What Is a Speakeasy?
Speakeasies found their place in society during the time of Prohibition in the United States. From 1920 to 1933, the terms outlined in the 18th Amendment made the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages illegal in the U.S., but that didn’t stop people from having drinks.1 In fact, drinking alcohol wasn’t actually illegal. You could drink alcohol you already had in your home, for example. However, most people didn’t have a huge stash of liquor and had to seek it out other ways. To cater to the very large population of people who still wished to drink, hidden bars and nightclubs were established in cities across the country.
The term speakeasy is thought to have come from the patrons having to whisper (or, speak “easy”) when attempting to enter the hidden bar.2
The History of Speakeasies
As soon as Prohibition went into effect in 1920, law enforcement agents began shutting down bars and clubs across the country. However, the ban on alcohol didn’t keep people from seeking it out, and almost as quickly, speakeasies began to emerge. Millions of people across the country partook in the underground life of the speakeasy.2
Speakeasies were often located in underground dens or dark saloons that did not draw much attention from the outside. 1 During the time of Prohibition, it was illegal to sell alcoholic beverages in the U.S., so these establishments had to be inconspicuous.1
At the height of the speakeasy movement, there were hundreds of thousands of these clubs across the country. New York was said to have more than 30,000 of them by the end of the 1920s. While an actual count was impossible to make because of the covert nature of these underground establishments, the New York Historical Society states that the actual number may have been much higher (up to 100,000) than this estimate.3
In fact, the sale of alcohol during Prohibition was so prevalent that Detroit’s illicit alcohol trade was the second-biggest contributor to the economy at the time, behind only the city’s auto industry.1
Speakeasies were often run by gangsters who began to dominate the alcohol industry when it was run underground.4
The Secret of the Speakeasy
Because of the illegal distribution of alcohol in speakeasies, their locations were not advertised, and entry was hard to gain.
Speakeasies were mainly discovered by word of mouth and had varying requirements for entry. For example, some speakeasies only let in known customers; some required passwords; some required speakeasy cards (an identification card, of sorts, that told the proprietor it was okay to let the person in).5
While Prohibition was the law of the land for 13 years, it didn’t turn Americans abstinent, and as time went on, support for the law decreased substantially. The pull of the speakeasy was strong for many during this time. In fact, as many as 8 of 10 congressmen may have been drinking on the sly during these years.6
However, while speakeasies may have been appealing to plenty of folks and, to some extent, people of all economic classes did mix in these clubs, only a small percentage could afford to visit them regularly. The Smithsonian compares Prohibition-era speakeasies to modern-day bottle clubs where a liter of alcohol is exorbitantly priced. Most people simply couldn’t pay the inflated price of alcohol, and the numbers of people visiting speakeasies during Prohibition was likely much smaller than many believe.7
Impact on Culture
Those who celebrated the ratification of the 18th Amendment could not have anticipated all the new cultural elements that were to evolve out of it. Some of the cultural byproducts birthed from speakeasies that have had a significant impact on American society include the following:2,4,8,9
- Jazz music gained ample ground during Prohibition as the many new nightclubs offered employment opportunities for musicians.
- Finger foods also grew out of the speakeasy, as club owners who didn’t want to provide a full restaurant service to their customers decided to offer small bites of food instead. Customers could grab small bites as they mingled.
- Mixed-race interactions became more common with the advent of speakeasies and the growing popularity of jazz. Many of these clubs provided the first opportunities for people of different races to intermingle socially.
- Women’s sense of freedom also expanded through speakeasies, as they suddenly had the opportunity to drink in public with men in these underground clubs that welcomed women for the first time.
- Organized crime in America gained a steady ground, as gangsters began controlling the sale and distribution of alcohol. Prohibition provided the perfect opportunity for them to build an enormous illicit empire.8 One of America’s most notorious gangsters, Al Capone, reportedly earned more than 60 million dollars through the illegal sale of alcohol in the Chicago area by 1929.10,11
Speakeasies of Today
While the sale of alcohol is no longer illegal, many club owners today attempt to capture the thrill of illicit drinking by opening “speakeasies” and requiring passwords or otherwise making entry more difficult than at your normal, run-of-the-mill bar.
Modern-day speakeasies are often harder to find than your typical nightclub and may not maintain a website or local listing. Word of mouth continues to support the business of these figurative and sometimes literal underground clubs. They aim to exude the mysterious aura of the secretive hideouts that speakeasies once were and create a sense of rebellion.