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Speakeasies of the Prohibition Era

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As the years moved forward into the 20th century, the days of the Old West were winding down. Railroads replaced stagecoaches, the growth of cities was bringing culture to the West, most of the notorious outlaws were dead or in jail, and Wyatt Earp had settled down to tell his frontier tales to any and every book author and silent movie producer in Hollywood. Meanwhile, as the savage West was slowly being tamed, a new movement had been emerging in the east, to curb or stop the consumption of alcohol. Often associated with poverty, crime, corruption, social problems, and tax burdens, alcohol was considered the source of all evil by those behind the Temperance and Prohibition movements. Saloons were accused of being dens of iniquity by those behind the movements, a fact that was most often true.


Having started in the 1830’s, temperance advocates didn’t initially support prohibiting consumption of alcohol, but rather, the drinking of beer and wine in moderation and abstention from hard liquor. In 1851, the state of Maine prohibited the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors. Just four years later, in 1855, thirteen of the then thirty-one states had passed similar laws.


Prohibition Poster




However, when the soldiers returned from the Civil War, many of whom had been exposed to alcohol for the first time, these harden warriors wanted nothing to do with this movement and it was given little attention for the next two decades. In fact, many saloons were gaining even more popularity among those very same soldiers and other men moving westward in search of fortune, land, and adventure. New saloons sprouted up by the hundreds in the mining camps and new settlements on the vast frontier. Here, where miners, cattlemen, and outlaws reigned, and the number of men far outweighed those of women, it was a "man’s world,” where saloons were often their only source of entertainment. It wouldn’t be until women began to arrive in the West that the views of saloons would begin to change. Barred from these many drinking establishments, "proper” women began to see saloons as hotbeds of vice, where not only drinking was encouraged, but also gambling, prostitution, dancing, and tobacco use. Becoming politically active for the first time, the women joined the fight in the 1880’s and the cause was reborn.

A decade later, the views of the temperance movement changed from alcohol in moderation to total Prohibition and many of its supporters were to be found in politics and on school boards, where they flooded young children with anti-alcohol materials. Supported primarily by the middle class and the very women that saloons had long disallowed, the movement gained national attention by the turn on the century. Positive that alcohol was the bane of all evil and the main impetus for the fall of American morals, members of the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union began to march in the streets halting traffic with their demands that saloons close their doors. Within a few short years the "frenzy” of these groups grew to include a political movement where large numbers of voters demanded that government lead the country in a strong stand of moral leadership.


One of the first results to be seen in the movement were expensive licensing rates for saloons, as well as a cessation of new permits in many areas. In many cities, saloons were required to segregate themselves in certain areas, away from residences and more influential businesses.


In addition, some cities banned the "free lunch table” and eliminated mustache towels. As the movement gained momentum and the restrictions became tougher, the traditional saloon progressively saw a downward decline in the years prior to Prohibition.


By 1916, twenty-one states had banned saloons and national elections returned more members to congress that favored Prohibition than those favoring "wet” laws, outnumbering their opponents two-to-one. Immersed in World War I, the vast majority of the American Public favored the amendment, and considered it to be unpatriotic to use much needed grain to produce alcohol. Furthermore, many of the large brewers and distillers were of German origin, which added the additional support of many.


Business leaders believed their workers would be more productive if alcohol could be withheld from them. John D. Rockefeller, alone, donated over $350,000 into the Anti-Saloon League and Henry Ford boldly announced, "The country couldn't run without Prohibition. That is the industrial fact.”


In 1917, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” was drafted and passed national legislation the following year. Called the "noble experiment” by Herbert Hoover, seventy-five percent of the states approved the amendment, and it was ratified on January 16, 1919.  In 1920, the Volstead Act was passed to enforce the amendment.


Meeker, Colorado Saloon in 1899

Traditional saloons would soon be a thing of the past,

 such as this saloon in Meeker, Colorado, 1899.


One of the first effects of the new amendment was placing thousands of people out of work, from brewery employees, to bartenders, to grape growers in California.


The law devastated the nation’s brewing industry, closing large industries in St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago, and numerous other cities. But Prohibition advocates cared little about that, rejoicing in their initial their "successes,” as arrests for drunkenness declined and medical statistics showed a marked decrease in treatments for alcohol related illnesses.


Statistics also demonstrated that drinking in general decreased, however, the decline had been the trend for several years before Prohibition, and many felt that any further decrease was due to the high cost of bootlegged liquor, rather than the law itself. For a time, Prohibition maintained some of its success, especially in rural areas, though liquor continued to flow with relative ease in the cities.


However, with the war at an end and the nation in high spirits, the demand for liquor quickly increased and another culture emerged for those who saw opportunity and financial gain in thwarting the new law and filling the public demand. Bootleggers, illegal alcohol traffickers, and speakeasies began to multiply by the hundreds. 


Though they may have appeared to close down for a short period, saloons simply went "underground” in basements, attics, upper floors, and disguised as other businesses, such as cafes, soda shops, and entertainment venues. Given its name because of the need to whisper or "speak easy,” these many illegal drinking enterprises quickly became established institutions, so much so that some said for every former legitimate saloon that closed, it was replaced by a half dozen illegal "gin joints.” 


At one time, there were thought to be over 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone, New Jersey claimed there were 10 times as many as before the amendment, and Rochester, New York, twice the number. The same became true all over the nation.


Continued Next Page


Lemp Brewery

The Lemp Brewery in St. Louis, Missouri was one of the many

put out of business during Prohibition. However, the building continues to stan

d today. Photo by Kathy Weiser, October, 2004.


The reign of tears is over. The slums will

 soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses

 and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile and children will laugh.

 Hell will be forever for rent.


- Reverend Billy Sunday at the beginning

 of Prohibition

Speakeasy, courtesy University of Southern California.


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