Prohibition in Vermont and the creation of the powder room

Back in the day, Vermont was perfectly suited to Prohibition-era smuggling and adventure. Our proximity to Canada, where alcohol was enjoyed legally, and our rugged rural terrain made our little state prime bootlegging territory. In 1920 when Prohibition went into effect, Vermont’s population was 350,000. There were only 2,500 federal agents enforcing the law nationally, their eyes were focused on bigger prizes like Chicago and Detroit.

Suffice it to say that Vermont was not quite as dry as other states at the time. With some ingenuity and two fabulous waterways bordering Canada, Lake Champlain and Lake Memphremagog, plenty of glasses clinked in Vermont during the 1920’s, though not many fortunes were made. Like the characters is Howard Frank Mosher’s Disappearances, a novel about Prohibition-era Vermont, many Vermonters who became involved in rum-running were struggling farmers fighting to keep life and limb together. They were essentially good people who needed a little extra money.

One ironic legacy from this era is the powder room, or ladies toilet. Before Prohibition, drinking was a gender segregated activity. During Prohibition, caution was tossed to the winds and men and women imbibed together publicly. But of course they could not answer nature’s call together, that would be unseemly.

The sudden (and welcomed) influx of women into the Speakeasy necessitated the speedy construction of bathrooms just for the ladies. These facilities were usually built under stairs or in unoccupied corners of the establishment. These half baths were called powder rooms…for the girls. The irony is that the Anti-Saloon League, the greatest proponent of Prohibition, was organized to protect women and children from their drunken husbands and fathers. Instead it earned them a little privacy and respect in the saloon.

We can vicariously enjoy this dynamic history through the great Vermont historic homes built before 1920. If only the walls could talk…


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