Speakeasies of the Prohibition Era

Lemp Brewery, St. Louis, Missouri

Lemp Brewery, St. Louis, Missouri

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.

Gone were the boardwalks, swinging doors, spittoons, and mustache towels of the saloon era, as speakeasies disguised themselves in numerous creative ways. Generally before a thirsty patron could cross the illegal threshold, a password, specific handshake or secret knock was required. Gone also were the tinkling sounds of the player piano and dance hall girls, as Prohibition ushered in the age of Jazz. With stiff competition from numerous establishments, many of the speakeasies provided music for their patrons and hundreds of jazz musicians easily found work. And, where there is dancing, there will be women.

But in these new “saloons” of the Prohibition era, these many women were not exclusively dancehall girls or entertainers. Having been long banned from the saloons of the past, “regular” women found easy entrance into these new establishments.

Prior to the amendment, women drank very little, and even then, perhaps just a bit of wine or sherry. Just six months after Prohibition became law in 1920, women got the right to vote, and coming into their own, they quickly “loosened” up, tossed their corsets, and enjoyed their newfound freedoms. The “Jazz Age” quickly signified a loosening up of morals, the exact opposite of what its Prohibition advocates had intended, and in came the “flapper.” With short skirts and bobbed hair, they flooded the speakeasies, daring to smoke cigarettes and drink cocktails. Dancing to the jazz tunes of such soon to be famous jazz greats as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bojangles Robinson, and Ethel Waters, their powdered faces, bright red lips, and bare arms and legs displayed an abandon never before seen by American women. Quickly, both Prohibition and jazz music was blamed for the immorality of women and young people were attracted to the glamour of speakeasies and began to drink in large numbers. The new era was described by songwriter Hoagy Carmichael as: it came in “with a bang of bad booze, flappers with bare legs, jangled morals and wild weekends.”

No longer did the free flowing liquor in speakeasies carry its former names of White Lightning, Tanglefoot, and Firewater; alcohol now carried the new monikers of cocktail, devil’s candy, bathtub gin, booze, and hooch. Where beer and wine had previously been the drinks of choice, now alcohol was drank much more frequently, as it was easier to transport and took up less space, making it cheaper for speakeasy patrons. It was at this time that the “cocktail” was born, which had virtually been non-existent prior to Prohibition. In the days of the ” Old West,” most men drank either beer or straight shots of liquor. However, during this new era that welcomed women, alcohol began to be mixed with soft drinks, sugar-water and fruit juices. Making the bootlegged liquor much more palatable, millions of people who didn’t like the taste of beer, wine, or hard liquors found cocktails irresistible, turning men and women alike, into “criminals” by the thousands. While often having their cocktails in teacups in case of a raid, old social barriers were broken, as the rich and powerful began to rub shoulders with ordinary folks. From housewives, to large business owners, blue collar workers, corrupted police chiefs and mayors, these many patrons befriended each other in their quest of the same goals – drinking and avoiding the law.

Lady hides a flask during Prohibition, 1926

Lady hides a flask during Prohibition, 1926

In the speakeasies, the phenomenon of drinking to get drunk became a popular past time, where before alcohol was generally considered secondary to eating and socializing.  Increasingly, it began to be fashionable to flout the Prohibition laws and the hip flask became a symbol of rebellion, seen everywhere – at theatres, festivals, and sporting events.

Like their counterpart saloons of the past, prostitution and gambling flourished in speakeasies. But, they also introduced a new element to their patrons – drugs. Many, who would never have come into contact with these substances, found a new source of “entertainment” in the permissive atmosphere of the speakeasies. Narcotics, hashish, and marijuana were soon used in abundance.

To supply these many illegal establishments with beer, wine, and liquor, organization was required, hence the birth of organized crime. Into this crime-ripe environment walked such characters as Al “Scarface” Capone in Chicago, the Purple Gang of Detroit, Lucky Luciano in New York, and hundreds of others. The largest majority of speakeasies were established and controlled by organized crime, who opened everything from plush nightclubs to dark and smoky basement taverns.

