Wicked Waters Explores Demon Liquor in Idaho 

Prohibition era exhibit opens at Idaho State Historical Museum

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In the back room of the Idaho State Historical Museum, historian and Boise State graduate student Sarah Phillips lifted an antique, loose-waist Georgette dress out of a plastic bin.

"This belonged to Emma Alexander, the daughter of Idaho Gov. Moses Alexander," said Phillips. "It's similar to the flapper style from the time period."

The dress typified a transitional time period in America from 1919-1933, a time when liquor was illegal in the United States. Phillips sifted through other assorted relics in another bin--old political rally ribbons, suffrage pins, temperance movement buttons and an Idaho State Constabulary badge. The pieces make up Phillips' new exhibit at the museum, Wicked Waters: Idaho's Prohibition Era, which will open First Thursday, May 3.

"There was more moonshining and more illegal drinking in Idaho than just about any other state in the nation," Phillips added. "In Pocatello, there was 10-times more illegal drinking per capita than there was in Philadelphia."

Historians say that what people most often associate with prohibition--the Chicago area rum-running, flapper girls, speakeasies, Al Capone and his big cigar-chomping grin--are Hollywood's attempts to add allure.

"A lot of people completely focus on the crime. It's really fun because it's sexy. It's the mobsters and the flappers. It's glamorized," Phillips said.

But in Boise, moonshining didn't include shoot-outs and Thompson submachine guns. Liquor was brewed, often in bathtubs, in the quiet parts of Lewiston, Pocatello and the Treasure Valley. Homebrewing was commonplace.

"There was quite a bit of it during Prohibition," said beer historian Herman Ronnenberg. "They started selling malt extracts in cans. Anheuser-Busch started selling them and said they were for making cookies. You had to disguise it as something else."

But Phillips' exhibit focuses less on hooch than on women, the driving force behind turning Idaho and the rest of the country dry. In Boise, the initiative was spearheaded by well-to-do society members, with the Legislature approving statewide prohibition in 1916, three years before the 18th Amendment was ratified.

"They were the gentlewomen of the town, the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, upper-class ladies," said Todd Shallat, director of Boise State's Center for Idaho History and Politics. "They were the Warm Springs and Grove Street crowd. They tried to purify and sanctify and to clean up the scum."

Shallat leads tours of downtown Boise's past. He said that the seedy underbelly of downtown was once housed in Old Boise, where the present-day Sixth and Main street bars reside. Outside those saloons, women assembled to fight "the liquor curse" in America.

"I think a lot of people don't necessarily realize that suffrage and temperance were working hand-in-hand for a while," said Phillips.

The Women's Christian Temperance Union, crusaders against "demon liquor," commissioned and installed drinking fountains in downtown Boise. A large brass basin, perched atop a pedestal inlaid with a rusting floral pattern, sits at the corner of Capitol Boulevard and Idaho Street, outside Boise City Hall.

"As part of the crusade for temperance, they built these brass fountains around town," said Shallat. "They built them in front of saloons so people wouldn't have to go inside to have a drink."

The history of the time period is locked in such relics. Others, like materials from a woman's vanity, an empty whiskey jug and a "mechanical temperance propaganda puppet" can also be found in Phillips' exhibit.

"There were some people who thought alcohol was 'demon rum,' it was just evil. And other people thought that it was like any war on drugs, it was really an attempt to attack and marginalize specific groups," said Shallat.

Many wanted to crack down on minority groups, said Shallat and Phillips. They used the ban on hard liquors to gain political leverage over the Democrats of the time period, who pulled power from immigrant-dense districts.

"Certain drugs were targeted and others were ignored. Like they ignored beer. There were more breweries than churches in this town," said Shallat.

The Irish, the Chinese, Bohemians and many Catholics were all "wet" groups, which partook of wine and liquor. The dry Protestants spearheaded the xenophobic effort. But at the same time, many nursed interest in ancient Egyptian culture, leading to the construction of the downtown Egyptian Theatre.

"Some people attribute women's makeup of the '20s--like the darker red lips and the really cat-eyed look--to that Egyptian look. One of the things that I wish I had been able to include in the exhibit: I wanted to look at women's underwear," said Phillips.

Phillips admits it's an unorthodox way to look at history and people often laugh when they hear it. But just before 1900, women dressed in a much more lascivious fashion, as evidenced by their corsets and undergarments.

"They're the Gibson Girl, the big pretty hair and the S-shape--tightly corseted, very curvy," said Phillips. "You compare that to just years later, all of a sudden you start seeing these ads that advertise boyish figures."

Phillips and other historians attribute this change in fashion to the women's movement. The self-empowered flapper fashion sprang up during Prohibition as part of the decadent, speakeasy lifestyle. Women, as much as crime and moonshining, play a large part in the narrative of Prohibition.

"It all kind of ties to suffrage. Women wanted to ... to be seen as equal," she said. "You can see so much of the other social issues going on just by the underwear."

Gov. Alexander eventually signed the bill bringing Prohibition to Idaho. But the next generation was already moving away from temperance, as typified by Alexander's daughter, Emma. Her flapper dress, brown from age and covered in delicate beadwork, epitomizes the rift that began to rise between the two generations.

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