Food by VICE

How a Busty, Beer-Balancing Bar Owner Became a Feminist Icon in 1950s Iowa

At a glance, Ruthie Fontanini may look like just another pin-up girl—but her story made her an antihero outlaw way ahead of her time.

by Mandy Naglich
Nov 13 2019, 6:26pm

Photo Courtesy of Exile Brewing Co.

At almost every bar in Des Moines, there is a very distinct tap handle. It’s the marker of one of the most popular locally brewed craft beers in the state, and it depicts a brunette woman balancing two pint glasses on... her breasts.

When I saw this little sculpture, I immediately snapped a picture, ready to fire off a disappointed tweet about how people just can't keep boobs out of beer. But, upon commenting on the tap handle to my bartender, she replied, "You know, she was a real woman, and she owned her own bar right here in Des Moines all the way back in the 50s." Apparently, everyone pouring Exile Brewing Company's golden lager knows the story of Ruthie Fonanini, the real-life bar owner whose clever trick made her and the city of Des Moines famous.

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Photo by the author

Exile Brewing founder R. J. Tursi is responsible for bringing Ruthie Fontanini and her story back into the local spotlight nearly 50 years after her iconic bar, Ruthie’s Lounge, shut its doors. His best-selling beer, named Ruthie, sells more than 7,000 barrels each year in Iowa, making it the best selling Iowa-made beer in the state.

Ruthie Fontanini (who later went by Ruthie Bisignano, among a handful of other names) was one of very few women—if not the only woman—that owned and operated a bar in Des Moines in the early 1950s. She became famous for that bar trick of balancing two pint glasses on her bosom, filling them, and serving them perched on her chest without ever touching them with her hands.

From politicians to traveling salesmen, everyone making their way through Iowa wanted to stop by and see Ruthie in action. And she knew it. Ruthie was a consummate businesswoman and charged 50 cents a pint when every other pub in town could only fetch 17 cents.

But as famous as she was for her unique barkeeping skills, it’s her run-ins with the law that launched her from local celebrity to international antihero.

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Photo Courtesy of Exile Brewing Co.

Ruthie was charged with indecency in May 1953, and the case—while dismissed for lack of evidence—garnered headlines like “Her Beer-Bosom Act Gets a Head” and “Buxom Barmaid Is Freed.” Policeman Frank Manny wouldn’t give up on nabbing Ruthie, and brought her to jail again in June under similar charges. This repeated call to defend herself drew international attention, with news clips popping up as far away as Australia. It’s also what Bill Bryson remembered Ruthie for in his memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. On July 9, 1953, Ruthie was once again proclaimed innocent, bursting into tears when the announcement was made, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Perhaps the reporter made note of Ruthie’s tears because she had a reputation for being “sassy” and “tough.” Former customers remember her for her quick wit and independence. One customer told Tursi, “He tried to get served by Ruthie when he was underaged. She let him order, and pay, and then she told him to get out and kept his money.” Former Des Moines Register columnist George Mills was quoted after Ruthie’s death in 1993 saying, “If someone came to watch, and didn’t buy any beer, she’d say, ‘Put something on the bar besides your elbows.’”

Ruthie was part of the beer lineup from the first day Tursi opened Exile Brewing in 2012, but the label didn’t always have such an empowering look. “[Ruthie] started with more of a pin-up look but that never felt right, especially as the brand began to grow,” said Tursi. That’s when Ramona Muse Lambert, the illustrator entrusted to redesign the beers look, gave the brew a new look.

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Photo by the author

“When it came to Ruthie, she had this body positive empowerment feeling. She was like, ‘I’m going to make a bunch of money doing this crazy thing’,” said Lambert.

As she dug through the pictures and newspaper clippings given to the brewery by nostalgic customers, Lambert found an image with other smiling women in the background as Ruthie performed her signature move. “It seemed like they were rooting for her, like they were her friends instead of men looking at her.”

Ruthie’s new design has her looking at the bottles of beer and concentrating on her balance instead of flirtatiously gazing at onlookers like the first version of the label. Her previous crop top and skimpy shorts have been updated to a short-sleeved shirt and belted pants.

“This woman was a force, not a helpless creature being watched; there’s more meat to it than that,” Lambert added.

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The old Ruthie sign. Photo by the author

Now, as a beer enthusiast and as a woman in the craft brewing world, that’s the feeling I get when I look at a bottle of Ruthie. Believe it or not, it’s not about the boobs. I see a powerful woman in her element performing the feat that made her an icon. But, of course, not everyone sees it that way.

“We do get complaints, but not too frequently. I use it as a time to tell the story of Ruthie… She was the epitome of a feminist, and I love that we can keep her story alive,” said Erin Muir, marketing associate at Exile Brewing Co.

Maybe it’s the red, yellow, and blue color scheme. Or maybe it’s that “Yes, we can” attitude. But there is a definite parallel between this image of Ruthie and the iconic Rosie the Riveter illustration. Ruthie is there to promote the same sentiment as Rosie, but using ownership of her sexuality and bodily autonomy instead of her flexed bicep.

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Photo by the author

Even in the 1950s, she was out to prove that yes, women can drink beer, and furthermore women can own their own bar. But it's worth a reminder even today that women can do whatever we want with our bodies, and we should be respected and taken seriously regardless of that choice.

So I was wrong. Sometimes, boobs do belong in beer.

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beer
ruthie fontanini
exile brewing company
ruthie's lounge