Las Vegas, the US Coast Guard, Speed Boats, Nascar and Cruise Liners – much of America would not be recognisable today without the influence of almost 14 years of American prohibition. But what of the modern drinker?
With the passing of the 18th amendment in 1920, prohibition hit the United States with a bang. Bars across the country held huge last drink parties counting down to the hour of temperance. A two decade long campaign for prohibition won out at a time when America was at it’s most volatile in decades. Hitting a mini depression in the first year of tolerance, unemployment reached almost 12% by the end of 1921 as a result of the economic effects of the end of the First World War two years prior. As such the country was full of jobless young men who had seen war and been trained to kill and survive in the most horrendous conditions imaginable. Add to the mix almost 14 years of prohibition and the result is a nationwide network of illicit entrepreneurs used to high risk and high reward in a nation largely supportive of their services while turning a blind eye to their methods. And at the heart of it all was the one place where the two groups (and often the two sides of the law) could come together in mutual appreciation – the Speakeasy.
First used in the early 19th century to describe an old English smugglers den, the Speak Softly Shop came to define a place where patrons were required to keep their voices down to avoid detection. While the word became re popularised during American prohibition, it was just one of many description used to describe a prohibition bar. Black neighborhoods such as New York’s Harlem, referred to them as Hooch Joints, Buffet Flats or Beer Flats. The name Blind Tiger, Blind Bull or Blind Pig also became common. While a little less obvious than the other name, Blind Pig can be referenced back to a 19th century tavern in the state of Maine where a proprietor “sold patrons tickets to view a blind pig he kept in the back room. Along with every admission, every customer was treated with a free glass of rum”. Naturally.Regardless of their nickname, speakeasies or speaks not only offered a stiff wet solution to an otherwise dry world, but would also redefine the American bar and patron. Towards the end of prohibition in the early 1930’s, New York had a recorded 32,000 speaks. A national census in 1930 recorded 12.5 million people living in New York which at the time ensured an illegal bar available for every 390 people of all ages, races and gender. And that’s excluding the speaks not known, of which the number is believed to have been double again. At the same time in the city of Boston, there were four recorded speaks on the same street as the Boston Police Department. The general rule of thumb of the era was for every one bar closed down due to prohibition, another three would open in its place. Without the need to adhere to licensing or trading standards and with so much more access to liquor, every man and his dog were opening bars in their basements, garages and storerooms. For some people such as Mr Goldwater of Phoenix, it was as easy as having your favourite saloon (including bar top, brass rail and back bar) moved into the basement of his house.
Halfway through nationwide temperance, much of society had settled into the less guilty routine of frequenting their local –not so quietly spoken – speakeasy in search of a strong drink. After all, everyone was doing it. In 1928 Detroit Police raided a popular high class speak known as the Deutsches Haus located on the corner of Mack and Maxwell. Included in the bust was their local Detroit Mayor John Smith, Michigan Congressman Robert Clancy and resident Sheriff Edward Stein. Even going to trial didn’t guarantee a conviction. The previous year in the San Francisco law court, the case of a local hotel clerk who had been caught selling prohibited liquors had to be acquitted after nine members of the jury drank the incriminating evidence. After being themselves charged for “Breach of Conduct” the jury simply argued that they were determining whether or not the evidence contained alcohol…it did.
Like modern day bars, there were speaks for every discerning customer, including the less so. Such as O’Learies, a joint described as “Not for the squeamish with it’s common sight of drunken derelicts”, especially when compared to The Bath Club with its décor, “All marble and gold”. The names usually foretold the caliber of the venue in advance such as the glitz of The Stork Club, the alternative persuasion of Club Pansy or the bohemian nature of The Cave of the Fallen Angels.
With so many venues to choose from of so many different styles the American hospitality industry took a giant leap forward in a similar way that technology leaps forward during times of war. Speaks not only influenced a new era in drink, entertainment and fashion but also re wrote the entire social drinking order. Influencing a shift in societies view on female patrons, ladies were no longer restricted to drinking at home or within segregated social clubs. From early on in prohibition, illicit drinking dens of both the upper and lower classes began adjusting the traditional seating, music and amenities to suit the needs and aesthetics of the female patron. After all, the more pretty ladies, the more men wishing to buy them a drink. Out of this same new patronage arose the new term the “Powder Room” for the ladies toilets. Above the door of one such Manhattan speakeasy was a sign stating;
“Through these portals the most beautiful women in the world pass out”.
It was also in speaks that society opened its doors to an even greater new demographic – blacks. These first biracial joints were described by one American editor as, “Americas most democratic institution”. An institution where customers of many different races and sexes could be seen not only drinking together but dancing together too.
