Small But Mighty
The Old Idaho Penitentiary is part of the Idaho State Historical Society and has been open as a museum since 1974. From 1872-1973 it operated as the Idaho Territorial prison and Idaho State Penitentiary, and according to Jacey Brain, visitor services coordinator and store manager, is also one of only four territorial (pre-statehood) prisons open for public visitation.
Today, visitors experience over 100 years of the prison history, specifically stories of individuals who lived and worked at the penitentiary. “Through our unique approach to interpretation emphasizing the human experience, visitors inform their opinions on themes in corrections and justice while placing the site and its many stories in a historic context related to current issues,” said Brain.
Over 70,000 guests visit Old Idaho Penitentiary each year and the staff is “small but mighty with only a few full-time staff members positioned here, along with a great team of volunteers, part-time staff and administrative assistance,” he shared.
“Many people stop by during quick stops in the city. After successfully experimenting with adding to our gift store, we understood the possibilities that this program held and its potential benefits for the site and for visitors,” he said. “During some downtime in early 2020 at the height of the COVID pandemic, we took the opportunity to invest in this space, refresh our inventory, move the store to a larger space, and rename it Souvenir Confinement at the Old Idaho Penitentiary. Since we began devoting additional time and energy to our store, our annual intake has more than tripled.”
“During the site’s major growth as a museum and tourist destination in the 2000s and 2010s, the site gradually expanded its operations from having no retail presence to a small ‘wall’ of shirts, mugs, shot glasses, magnets and books. The essentials performed well and provided guests with something to commemorate their experience with. Due to the site’s isolated location outside of downtown Boise, and few other nearby shopping options, Boise and Idaho-related souvenirs proved essential, along with a selection of products related to the area’s natural, mountainous surroundings.”
In 2020 the gift shop, Souvenir Confinement, was relocated to be adjacent to the admissions desk, in its own space that was once the prison’s commissary. “We expanded the roster of custom products, including Old Idaho Penitentiary socks, canteens and growlers, additional keychains, magnets, stickers, and more. With a 101-year prison history bridging the Gold Rush era to the social change of the 1960s and 1970s, along with a theme centered around the historic commissary, opportunities for creativity have come naturally.”
Spring break season marks the start of its “busy” season, which lasts through the summer. Halloween provides another surge of visitors and excitement. “We have embraced seasonal displays with a retro, era-appropriate approach to Halloween and Christmas, along with displays that highlight the site’s major exhibits and events, including Disturbing Justice, an exhibit that examines the site’s historic riots and disturbances through original graphic novel artwork, and Big Treble, an annual pop-up exhibit reflecting on music’s role at the prison. Visitors can pick up anything from books on the history of comics to items that speak to humans’ nostalgic and expressive relationship with music,” Brain described.
Special events also provide interest and attract attendance. “As a museum store, the shop serves as an extended arm of the site’s educational programming,” he said. Every Memorial Day weekend, it hosts Dennis the Cat Day, which is a day that honors Dennis, a tuxedo cat, that lived at the penitentiary from the mid 1950s to late ‘60s, and he has become the mascot and his prisoner-designed headstone is popular with guests. The store offers a Dennis plush toy that includes his story as well as other historic site animals that include Bloodhound, Selam the horse, Zipper the Cat and Champ the Bullfrog.
“Souvenir Confinement also offers a selection of merchandise branded to the Old Idaho Penitentiary’s popular Behind Gray Walls podcast, doubling as an opportunity to build awareness and serve its fans. We do participate in Museum Store Sunday each year, along with our ‘sister store’ at the Idaho State Museum,” Brain shared.
Offerings include a mix of well-known products and local wares. Metal Earth puzzles, Funk Pop! Figures, such as Babe Ruth and Elvis Presley, and Hammond’s Candies products are popular. “We actively seek out local vendors for design and production of custom items such as apparel and drinkware,” he said. Shoppers enjoy the local and regional product offerings that include bamboo toothbrushes from Gaia Industries, artwork from Polly Barret and locally designed Lucky Duck board games.
“As a historic site tied directly to its home city and state, and being a destination for tourists and travelers, custom items such as shirts, books, magnets, mugs and postcards, and even guitar picks and striped beanies, remain our best-sellers,” Brain described. Tube puzzles from Cavallini & Co., retro toys such as harmonicas, from Schylling, plush from Aurora and tin magnet sets from Kate’s Magnets — customized for the store — are best-selling items.
“Our relationship with Idaho Correctional Industries (CI) formed a breakthrough connection with the Idaho Department of Corrections (IDOC), marking a return to the prison’s history of selling prisoner-produced art and hobby crafts to support the site’s programs and incarcerated men and women,” Brain noted. Screen-printed sweatshirts and custom Christmas ornaments are produced by the CI program, which provides the opportunity of a partnership expansion that Brain said can “offer unique pieces that tell individual stories.”
Annually, Old Idaho Penitentiary hosts 32 Cells Art Show and 13 Stories Film Competition that have captured the interest of Idaho artists and resulted in a collection of original art based upon the stories of the penitentiary itself. “We are publishing a hardcover book featuring art from the first five years of the 32 Cells show later this year. We value relationships with national vendors as much as we do local partners, and we evaluate every opportunity as they arise. Vendors typically become long-term family members with a welcomed continual presence on our shelves,” Brain emphasized.
Sourcing of product is completed through online marketplaces and wholesale malls. Connections and partnerships with sales representatives are also utilized. “However, local travel to farmer’s markets and special events, along with social media searches and word-of-mouth often result in our most unique partnerships,” he said.
“Museums and historic sites that tell difficult history must carry the same reverence through their retail operations by ensuring that items directly related to the site are appropriately designed. In addition, we are creative in our use of special themes and seasonal items, and supportive of the site’s mission by offering a significant selection of books on prison history and relevant topics involving incarceration and justice,” he emphasized.
The Souvenir Confinement’s environment utilizes wood and industrial materials for merchandising, Brain explained. This includes the use of crates and metal containers. “This reconstruction of the prison store has also resulted in the successful addition of food and drink items. Through a combination of locally produced and appropriately themed national products, our visitors have appreciated the option to add candy, snack and cooking items to their purchases,” he noted.
Social media platforms are utilized to promote the retail offerings, while newsletters are used to communicate with members, volunteers and staff. Brain detailed that social media is also used for special marketing campaigns as well as holiday promotions for both its brick-and-mortar and online store.
“At the Old Idaho Penitentiary, we often use in-store displays to promote special events and exhibits. We also take our merchandise on the road via pop-up stores, including the Idaho State Museum’s holiday events and Museum Store Sunday campaign, as well as the Boise Museum Association’s annual International Museum Day event. During large events with heavy site traffic, we have built small satellite stores in other locations inside the Old Idaho Penitentiary to increase sales and reduce crowding,” Brain emphasized.
Brain revealed that his greatest success came from “experimentation and seizing opportunities for creativity.” He shared that the museums’ educational missions and the need for fundraising do not often connect easily, yet “by utilizing our ability to sustain retail operations for the promotion of our programs and the preservation of the site, we have been able to build Souvenir Confinement into an essential part of the Old Idaho Penitentiary experience.”