City ordinance in 1918 forbid ‘Goo-Goo Eyes’

Published on Sunday, 24 November 2013 22:23 - Written by FAITH HARPER fharper@tylerpaper.com

At the turn of the century, when gender roles began to change and women spent more time outside the home, Tyler lawmakers enacted ordinances protecting them from unwanted male advances and more.

Vicki Betts, a member of the Smith County Historical Society and librarian at the University of Texas at Tyler, researched Tyler ordinances in the Progressive Era, which she said was a time of social activism and political reform in the United States. It ran from 1890 to 1920, she said.

She presented her research “Sex and the Progressive Era: Tyler City Ordinances Dealing with Cross-Dressing, Prostitution and Goo-Goo eyes” to the historical society in early November.

“Progressives believed that the family was the foundation of American society, and government, particularly local government, should work to strengthen and enhance the family,” she said.

Ms. Betts said that in December 1918, the Tyler City Commission passed a comprehensive set of ordinances outlawing many behaviors frowned upon by local leaders.

“Until the early years of the 20th Century, Tyler was still a country town in a rural county…” she said. “Now girls were moving away from home, into town, going to (Tyler) Commercial College, working in offices … passing men they didn’t know who were making some level of advances toward them. It made some of the girls uncomfortable, but what’s more important — it made their fathers very uncomfortable.”

The list included boisterous language and lewd gestures.

Section 6 barred men from making “Goo-Goo Eyes” at women in public places.

It read: “Hereafter it shall be unlawful for any male person in the City of Tyler to stare at or make what is commonly called ‘Goo-Goo Eyes’ at, to in any other manner look at, or make remarks to or concerning or cough, or whistle at, or by any other act to attract the attention of any woman … upon, or traveling along any ... public place in the City of Tyler with the intent or in a manner calculated to annoy to attempt to flirt with such woman …”

Ms. Betts said the term came from a popular song, and Tyler followed Houston, which enacted a goo-goo eye ordinance in 1905.

Within two weeks, four people were arrested for violating the ordinance on West Elm Street, Betts said. Each was fined $5 plus court costs for a total of $12.85 each. She said the incident was chronicled in the Jan. 20, 1919, Tyler Daily Courier-Times, and more may have been arrested, but police records for the time no longer exist.

“These four people who engaged in goo-gooing should be a lesson to other goo-gooers, for goo-gooing is a pretty costly proposition at $12.85 per goo-goo,” the article stated.

The ordinance is no longer on the books, and likely was eliminated in 1978 when the city reworked and reduced its ordinances. In 1888, a Tyler city ordinance made “houses of ill fame” illegal. Anyone found to be operating or working in one could be convicted of a misdemeanor and fined up to $100 and 15 days in jail. Anyone in the company of a “female vagrant” and “paying attention to her as such” could be fined $50.

Two years later, an additional ordinance was proposed forbidding the “unlawful assembling of two or more females in public streets,” Ms. Betts said. It never passed.

“Evidently that was a little vague or perhaps was resented by the proper ladies of Tyler because it never made it out of committee,” Ms. Betts said.

The city also passed a curfew, limiting boys from being in public after 9 p.m. The time was 10 p.m. for females. Women also were prohibited from hanging around saloons, Ms. Betts said.

In December 1894, local police arrested 15 women vagrants and fined them $8 each, Ms. Betts said. They also arrested two women for loitering near a saloon. They were fined $10 and issued 18 days of work.

But despite the ordinances, the world’s oldest profession was alive and well in Tyler.

The 1900 census lists three houses of ill fame in Tyler, all near the railroads. By the 1910s, Minnie Murray, who was listed in the census as “keeper of house of ill fame,” operated a two-story establishment for high-class clients, Ms. Betts said.

The brick and mortar home was on Fannin Street and was decorated in the highest fashion of the day. Upstairs, there were roughly eight rooms roughly 10-by12-feet, each with a closet and a window. The structure stood until the mid-1980s, she said.

All of the establishments were raided and closed in 1916 by Sheriff Luck Tucker, in a move that was tied to progressive reforms and improvements, she said.

Ms. Betts said the “Goo-Goo Eyes” ordinance passed a year before Tyler opened a brand new World Young Women’s Christian Association (WYCA), which leads her to believe the ordinances were intended to protect young ladies as they became more visible in society.

“Poor fathers,” she joked. “The roaring ’20s were around the corner.”