sanctioned. This made it easier for the legal wife and ‘legitimate’ children to cheat the placée and her children out of their inheritance.
By the end of the reconstruction period following the American Civil War, many families of former placées were impoverished, and their daughters had few options. However, their beauty, education, grace, and charm meant success in the city’s sex trade, as courtesans and madams. Their grandmothers and greatgrandmothers would have been horrified.
The image shows women at one of the last of the quadroon balls.