A History of Speakeasies in the USA: In the Spirit of Secrecy

Speakeasies were hidden bars that operated on the sly and flourished during the Prohibition era in the United States of America.

Jun 24, 2024By Ching Yee Lin, BA (Hons) History

speakeasies history usa

 

Written into the law in January 1919, the 18th Amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors in the United States. This precipitated a strange and troubled decade characterized by an unprecedented nationwide alcohol ban known as Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. Almost overnight, hundreds of thousands of people lost their livelihoods as saloons, breweries, and distilleries were ordered to cease operations with immediate effect. Meanwhile, alcohol-deprived Americans soon found their way to illicit, underground bars known as speakeasies.

 

The Origins of Speakeasies

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition, 1921. Source: Library of Congress, Washington

 

Despite being popularized during the Prohibition-era United States, the word speakeasy was said to have originated from across the Atlantic. Referring to illegal watering holes in 19th-century England and Ireland, its name highlighted the need for patrons to speak easily while inside in order to avoid detection. As the nationwide alcohol ban descended upon the United States in 1920, the term gained widespread usage alongside a thriving clandestine drinking culture.

 

With Prohibition laws kicking in, the only legal establishments where the use of alcohol was permitted were pharmacies and religious institutions. Alcoholics would go to all ends to obtain a medicinal liquor prescription from doctors for a range of ailments, such as headaches, nausea, and diabetes. During this period, many also became unusually religious and frequented churches more often than they normally would. As a result of the limited alcohol sources, the unceasing demand for booze spawned tens of thousands of speakeasies across the nation.

 

A medicinal liquor prescription, 1929. Source: The Mob Museum, Las Vegas

 

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Tucked away from the public eye and without an official entrance, these secret bars provided drinkers an escape from the miserable, sobering reality of Prohibition. To evade official raids, some of these underground drinking establishments put in place passwords or secret knocking patterns for patrons to gain access. As an added precaution against undercover Prohibition agents, patrons would have to know and use codewords instead of outrightly asking for liquor. Examples of codewords used when ordering alcoholic beverages during Prohibition included coffin varnish, white mule, horse liniment, and monkey rum.

 

Speakeasies Soar in Numbers and Popularity

A man behind the steel door of a speakeasy peers through the slide-opened peephole, c. 1920-1930. Source: The Mob Museum, Las Vegas

 

Nicknamed blind pigs and gin joints, the number of speakeasies in the United States skyrocketed in the 1920s. In 1922, it was believed that there were at least 5,000 speakeasies in the country. By the mid-1920s, New York City alone reportedly had more than 32,000 illegal drinking establishments. These speakeasies were operating on every corner, even in the proximity of places where saloons were once forbidden, such as schools and residential areas. Across different social strata, the love for tipples remained the same and speakeasies existed equally as makeshift saloons in rundown basements and secret passageways in swanky diners.

 

A Whole New World: Inside a Speakeasy

A woman eyes the photographer warily while standing at the door of a speakeasy in Washington, D.C., c. 1920. The Mob Museum, Las Vegas

 

Upon gaining successful entry into the speakeasy, one would be greeted by bartenders serving up a wide variety of alcoholic beverages for patrons to indulge in alongside song and dance. In these speakeasies, men and women mingled and partied and were no longer barred from consuming liquor together. People from all walks of life gathered in the speakeasies to have a good time. It was an alternate reality where gangsters and mob bosses rubbed shoulders with mayors, politicians, and even law enforcers, uniting in the name of alcohol.

 

Speakeasies were also one of the rare places where segregation was absent. Partygoers of all cultures and races drank to the wonders of alcohol with little care for existing social norms. The Amsterdam News, a New York-based newspaper, even went as far as to declare that “speakeasies have done more to improve race relations than the churches, white and black, have done in ten decades.”

 

Speakeasy in San Francisco, 1931 via Britannica

 

While the night was always young in the speakeasies with revelers in high spirits, the seasoned operators did not let their guard down easily. They remained on the lookout for any suspicious undercover federal agents hiding in the sea of partygoers. Contingent measures were also put in place to safeguard the stashes of alcohol from confiscation. Some owners had custom-made doors and secret wine cellars behind fake walls. Others went to the extent of designing a special button where alcohol bottles would automatically slide down a shaft, be broken in the process, and then drained on a pile of rocks during raids.

 

Speakeasies and the Rise of the Flappers

A flapper carrying a whiskey flask in her garter during Prohibition, c. 1920s. Source: PBS LearningMedia

 

In the pre-Prohibition era, bars and saloons were strictly all-male spaces that were out of bounds for respectable women. Now, women could enjoy a cocktail in a speakeasy away from the privy and judgemental eyes of the public. This newfound freedom went hand in hand with the rise of the Flappers—a generation of boisterous party girls who ignored traditional Victorian values. Flouting Prohibition laws was one way in which the Flappers rebelled against convention, much to the horror of their conservative parents and society. Frequenting speakeasies and indulging in alcohol and jazz music, Flappers would define the party culture characteristic of the Roaring Twenties.

