If you have ever taken a history course focusing on the American 20th century, you may have encountered a bizarre period: the prohibition era.
The prohibition era produced a famous American touchstone, an institution that lives on legally these days: the speakeasy. In this article, we will explore this institution, its appearance in American culture, and its legacy in the world of bars and clubs today. If you have wondered “what is a speakeasy” and what went on at these illegal bars, then keep reading. In the words to follow – you’ll find out what a speakeasy is and the impact it had on American society and bar culture today.
A speakeasy, also known as a “blind pig” or “blind tiger,” is one of the illegal, secret alcohol-serving institutions of the 1920s. They were often underground, in a restaurant’s backroom, or hidden in other ways. These places ran the gamut from secret music venues to hidden casinos.
While many underground bars claim the legacy and appearance of these famous bars, they are not technically speakeasies because of the actual nature of the term “speakeasy.” If you break the word apart, you see two words: speak and easy. The name comes from the means of entry into these illegal drinking establishments: you had to say the code to the place quietly so that others would not find out about it and the cops would not come crashing down on the location.
A Brief History of the Speakeasy
To understand the speakeasy and its enduring popularity as a term and pseudo-institution (in the form of modern speakeasies) today, one has to understand the history of the Prohibition era itself and the forces that produced the speakeasy.
From 1920 to 1933, the American government had the 18th amendment in place, which banned the sale and serving of alcohol. But without a proper structure to enforce such a ban, organized crime almost immediately took over the sale and distribution of alcohol. For these 13 years, mobsters smuggled in or illegally produced alcohol for restaurants and clubs that once served alcoholic beverages. And so, the speakeasy spread across the United States. Though the term existed before – due to the existence of “speak softly shops” in the British Isles, the term “speakeasy” came into common use for the aforementioned reasons.
These illegal drinking establishments hid in basements, back rooms, and attics in hundreds of thousands of locations across the United States. Though mobsters ran the alcohol trade, speakeasies became popular with ordinary citizens – many of whom had returned from World War I and wanted to enjoy live music, dancing, and other such chances for fun.
Ending of Prohibition
Though it was an official amendment in the United States Constitution, the economic depression and global tension of the 1930s already began to spell the prohibition era’s end. With the stock market crash came an increase in attendance at speakeasies as people sought to distract themselves from the harsh reality of life. With the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, however, the government began to take a more practical approach. Seeing prohibition had inadvertently given the mob power, the government started considering repealing the 18th amendment and instead regulating the sale and serving of alcohol themselves.
In 1933, the 21st amendment ended prohibition. With the re-entry of alcohol into public life, prohibition speakeasies no longer had a purpose. People could now order alcoholic beverages at restaurants without a problem or make them at home. And thus, with the speakeasy fading as an institution, the heyday of classic cocktails went with it.
Impact on Society
Few illegal institutions have had the impact and creation of a counterculture that speakeasy bars did – and their impact reaches beyond modern-day speakeasies and our alcohol consumption practices.
Breaking Gender Norms
The 1920s is known as a time when women and men both began to challenge the norms of their gender and sexuality. And only one institution made that possible – the illegal bars that respectable society never discussed. Before prohibition – women already faced a “prohibition” from public drinking in the form of bans from saloons and bars. But with the dawn of the speakeasy, illegal bars began recruiting female customers by including powder rooms. Tucked away from the outdated morals of pre-World War I, speakeasies liberated women and made it possible for them to express themselves more confidently.
Women could drink publicly in these clubs, dance, and face no judgment for their clothing or decisions. Thus, the speakeasy birthed a crucial part of early 20th-century American culture: the flapper, the rebellious woman who cut her hair as short as she wanted, wore whatever she wanted, and refused to kowtow to the values of a world that no longer existed.
Similar to the creation of the flapper, speakeasies birthed a counterculture that challenged the prevalent racism of the early 20th century. One can make a compelling argument that speakeasies were the first integrated institution in the United States. Since speakeasy owners broke the law anyway, they cared less about segregation or enforcing it. Customers were customers – and once again, many were there to enjoy what life had to offer after witnessing the horrors of the First World War. As the Great Migration Period pressed on and black populations moved northward, they began to frequent speakeasy bars. Both the white and black populations freed themselves from the crippling confines of behavior surrounding race and began to dance and drink together, some of them even beginning to date.
Developing Jazz Music
The word “jazz” has a less than wholesome root, one we typically do not associate with this music. “Jazz” comes from the word “jezebel” – an old Southern expression. But we do not think of the South when we think of jazz. Instead, we think of New York City. That is because of the speakeasy. Jazz scared the cultural elite just as much as integration because of its structural playfulness and roots: it came from the American black community. Most prominent Jazz musicians were also black. The cultural elite never went into speakeasies, so Jazz musicians were free to play gigs in these establishments.
