The Rise of the Speakeasy During Prohibition

Candy Spilman By Candy Spilman, 30th Jun 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>History

The 18th Amendment was intended to bring a positive change to the United States, but the ban on alcohol actually led to more consumption than before. Speakeasies flourished during that time period, and countered any efforts of prohibitionists.

The Speakeasy

The setting was a dark and smoky room. Lively jazz music filled the air as couples and flappers danced. Men in pin-striped suits sat at tables, molls at their sides. A teacup was a common sight; however the beverage of choice was not tea, but bootleg liquor.


When the 18th Amendment, which made it illegal to manufacture, transport or sell intoxicating liquor, went into effect in 1920, its supporters expected to see a change for the better in their society. Instead, the alcohol trade simply moved underground, creating a new set of problems and immoral behavior. It is said that just moments after the amendment ushering in the Prohibition took effect, a gang of six men armed with pistols helped themselves to two freight cars full of whiskey from a rail yard in Chicago; another group of thugs took four casks of grain alcohol from a government bonded warehouse and another gang hijacked a truck that had a cargo of whiskey.

Shortly thereafter, secret drinking establishments, referred to as “speakeasies” began to rise. It’s interesting to note that although the term “speakeasy” is most associated with this time period, it actually originated in 1889, in reference to unlicensed saloons. When one spoke of such places, one would “speak easy”, or quietly in public, so that no one would overhear and tip off the police. Thus, the same word was used to refer to the secret locales where interested parties could obtain alcohol during Prohibition.

The Environment of the Time

A speakeasy was usually tucked away in a basement, attic or upper floor, and could be fronted by a nightclub or some other type of entertainment venue; a store, café or soda shop, and was often stocked with moonshine or “bathtub gin”. At first, these establishments were few in number, probably due more to the expense of obtaining illegal liquor than to the law in effect. However, the people were getting restless.

With World War I at an end, the nation wanted to celebrate. Spirits were high, and the demand for liquor began to rise. People began to realize that making, transporting and selling bootleg liquor could be a worthy financial endeavor. As a result, speakeasies began to multiply. It is said that for every saloon that closed due to Prohibition, “it was replaced by a half dozen illegal ‘gin joints.’ “ In New Jersey, the number of illegal establishments was said to have been ten times as many as the licensed saloons before Prohibition. Rochester, New York claimed to have twice the amount of speakeasies. The number of speakeasies in New York City at one time was estimated to be over 100,000, and this trend soon became the rule in most of the nation, especially in urban areas.

A password or secret handshake was usually required to enter the speakeasy, but, as opposed to saloons of the past, women were just as welcome as men. In fact, a new trend was formed, documented by a photo, in which some women carried a “garter flask” strapped to their leg, enabling them to always have a drink at hand. It was in the speakeasies that the often bad tasting whiskey began to be mixed with fruit juice or soda, making it more palatable for those without a taste for the “hard stuff”. Unfortunately, the allure and glamour of speakeasies ushered in an age of declining morals, especially among the ladies, as they began to drink hard liquor, smoke cigarettes and dance. Composer and songwriter Hoagy Carmichael is quoted as describing the Prohibition era as coming in "with a bang of bad booze, flappers with bare legs, jangled morals and wild weekends."

Just as in legitimate saloons, the speakeasies also offered prostitution and gambling. What was new was the introduction of recreational drugs into society. With the “anything goes” atmosphere within the speakeasy, some owners began to make a profit selling hashish, marijuana and narcotics.

Politics of the Speakeasy

Obviously, good organization was required to manage all these illegal activities, and mobsters such as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano were up for the challenge. Most speakeasies were run by organized crime, and, indeed, these ventures helped the Mafia grow in size and power, and led to violence and murder.

The federal government made an attempt to locate and shut down speakeasies. At first, the Internal Revenue Service was assigned the task, but the job was eventually transferred to the Justice Department. Daily raids were conducted, but without very much success. Many of the businesses had secret cabinets or drop-shelves installed, where their illegal supplies were hidden. Other businesses simply paid off federal agents and police officers to leave them alone.

The speakeasy flourished for the thirteen years of Prohibition, and helped to shape the more modern bars and nightclubs that would rise up after the passing of the 21st Amendment in 1933.


18Th Amendment, Alcohol, Drinking, Prohibition, Speakeasy, Underground

Meet the author

author avatar Candy Spilman
Former journalist turned freelancer. I'm a mom and grandma and love to write about family or Christian topics.

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