A speakeasy was an establishment that surreptitiously sold alcoholic beverages during the period of United States history known as Prohibition (1920-1933, longer in some states), when the sale, manufacture, and transportation (bootlegging) of alcohol was illegal. The term comes from a patron's manner of ordering alcohol without raising suspicion — a bartender would tell a patron to be quiet and "speak easy".

Speakeasies became more popular and numerous as the Prohibition years progressed, and also became more commonly operated by those connected to organized crime. Although police and federal Bureau of Prohibition agents would raid such establishments and arrest the owners and patrons, the business of running speakeasies was so lucrative that such establishments continued to flourish throughout the nation. In major cities, speakeasies often were elaborate, offering food, live bands, floor shows, and stripteases. Corruption was rampant; speakeasy operators commonly bribed police either to leave them alone or at least to give them advance notice of any planned raids.

Other slang terms for an establishment similar to a speakeasy are blind pig and gin joint, or gin mill. The differences between a speakeasy and a blind pig were that a speakeasy was usually a higher class establishment (some in New York and other large cities even required coat and tie for men, and evening dress for women), and speakeasys invariably offered food, music or entertainment, or all three, besides drinking. A blind pig was generally a lower class dive, where beer and liquor only were available.


The federal Volstead Act, passed with new authority from the Eighteenth Amendment, put prohibition into effect on January 16, 1920. It lasted for almost fourteen years. After years of lobbying from Progressives (mainly the Anti-Saloon League and other militant organizations like the Women's Christian Temperance Union), the temperance crusade successfully lobbied states to pass new "dry" laws prohibiting "booze" and "Demon Rum". The first state to go entirely dry was Kansas in 1881 (see Alcohol laws of Kansas). States which did not go dry were referred to as "wet" states.

Public reception

The job of enforcing the prohibition was given to 1,550 federal agents, a small number for the problem at hand. The Feds were corrupt and protected speakeasies. They would accept bribes to report no findings of liquor. Many also worked for gangs, and would go and shut down rival speakeasies (Our American Century Jazz Age: The Jazz Age, 126-127). Some agents even blackmailed speakeasies to not reveal them to the Feds. They would return to collect money. Government officials were accepting bribes not to do anything and to keep the speakeasies going, and not end the prohibition. Corruption was a common thing in the government (The Twenties: the American Destiny, 54). The prohibition was created in hopes of reducing crime and other problems that were related to alcohol, but instead it jump started an age of jazz and liquor, as well as an age of corruption. Corruption existed everywhere, from bootleggers, and everyday people making booze in their own homes, to the most corrupt, the speakeasies. The speakeasies led to the corruption of those who owned them, to those who went to them, to those who were supposed to enforce the law against them.

See also


  • Loretta Britten, Paul Mathless, Ed. Our American Century Jazz Age: The 20’s. 1998. New York: Bishop books inc., 1969.
  • “The Dry Years” The Roaring Twenties Encyclopedia. 2007 Ed.
  • “Speakeasies Flappers and Red Hot Jazz: The Music of the Prohibition” 18 April.2008..
  • The Twenties: The American destiny. London: Orbis Book Publishing Corporation Ltd. 1986.

Further reading

  • Kahn, Gordon, and Al Hirschfeld. (1932, rev. 2003). The Speakeasies of 1932. New York: Glenn Young Books. ISBN 1-557-83518-7.

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