Did you know that during Prohibition, the average American drank more than a gallon of alcohol a year? A lot of this alcohol came from speakeasies, illegal establishments that secretly served alcohol. These social gathering places offered more than just drinks; however - they became an important incubator for later cultural movements.
Speakeasies have a fascinating history, and they're beginning to make a comeback today. Read on to learn more about the fascinating history of speakeasies and what they look like today.
The Temperance Movement
Before we dive into the history of speakeasies, we have to talk about the Temperance Movement from which they were born. During the early 1800s, the United States began to see a shift in the way alcohol consumption was viewed. While it had previously been a normal part of daily life often safer to drink than water people began to view alcohol as dangerous.
Women were at the forefront of the Temperance Movement, partly to reduce the amount of domestic abuse they experienced. Men would often leave work after long, grueling shifts, go get drunk with their friends, and go home and beat their wives. The Temperance Movement blamed alcohol for this abuse and for the poverty many working-class families lived in.
The 18th Amendment
By the end of the 19th century, the Temperance Movement was gaining ground. But its big opportunity came with the start of World War I.
As American troops began deploying to Europe, there was more demand for grain to use as rations. This meant that any grain spent making alcohol was seen as wasteful and unpatriotic.
On January 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment was ratified, banning the sale of alcohol in the United States. It took effect a year later, marking the beginning of the Prohibition Era in America. It was in this culture of war, Prohibition, and a rising tide of cultural discontentment that speakeasies were born.
Illegal Liquor Sales
You may not be surprised to learn that, although the 18th Amendment banned liquor sales, people didn't stop wanting to buy alcohol. A raging illegal liquor trade sprung up in America, in spite of frequent raids and police efforts to stem these sales.
Some people claimed they needed alcohol for medicinal reasons. Others just continued to frequent taverns that now had to operate under the radar of the law.
One Prohibition officer told a story about timing how long it took him to find illegal alcohol in a number of major cities. New Orleans set the record at under thirty seconds. The officer got into a cab, asked where he could find a drink, and was promptly handed a bottle by the cabbie.
The Beginnings of Speakeasies
As Americans started looking for new ways to get access to illegal alcohol, the speakeasy was born. The term came from one saloon whose owner encouraged her patrons to speak easy to the local police. This would help to avoid drawing too much attention to the saloon and would keep the illegal alcohol sales there away from the eyes of the law.
Speakeasies were secret gathering places where patrons could enjoy a drink. These businesses often operated under the cover of legitimate business fronts or ran out of private homes and apartments. Patrons might sometimes have to give a password to prove they weren't spying for the police.
The Speakeasy Golden Age
Speakeasies immediately took off. Within ten years of Prohibition being enacted, experts estimate there were 32,000 speakeasies in New York City alone.
Many of the patrons of these establishments were the men who had previously spent their nights in bars and saloons. But as we'll discuss more later, speakeasies also started to cater to women and people of color.
The quality of liquor sold in speakeasies varied widely. Some were serving the cheapest thing you could call alcohol, while others had fine wine and liquor available. Bars serving lower-quality liquor would mix it with ginger ale, sugar, lemon, mint, and other flavorings to hide the foul taste thus producing the concept of a cocktail.
During this golden age of speakeasies, there were a few famous establishments that emerged.
The 21 Club was located in Greenwich, New York, and opened in 1922. This club had an ingenious way of ditching its alcohol in the event of a raid. A lever behind the bar would tip all the shelves back, dumping the alcohol bottles into a chute that dropped them into the city sewers.
Washington, D.C., was home to The Krazy Kat Klub, founded in 1919 and named for a popular androgynous cartoon character. People of all sexual identities were welcome at The Kat, and the bar became one of the most popular gathering places for D.C.'s elite.
Out west, Phoenix, Arizona, boasted The Arizona Biltmore Hotel, which had a secret room on the second floor called The Mystery Room. The Mystery Room featured a revolving bookcase where alcohol was served. If the police came to raid the place, a guard on the roof would flash a spotlight into the skylight in The Mystery Room, warning the patrons to clear out.
Jazz and Speakeasies
Because there were so many speakeasies popping up, owners began looking for ways to attract patrons to their bar. Some owners began to bring in entertainers to play music for patrons to enjoy while they drank. Jazz music was on the rise, and speakeasies provided the perfect venue for this genre to flourish.
Jazz musicians started playing in speakeasies, and dances and raucous parties became popular. Musicians like Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington all got their starts in speakeasies as demand for jazz music grew. These wild parties with unrestrained dancing and illegal drinking led to the nickname The Roaring Twenties.
