Speakeasy bars first came in to existence during the prohibition, a period in the early 20th century when production, importation and sale of alcohol was banned in the United States.
Opposition to alcohol had been building in the US throughout the 19th century. As Industrialisation took hold, it was thought that a ban on alcohol could solve social problems, improve health and hygiene and reduce the tax burden of prisons and poorhouses.
The 18th amendment went in to affect in January 1920, outlawing the production, import or sale of alcohol. Although it did not specifically outlaw consumption.
The Rise of Crime and Speakeasies
A speak easy bar is an establishment selling illicit alcohol, they rose to prominence under prohibition. To avoid detection, these venues had to be kept secret so consumers would ‘speak quietly’ or ‘speak easily‘ about them.
Entry to an illegal speakeasy bar would usually require you to speak a password to avoid detection by law enforcement.
Criminal gangs were quick to jump on the speakeasy bandwagon. The illegal sale of alcohol was a profitable business, providing a key revenue stream for gangsters such as Frank Costello and Al Capone. This paved the way for a period of violence, intimidation and corruption as these gangs looked to lock on to alcohol supplies.
Another name for speakeasy bars is ‘blind pig‘ or ‘blind tiger‘.
These terms originates from a slightly different type of drinking establishment during the prohibition. Owners would set up a legitimate attraction for which the customer would pay, and a ‘complimentary’ alcoholic drink would be served to get around the law.
A popular example was an animal exhibition, customers might pay $0.25 to see an interesting animal, such as Greenland pigs, and would receive a free gin cocktail.
These establishments were generally lower class than a traditional speakeasy bar. Whilst a speakeasy bar might have a smart dress code and serve food and drinks alongside entertainment, a blind pig would only serve beer and liquor.
End of Prohibition and Speakeasy Bars Today
Prohibition had been a failure. After an initial drop in alcohol consumption, it steadily rose and was on course to exceed pre-prohibition levels. The illicit production of alcohol had made the products more potent as unknown or dangerous substances adulterated the process. Smaller quantities of stronger liquor were easier to transport and avoid detection than larger quantities of weaker products such as beer, this was clearly an issue.
Alcohol was still being consumed as much as ever, but the government was not able to tax it and the costs of dealing with the consequences were higher. Prohibition was repealed almost 14 years later in December 1933.
Once the prohibition era ended in 1933, illegal speakeasy bars were no longer required and all but disappeared. Nowadays, the term is used to describe retro cocktail bars, usually with hidden entrances or themes as a nod to the original speakeasy concept and some even requiring passwords to gain entry.