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Speakeasy: Definition, History, and Influence

By
Matthew Krimmel


A speakeasy is an establishment that sells alcoholic beverages illegally. They became widespread in the United States during the Prohibition era from 1920 to 1933.

During those years, the manufacture, sale, and transportation (or bootlegging) of alcoholic beverages was illegal throughout the country. Because of the illegal distribution of alcohol in speakeasies, they didn't advertise their locations.

 

Etymology

A “speak softly shop”, meaning a “smuggler’s house”, appeared in a British slang dictionary in 1823. A similar phrase “speak easy shop”, meaning a place that sold unlicensed liquor, appeared in a British naval memoir published in 1844.

In the United States, the word first appeared in a newspaper article from March 21, 1889. It referred to “speak easy” as the name for a saloon in the western Pennsylvania town of McKeesport that “sells without a license.”

Owner Kate Hester told her rowdy customers to speak easy to avoid unwanted attention from neighbors and the police.

During the Prohibition era, “speakeasy” became a common name to describe an establishment to get an illegal drink.

The terms “blind pig,” “blind tiger,” and “gin joint” appeared as nicknames for speakeasies in the 19th century. The operator of these establishments would charge customers to see an attraction, such as an animal, and then serve a “complimentary” beverage.

This allowed them to get around the law without punishment. “Blind tiger” could also refer to an establishment that kept the owner's identity secret.

History

The Temperance Movement began in the 1800s and focused on limiting the amount of alcohol consumption. It became a larger issue in the early 1900s when there was a need to save grain to fight in World War I.

In 1918, The 18th Amendment banned the sale of “intoxicating liquors.” The Volstead Act, better known as the National Prohibition Act, enforced the 18th Amendment’s ban on alcohol in 1919.

However, people still wanted access to alcoholic beverages, opening the possibility of an illegal market for distributing and selling alcohol.

Speakeasies became widespread and popular during the Prohibition years in the United States. Members of organized crime viewed them as a way of making money through ownership and controlling the illegal liquor trade.

In spite of raids and arrests by police and agents of the Bureau of Prohibition, they remained very popular and continued to flourish. At the height of Prohibition in the late 1920s, New York was estimated to have around 32,000 speakeasies.

Depending on the owner’s source, the quality of the liquor sold in speakeasies ranged from very good to very poor. It was more common to use cheap liquor because it was more profitable.

Sometimes, owners deceived their patrons by selling poor-quality liquor presented as respected brand names. The average price of a bottle of alcohol ranged from four to five dollars.

Jazz Age Speakeasies

Some of the speakeasies which flourished during the Prohibition era have become iconic in American culture. Here are three well-known examples:

The 21 Club, New York

The 21 Club opened in Greenwich Village in 1922 and operated as a speakeasy called The Redhead. It changed locations in town and names several times, later becoming more upscale and rebranded as The Puncheon Club.

As soon as a raid there began, a system of levers was used to tip the shelves of the bar. This swept the bottles into a chute that emptied them into the city’s sewers. Speakeasies had to invent creative ways to hide their activities from law enforcement.

It also had a secret wine cellar that later stored private wine collections. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway, Elizabeth Taylor, and John F. Kennedy used the cellar for their wine collections.

The Krazy Kat Klub, Washington, D.C.

Also known as The Kat and Throck’s Studio, it was founded in 1919 by portraitist and scenic designer Cleon “Throck” Throckmorton. It quickly became notorious for its live jazz performances and flourished in America's capital district.

During the 1920s, it became one of the most stylish venues for Washington’s cultural elite to gather.

It was named for an androgynous character in a cartoon strip, sending a subtle message that people of all sexual orientations were welcome there.

 

The Arizona Biltmore Hotel, Phoenix

The Arizona Biltmore Hotel had a room on the second floor called the Mystery Room. It was officially called the “Men’s Smoking Room” but functioned as a speakeasy. Only guests who knew the secret password were allowed to enter.

In the room, there was a bar behind a revolving bookcase where illegal alcohol was served. A hotel employee would watch for police cars from the roof, flashing a spotlight into the skylight of the Mystery Room to alert patrons.

Legendary screen actor Clark Gable stayed in a room with a secret passage to the Mystery Room.

Near the end of the Prohibition era, Americans showed dissatisfaction with the 18th Amendment in large numbers.

This was a result of several factors:

  • The brutality of organized crime gangs attempting to control liquor
  • High unemployment rates
  • The need for tax revenue after the financial market crash in 1929.

In 1933, the 21st Amendment was passed, putting an official end to the Prohibition era in the United States.

The national experiment in social engineering had failed, and a return to the legal distribution and sale of alcohol quickly followed.

 

Cultural Influence

Speakeasies provided events that had a significant impact on American culture, including:

  • Jazz music experienced a boom in popularity during Prohibition. The large increase in nightclubs offered jazz musicians opportunities for employment. Legends Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Fats Waller all performed in speakeasies during these times.

 

  • Mixed race interactions became more common in speakeasies and the increasing popularity of jazz. People from different backgrounds gathered to enjoy a drink and listen to jazz music.

 

  • The freedom of women expanded during the time of speakeasies. Suddenly, they had the opportunity to drink alcohol with men in public in these clubs. Most welcomed women and some, such as Texas Guinan, Belle Livingston, and Helen Morgan, owned and ran speakeasies. Guinan was a former screen and stage actress who greeted her customers with “Hey Suckers!”

 

  • As gangsters began controlling the sale and distribution of alcohol, organized crime in the United States gained ground. Before the 1920s, members of criminal gangs in large American cities existed on the outer edge of society and didn’t receive much attention. Prohibition gave mobsters the opportunity to build enormous financial empires. Al Capone, Charles "Lucky" Luciano, and Guiseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria all earned millions of dollars from speakeasies and bootlegging.

 

The Modern Speakeasy

Atmosphere

Although the sale of alcohol is no longer illegal, some establishments attempt to recreate the atmosphere of Prohibition-era speakeasies. Many young people visit speakeasies for their vintage design and style.

Clothes and Accessories

Some even require clothing and accessories from the Jazz Age for entry, including fine jewelry and dancing shoes. Guests are expected to follow a dress code with formal attire.

Passwords

Modern speakeasies offer the concept of exclusivity to their patrons, even requiring passwords to gain access.

They survive by word of mouth and are more difficult to find than regular bars.

Here are five notable modern speakeasies operating today in the United States:

1. PDT, which stands for “Please Don’t Tell” is located behind a phone booth in a hot dog shop in New York City. When you arrive, enter the phone booth and dial 1 for the secret door to open. They serve cocktails and you can order a hot dog if you’re hungry.

2. Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company in Philadelphia is named after one of the biggest illegal alcohol rings in the Prohibition era. No password is required but making a reservation in advance is highly recommended.

3. Midnight Cowboy in Austin, Texas is located inside a former brothel. Look for a sign that says, “Midnight Cowboy Modeling Oriental Massage” and press the buzzer that says “Harry Braddock” to get in.

 

4. My Bar 365 is located on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. There is a regular bar on the first floor and a speakeasy on the second floor. Order a drink and have a seat on the balcony overlooking the street.

 

5. Noble Experiment in San Diego is famous for its wall of skulls. Enter Neighborhood Alehouse, a local gastropub, and pass a stack of kegs at the back to gain entry to the speakeasy. Reservations are required and recommended for at least one week in advance.

There are many unique speakeasies operating in cities and towns across the United States and around the world. If you decide to visit one, do some research to find out the requirements for entry. This could include following a dress code, knowing a password, or finding the exact location of the speakeasy. Then, enjoy your visit and imagine you're back in the days of Prohibition.