Utah-made Five Wives Vodka scored free publicity all over the Web this week, thanks to the historical photo on the Ogden's Own Distillery label that prompted Idaho's statewide ban.
The vodka label depicting five turn-of-the-20th-century women dressed in undergarments holding strategically placed kittens was deemed "offensive to a prominent segment of our population," according to Howard Wasserstein, deputy director of the Idaho State Liquor Division.
"We're not trying to offend anyone," said Ogden's Own Distillery owner Tim Smith told the Tribune when the controversy broke Tuesday, describing the photograph with women holding kittens "in an area that's a little lower than their belly buttons." Smith added: "It's just a cute historical photograph we found on the Internet."
But the backstory to that photograph goes beyond cute. The photograph depicts the notorious Barrison Sisters, immigrants from Denmark who toured the United States and Europe as hit vaudeville performers between 1890 and 1910.
The Barrison Sisters were accustomed to scandalizing audience members. In fact, they made their living at it, including using that cat photo as one of their promotional photos.
Women vaudevillians of the day often relied on gimmicks and sensual allure to beguile audiences, according to Sydney Cheek-O'Donnell, who teaches theater history at the University of Utah.
Early vaudeville was racy and raunchy, reflecting its forerunner, variety theater, which "was not for good Christian women," Cheek-O'Donnell said.
The Barrison Sisters gained notoriety for their "Cat Dance," according to the Tumblr.com website. The act's big finale occurred when the performers would raise their skirts "revealing that each sister was wearing underwear of their own manufacture that had a live kitten secured over the crotch."
That act, repeatedly, brought down the house.
"It seems the Barrison Sisters come more out of the earlier [variety show] tradition," Cheek-O'Donnell said. "There were women who were doing some 'out there' stuff.' "
The Barrison Sisters didn't play to packed houses, apparently, because of their talent. Instead, they're remembered as only average dancers, their voices high and squeaky. It was their double entendre-filled, boundary-pushing act that led the sisters Lona, Sophia, Inger, Olga and Gertrude to be dubbed "The Wickedest Girls in the World," according to Darrian D'Addario at afflictor.com website.
While the "Cat Dance" was the Barrison Sisters' bread and butter, it was Lona who elevated sex to the level that may have sparked some outraged Victorian ladies to flee the theater, according to a New York Times review from Oct. 6, 1896.
In an age when proper women kept their bodies covered, Lona Barrison pranced about the stage in men's attire before she shed it to reveal tights underneath, all the while singing suggestive songs in French to keep the censors at bay, the review said.
And then there was Lona's finale number, which got the Barrison Sisters booted out of some venues. She rode a well-endowed white stallion onto the stage. Then, with only her tights between her and the horse, she sang again in French about how exhilarated she felt with a good, strong steed between her legs.
"Its the most audacious piece of eviltry and abandonment I ever saw offered to a New York public," one gentleman was quoted saying as he left the theater.
While these antics seem tame to anyone who has seen an episode of HBO's "Girls," yet they were provocative enough to fill theaters of the day, while inspiring other "sister" acts.
After the Barrison Sisters broke up, Lona and Gertrude continued to have prosperous solo careers, with Gertrude performing as a ground-breaking modern dancer in Vienna.
Although Salt Lake City audiences of the era flocked to see vaudeville acts in theaters such as the Capitol and the Orpheum, which opened at 132 S. State St. on Christmas Day 1905, it's unlikely the Barrison Sisters brought their act to Utah.
Nevertheless, the sisters would probably find the whole mishmash over their promotion photo on Five Wives Volka amusing.
A New York Times brief from April 3, 1898 recorded how the Barrison Sisters were banned from performing in all of Berlin, that ban extending to all of Prussia.
Perhaps those Victorian-era provocateurs wouldn't be surprised by their likeness landing on a liquor bottle, which sparked a ban across the entire state of Idaho.
Backing the wives
Sponsorship • Because of overwhelming support from the Idaho community, Ogden's Own Distillery will remain involved in the Boise Music Festival as a sponsor. However, Five Wives Vodka will not be available for purchase in Idaho.
T-shirts • More than 1,000 "Free the Five Wives" T-shirts had been sold in the past three days. Proceeds from Idaho sales of the shirts will be used to sponsor the music festival.