Though raids became a daily federal past time, law enforcement couldn’t keep up. When the enforcers were successful in targeting a “gin joint,” the anticipating club owners, were often able to disguise the true intent of their businesses as elaborate alarms were installed, and their illegal contraband hidden in drop-shelves and secret cabinets. Other establishments didn’t even bother with hiding or disguising the liquor, as they paid out part of their profits to Prohibition agents and police officers, leading to a monumental amount of political corruption.

Al Capone

Al Capone

Increasingly, organized crime groups controlled the liquor industry, which led to turf wars and gang murders, the worst of which was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 in Chicago. Blamed on Al Capone, seven men were killed in the increasingly violent war over liquor control. Though gaining the most attention, this was just one violent event of the era, as by the late 1920’s, Chicago authorities reported as many as 400 gangland murders each year. Chicago was not alone in its high crime rate, as virtually every city across the nation was rife with illegal liquor trafficking, speakeasies, and the violence that they bred.

Bootleggers were crafty, finding all sorts of ways to transport and hide liquor as boats laden with hooch from Mexico and Canada lined up along the coasts. Hidden under produce, in crates labeled with other products, in coconut shells, and garden hoses, the liquor moved inland. While most of the breweries shut down operations, others continued to produce what was nick-named “near beer,” which held an alcohol content of less than one-half-of-one percent, which was still legal. Amazingly, a monumental amount of “real beer” seemed to come from these very same breweries. California grape growers were even more creative, as many stopped making wine and began to produce a grape juice product called Vine-Glo. The literature that was provided with the juice carefully warned its buyers of what they shouldn’t do with the juice, because if they did, it would turn into wine within a couple of months. Within a period of seven years between 1919 and 1926, land utilized for growing grapes expanded in California nearly seven times. On a smaller scale, individuals also found creative ways to hide their liquor in hip flasks, hot water bottles, hollowed out canes, and false books. At the same time, medicinal alcohol was still legal and the sale of patent medicines, elixirs, and tonics dramatically increased. Overnight, thousands of otherwise “decent law-abiding” citizens became criminals.

Another setback for prohibitionists was their loss of control over the location of drinking establishments. Where before, ordinances and licensing laws were utilized to limit alcohol sales on Sundays, election days, and in certain neighborhoods, illegal speakeasies sprouted up everywhere without limitation on their hours. Serious crime rates, which had been falling during the first part of the century gradually reversed itself during Prohibition, as homicides, burglary, and assault increased, and the prisons began to become overcrowded due to those incarcerated for alcohol related crimes. In no time, American prisons were suffering from extreme overcrowding.

As the newspaper headlines across the country screamed violent headlines, the public increasingly blamed Prohibition for the violence, as well as the political corruption that had become rampant across the country. Placing the matter within the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department for enforcement, its untrained Prohibition officers faced huge challenges in budget constraints and little support from the public. Before long, groups began to organize to repeal Prohibition, especially after the Great Depression, when people were looking for jobs, ones that would be created if breweries, distilleries, and taverns could reopen. Even Herbert Hoover was forced to admit that the 18th Amendment was offering more harm than good.

By 1932, both presidential candidates, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, favored repeal. When elected, Roosevelt backed the repeal and on December 5, 1933 the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution officially repealed the Eighteenth Amendment and the “Noble Experiment” came to an end.

When Prohibition finally ended, the word “saloon” had virtually disappeared from American vocabulary and legal establishments once again opened in abundance, referring to themselves as “cocktail lounges” and “taverns.”

Whether it’s called a saloon, a speakeasy, a bar, or a tavern, these many recession proof businesses will no doubt, live, not only in our rich history, but long into the future.


© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March, 2017.

Repeal Prohibition Amendment

Repeal Prohibition Amendment

Also See:

Prohibition & Depression Gangsters & Outlaws

Saloons of the Old West

Saloon Museums of the American West

Saloons, Women & Gambling Photo Galleries

More Saloons

When I sell liquor, it’s bootlegging.
When my patrons serve it on a silver tray
on Lakeshore Drive, it’s hospitality.
— Al Capone



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