Speakeasies also played an interesting role in beginning to desegregate public spaces in America. Before Prohibition, black people and white people largely didn't share public spaces. But as speakeasies became more popular, people of different races started to gather together in these spaces.
Jazz music was also responsible for a lot of the desegregation happening in speakeasies. Many of the best and most popular jazz musicians were black, and jazz music was firmly rooted in black culture. As people of mixed races began to share space in these speakeasies, it laid some of the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement.
Beginnings of the Feminist Revolution
Speakeasies were also an important part of sparking the feminist revolution. Previously, women had spent most of their time in the home, interacting primarily with their children or other women. It was frowned upon for a woman to visit a bar, and it was expected that a woman would be supervised by her father or her husband at all times in public.
But with the start of Prohibition, women could no longer buy liquor to drink at home, and men and women started drinking together in speakeasies. In fact, some speakeasies started catering to women, offering table service for patrons who weren't comfortable sitting at a bar. Women began going out to dances and spending time in public unsupervised.
Unfortunately, speakeasies led to some uglier developments in American culture, too. As these gatherings became more popular, bootlegging became a lucrative trade. Bootleggers needed a coordinated system to evade the police, and so organized crime went on the rise in America.
Crime bosses like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Salvatore Maranzano, and others took over New York City. They had elaborate strategies to evade the police. Many of which involved threats, intimidation, and often outright torture or murder.
In fact, as Prohibition wore on, the brutality of these crime rings became more of a problem than alcohol had ever been.
By the late 1920s, it was clear that America had utterly lost the war on alcohol. Public drinking was an open secret, and illegal alcohol was available almost everywhere for anyone who wanted to get it. Meanwhile, people were getting murdered in the street as organized crime bosses fought for control of the illegal liquor trade, which was earning them millions of dollars a year.
The death knell for Prohibition came with the crash of the stock market in October 1929. The start of the Great Depression meant that people needed both the levity alcohol could provide and the jobs a legal liquor trade might bring. On November 7, 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified, repealing the 18th and officially ending Prohibition.
The Re-Emergence of Speakeasies
With Prohibition over and liquor legal in America once more, the original wave of speakeasies died out. Patrons could get alcohol in legal bars and restaurants again, and the demand for secret gathering places vanished. Speakeasies became a relic of the past for nearly a century as the world moved on.
But in recent years, the idea of the speakeasy has become popular again.
Modern patrons like the feeling of exclusivity speakeasies can provide. And many people love the vibrant culture the Roaring Twenties cultivated. With the power of nostalgia and the desire for a unique experience behind them, a new wave of speakeasies have started to crop up in America.
Modern speakeasies look somewhat different than the original wave. This is primarily because alcohol is, of course, legal in America.
Modern speakeasies rely on a combination of atmosphere and secrecy to create a feeling of exclusivity. Oftentimes, these bars are hidden inside other restaurants or businesses, and you might still need a password to get in the door.
Some modern speakeasies are themed, inviting or require patrons to dress in twenties-style clothes. They may also serve period-appropriate drinks.
Many play jazz music and some still bring in live musicians for weekend events. Modern speakeasies may only be open for limited hours and often rely on word of mouth to bring in new patrons, rather than advertising on social media.
Current Famous Speakeasies
There are some modern speakeasies that hold almost as much allure as the original establishments did. Please Don't Tell, better known as PDT, is a New York speakeasy located behind a phone booth in a hot dog shop. To get in, you have to step into the phone booth and dial 1 to open a secret door into the bar.
Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company might seem like an odd name for a speakeasy until you learn that that was the operating name of one of the biggest illegal alcohol rings during Prohibition. This speakeasy is located in Philadelphia and is popular enough that reservations are a good idea.
Midnight Cowboy is located in a former Austin, Texas, brothel and offers a titillating entry experience. You'll want to look for a sign reading Midnight Cowboy Modeling Oriental Massage and press a buzzer labeled Harry Braddock. This will let you enter the exclusive cocktail club.
Learn More About Speakeasies
Speakeasies were an integral part of the Roaring Twenties culture and helped to foster some of the important social shifts that came later. These gathering places offered not only illegal alcohol but also music, culture, and fun. While the original wave of speakeasies died out with the end of Prohibition, a new wave has now emerged.
If you'd like to learn more about speakeasies, check out the rest of our site at Liquorama. We are here to provide you with the perfect wine, the smoothest tequila, the hoppiest beer, and more. Shop our liquor selection today and start getting your drinks for the holidays the easy way.