Jazz became even more popular as more people came to these illegal bars to dance. When prohibition ended, Jazz was here to stay; it came out of the underground to become a mainstay of the 1930s nightlife scene.
Popularizing Finger Foods and Cocktails
While mixed alcoholic beverages were already prevalent before the birth of speakeasies, they reached a new height in the 1920s. The speakeasy did not invent the Manhattan, the Martini, or the Sidecar, but now that the establishments centered on alcohol, people could focus on finding the right drink for themselves. Consequently, cocktails from the late 19th century became incredibly popular as many people discovered them for the first time. But cocktails were not alone in finding a new heyday in the speakeasies. The finger foods we often eat now accompanied them and fed guests while they drank.
Finger foods like devilled eggs became even more popular and a mainstay at speakeasies as they were easy to make, easy to eat, and increased sales. We continue this practice far beyond the speakeasy today at many restaurants across the country.
Rise of Organized Crime
Though alcohol consumption was somewhat of an open secret across the United States, it was still illegal. That meant the supplies had to come from extra-legal sources. The source came from the famous mobs of the 1920s and ‘30s, such as those led by gangster Al Capone. Though the government banned booze, gangsters still found ways to smuggle it into the country or distill different spirits away from the government’s eyes. Thus, bootlegging became the largest organized crime industry as mobsters moved alcohol into the United States and sold it at a premium to speakeasy owners. That put the owners in a tough spot. They could not go to anyone else or threaten to go to anyone else for supply, nor could they report misconduct at their establishments to the law, as the law was also in the mob’s hands. If speakeasy owners considered finding a way out or a way from bringing profits to organized gangs, mobsters responded with violence.
The Modern Speakeasy
Though they bear similarities, the 1920s prohibition speakeasies are different establishments. The primary distinctions stem from an obvious difference: alcohol is legal. The passwords or means of obfuscation for today’s speakeasies are more to create an atmosphere of exclusivity instead of hiding from the law.
Usually, they feature jazz musicians, but these are not the only things that characterize the modern-day speakeasy. Other modern speakeasies feature magicians, dancers, or interactive theatre. Some require you to dress up; usually, these will be ones with dancers or jazz musicians, but not all of them do – it depends on the speakeasy. The modern-day speakeasy is united by two main aspects, however. Almost all of them serve excellent craft cocktails using the original recipes from the 1920s.
Four Famous Speakeasies
The understanding of the aesthetics of speakeasies comes from four notorious illegal bars from the 1920s, all four of which we will describe here.
The Cotton Club
The Cotton Club was one of many of New York’s speakeasies but became famous specifically for its jazz music. One of Manhattan’s famous gangsters took the Cotton Club over and made it into a New York nightlife staple by expanding its seating and secretly serving alcohol to its customers. The Cotton Club, a speakeasy in the middle of the black neighborhood Harlem, was at the forefront of challenging integration and developing jazz music by featuring only excellent performers for white audiences. The legendary club ran for about 13 years and featured legends such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and others, who made the club’s reputation and earned its attention for radio broadcasts.
The Stork Club
Unlike other speakeasies, New York’s Stork Club outlasted prohibition and remained a staple in the city until 1965. This speakeasy’s owner was also a former member of the mob and its sole owner. Sherman Billingsley was known for cultivating celebrity guests and making this speakeasy the world’s premier club. The Stork Club made several cocktails more famous within New York’s scene and hosted figures such as the Kennedy and Roosevelt families and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The Stork Club’s reputation kept it afloat after prohibition when it could bring cocktails and finger foods to the public and use its growing list of celebrity visitors for marketing.
Arguably New York’s most famous speakeasy, the 21 Club was also known for its ingenious method of escaping inspection. The 21 Club used a drop-away bar to dispose of alcohol bottles immediately, one that sent the bottles through a chute into the sewer. This speakeasy played a crucial role in developing American cocktail culture by hiring artisan bartenders and featuring the newest inventions of bartenders across the United States. Strangely, it was located above ground and hidden in plain sight, decorated with vintage toys and sports items. Additionally, the 21 Club had a secret wine cellar open only to celebrities, and, maintaining such exclusivity, hosted most presidents after FDR. The 21 Club only recently closed in 2020, announcing they would not re-open after the Covid-19 Pandemic.
The Krazy Kat
The Krazy Kat was the only club on this list not in New York City. Located in the heart of American political life, Washington DC, the Krazy Kat became an important center of counter-culture life during the 1920s. Sitting in DC’s poorer “Latin Quarter,” which took its name from the same Parisian district, young artists and aspiring authors flocked to this club to break free of the social confines of the era. The Krazy Kat became DC’s center for dancing and music, and hence became known to the police as a “den of vice.” In its fifty-year life, it eventually attracted DC’s cultural elite, who also wished to avoid social restrictions.
Similar desires also brought in federal government employees to have drinks and dance at the Krazy Kat. Consequently, the club was the worst-kept secret in the city – but stayed open due to rampant corruption at the time.