 

The Connection to Bootleggers and Organized Crime

At the Hunt Club in the theatre district, you could find perhaps the best whiskey in town by Margaret Bourke-White, 1933. Source: LIFE Magazine

 

During the Prohibition era, speakeasies were operated by mob bosses and organized crime syndicates that controlled the lucrative large-scale interstate liquor smuggling. Legendary gangster Al Capone reportedly made over $60 million a year supplying bootlegged alcohol to the thousands of speakeasies that he owned. To ensure that these illicit businesses straddle the fine line between the legal and the illegal, mob bosses employed accountants and lawyers to launder the ill-gotten bucks flowing in every month. Gone were the days when mobsters used only violence and scare tactics. Prohibition had made them skilled businessmen who talked deals and strategic partnerships with rival gangs to control the lucrative bootlegging network. While the allure of the spoils had brought large crime families together at times, this fragile peace often erupted into uncontrollable turf wars and gang fights.

 

Mugshots of Al Capone taken by the Miami Police, 1930s. Source: History

 

These crime syndicates also hired both experienced and amateur home brewers to diversify their sources of alcohol. As a result, alcohol sold in speakeasies was often of dubious origins. It could range from watered-down whiskey to bathtub gin which sometimes contained questionable ingredients such as rotten meat. Industrial grain alcohol would be redistilled for sale to speakeasies, even though it could be unsafe for drinking. To make these low-quality spirits appear more palatable to patrons, ingenious bartenders relied on canned fruit juices, maple syrup, colas, and other forms of sweeteners. This inadvertently birthed many of the classic cocktails we know and love today, such as Sidecar and Bee’s Knees.

 

End of Prohibition and the Gradual Decline of Speakeasies

Authorities photographed with the largest still ever seized in the national capitol during Prohibition, 1922. Source: Library of Congress, Washington

 

As it later turned out, Prohibition proved to be an ill-conceived policy that had sparked more controversies and problems for America. Originally intended to curb alcoholism and its perceivably associated problems, Prohibition seemingly encouraged more of these social ills. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Americans not only continued to drink but also went further to extremes to obtain and enjoy alcohol. This led to the rapid growth of organized crime syndicates and bootlegging networks, with heightened gang violence sparking public outcry and increased calls for the repeal of Prohibition. The failure of law enforcement, evident in federal agents and policemen easily being bribed to turn a blind eye to criminal activities, further highlighted the fallacy of Prohibition.

 

A “beer for taxation” rally makes its way in mid-Manhattan, 1932. Source: AP Images

 

The Great Depression of 1929 would also accelerate the end of Prohibition as the American economy crashed and millions lost their jobs and declared bankruptcy. Many began to regard potential income generated from alcohol sales and tax as a viable economic lifeline. At the same time, ending Prohibition would also directly create tens of thousands of jobs for an economy besieged by high unemployment rates. These sentiments would intensify and culminate in the 21st Amendment of 1933, which repealed the 18th Amendment, much to the joy of millions of Americans. Without the burden of the law, people could once again openly enjoy a tipple in reopened saloons and bars in various parts of the country. Speakeasies gradually went into decline and with it, the distinctive clandestine drinking culture that had defined a generation of Americans.

 

Resurgence and Legacy of Speakeasies

An image showing one of the Chicago Loop hotels when beer started flowing, following the repeal of Prohibition, 1933. Source: AP Images

 

In today’s day and age, most drinking establishments do not require one to be discreet or sneak around when it comes to having a nice beer. However, the aesthetic and nostalgic appeal of speakeasies has seen them enjoy quite a resurgence in recent decades. Pubs and bars mimicking the illicit watering holes of the Prohibition era have sprouted all over the world. As with their predecessors of the 1920s and 1930s, they could be hidden behind innocent shopfronts of florists and laundromats or nestled within cafes and restaurants.

 

Homage to an era: The entrance to PDT (Please Don’t Tell), a speakeasy in the East Village, via a telephone booth with a secret door inside a hot dog restaurant, c. 2000. Source: The New York Times

 

Typically decked in décor reminiscent of the early 20th century, these speakeasies often featured dim lighting, bartenders dressed in retro outfits, and a menu boasting Prohibition-era cocktails. While it has been more than a century since speakeasies first thrived during Prohibition, they have arguably changed American drinking culture forever. Their profound legacy remains deeply connected to American society today which is evident from the growing nostalgia for the Roaring Twenties and the increasing number of speakeasy-themed bars nationwide.

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By Ching Yee LinBA (Hons) HistoryBased in Singapore, Ching Yee is a copywriter who focuses on the historical and contemporary issues concerning the Singapore society. She holds a BA (Hons) in History from the National University of Singapore and is passionate about topics related to social and cultural history of Asian societies. In her spare time, she enjoys pottery and watching films.