Today with words like “selfie” defining our lives after becoming the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year (2013), during the Roaring Twenties there would be too many to list. Known as the “language of the speakeasy”, Harlemese (from the popular speakeasy district of Harlem, New York) came to define the slang of the common New York barfly. The New York based Sunday News published an article on November 3, 1929 stating that any “stranger who plans a complete tour of the night club circuit should know the following at least”. Here’s a few from the list;
- Boodle – a lot of anything
- Buzz cart – automobile
- Dicty – a high-class person
- Dogs – feet
- Getting high – getting drunk
- Honey man – a kept man
- Juice joint – speakeasy
- Lap – liquor
- Scronch or Skip – dance
- Spruce – a sucker
- Unsheiking – a woman trying to get a divorce
- Walk that broad – show some style when dancing with a girl
- Working moll – prostitute
But New York wasn’t the only city getting in on the name game. During the 1920’s it seemed everyone had an alias or sobriquet. The Lone Wolf of Texas, The Kokomo School Master, The Plague of the North, Tall and Slender Daisy, The Artichoke King, The Chicken Man and even The Golf Bag were labels given to the most famous gangsters and prohibition officers of the time. Props reminiscent with the era also became reinvented thanks to colloquial slang. Enhanced powered boats used for rum running became Torpedos, hitmen became Trigger Men, doorman or muscle became Gorillas, grenades became Pineapples and the iconic Thompson Submachine Gun became known as the Rod, Trench Broom, Chicago Typewriter, Chicago Organ Grinder or simply the Tommy Gun.
Liquor too developed nicknames, or at least the bad one’s did. In a world divided between the cheap spirits mass distilled onshore and the less available but highly priced liquor imported by rum runners, more often than not it was the former. As such, many punters could find themselves ordering rounds of liquor known simply as Coffin Varnish, Horse Liniment, Monkey Rum, Panther Sweat, Rot Gut, Tarantula Juice or simply Hooch. Unsurprisingly, the role of the mixed drink became essential to help mask the shortcuts made during distillation. As such, the classic cocktails enjoyed prior to prohibition (Fizz, Fix, Flip, Crusta, Daisy, Punch, Julep, Sling, Sour, Smash etc), took a back seat to a glass which included a diluting mask such as soda, coke or ginger ale. With the exception of a cocktail called The Last Word, there were arguably no other popular cocktails invented in America during the 13 odd years of prohibition – but many were popularised. According to the Museum of the City of New York, if you were to head back there today and you had the money and connections to get into the finest joints, you could buy iconic cocktails such as the Clover Club, Bronx, Pink Lady, Mary Pickford or Blue Moon, all of which contained a strong mask in the style of cream, juice, soda or egg white. While other cocktails such as the Sidecar or Julep could still be found, it was more common to see people drinking drams of imported whiskey (often Canadian Club), ginger ale Highballs or coupettes of Champagne.
If you wanted a decent cocktail with decent ingredients during the 20’s, you took a flight to the Caribbean where many of the countries best bartenders eloped after the Volstead Act (prohibitions governing document) came into effect. As stated in a Pan American Airways advertisement in Miami at the time “Fly with us to Havana and you can bath in Bacardi rum two hours from now”.
An ex speakeasy bouncer would remember the time of speaks, broads and boodles of hooch best when retelling his story to the Milwaukee Journal in 1958, saying;
“There were no juvenile delinquents to speak of, just adult delinquents, no war, no H-bomb, no social security, just a funny little law that said you couldn’t drink, and what could be more fun than drinking against the law?”.
[For further reading see: Prohibition, a gangsters paradise]
- Last Call – The rise and fall of prohibition, by Daniel Okrent. Scribner Inc, 2010
- FEE, Foundation for Economic Education: The Depression You’ve Never Heard Of 1920-1921, by Robert P Murphy
- History of the Roaring Twenties: Prohibition and the Speakeasies, by Jen S. and Ceyana A. – Blog
- Blog Oxford Dictionaries. Articles about words, language, and dictionaries: Speakeasy
- The New York Times – Opinion: 1928, Jurors Drink Up Evidence
- Infotrac Media Library Center: Jurors Go on Trial, Drank Up Evidence. The New York Times, January 7, 1928.
- UoB Artsweb: Harlem – From Lenox to Seventh Avenue. Mapping the Negro capital of the world (Harlemese) by Maria Balshaw
- Prohibition Repeal.com: Prohibition Era Cocktails
- Liquor.com: Your Expert Guide. The Myth of Prohibition
- The Milwaukee Journal – Jul 19, 1958: Speakeasy Bouncer Remembers Fun and Frolic of the Twenties, by Saul Pett