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S is for Speakeasy (AtoZ Challenge – Roaring Twenties)


It is estimated that by 1922 (two years into Prohibition) there were 5.000 speakeasies in NYC alone and only a few years later the number raised to 32.000. However, Police Commissioner Grover A. Whalen would say, “All you need is two bottles and a room and you have a speakeasy,” and put the number closer to 100.000.
The city’s reputedly wettest street was Fifty-Second between Fifth and Sixth Avenue, where a lady who occupied a guiltless brownstone between two speakeasies was compelled to post the sign, “This is a private residence. Do not ring.”

It’s hard to say what were the main characteristics of a speakeasy. There were as many varieties of speakeasies as there were speakeasies. The place where they operated was essential to their manner of existence and their ways of operations.

Speakeasies in cities like New York and Chicago, for example, weren’t really secret places. People knew where they were. Reception clerks in big hotels had business cards ready under the desk to hand out to visitors who wanted an exciting night out.

Many places, especially in the first years of Prohibition, would only offer ‘setups’. They would serve ginger ale and other mixers and customers would then pour in their own liquor. But as time passed, speakeasies preferred to offer full service and only claim to serve setups if need be.

Quite a few speakeasies were temporary ventures. When they got padlocked by the law, their owner would go to court, pay a fine, go home and open another speakeasy in another place.

Speakeasies tried to operate discreetly, earning a reputation by word of mouth and sometime requiring a secret knock, a password, or the company of a recognised customer to grant admission.

Membership cards were also quite popular. They served a double purpose: admission was reserved to members only and you could stay as long as you wanted. In most cities there was a curfew at 2am, so all public places had to close at that time. But this didn’t apply to private clubs, which could stay open longer. And of course in some places – namely New York and Chicago and other big cities – nobody cared about the curfew.


But the most typical practice was that speakeasy owners would bribe anyone who needed to be bribed and would pay protection.
Protection was usually included in the price of the liquor, which means it was up to whatever gang the owner got his booze from. That would also determine the political connection he would count on. In addition to this, owners had to tip or bribe the local police, the cop on the beat, the occasional prohibition agent who wandered in.
The percentage for protection also varied. In Chicago, it was around 20% of the owner’s earnings, but it rose (allegedly) to 25% during Big Bill Thompson second run for mayor in 1927.
Managing a speakeasy wasn’t a cheap business.

Ah, there’s so much to say about speakeasies. Don’t get me started.


Mary Miley’s Roaring Twenties – Where did the word “speakeasy” come from?

Behr, Edward, Prohibition. The Thirteen Years That Changed America. Penguin Group & BBC Enterprises, London, 1997
Coffey, Thomas M., The Long Thirst Prohibition in America: 1920-1933. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1975
Kobler, John, Ardent Spirits. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Da Capo Press, New York, 1973
Munford, Kevin J., Interzones. Black/White Sex Districts in Chicago and New York in the Early Twentieth Century. Columbia University Press, New York, 1997
Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989
Okrent, Daniel, Last Call. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Scribner, New York, 2010

ROARING TWENTIES AtoZ - speakeasy - The secret bar where outlaw booze was sold wasn't an invention of the 1920s, but it was during Prohibition that it became a true icon


  • Mee Magnum
    Posted April 22, 2015 at 01:12

    I would love to see some of those ‘membership’ cards. Those would be some cool collectibles.

    –Mee (The Chinese Quest)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2015 at 06:46

      I’m sure there will still be some around.
      Why did you mention it. Now I want it too!!!!

  • Jeri Burns
    Posted April 22, 2015 at 03:26

    I had no idea there such diversity in speakeasies – and had no idea about ‘setups.’ The payoffs I expected, but the amounts were much less than I would have guessed.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2015 at 06:48

      Speakeasy life is fascinating. And so hard to reserch, let me tell you.
      Because a bit chunk of my story happenes in a speakeasy, I spent a lot of time on this topic. Truely it isn’t always as people expect it.

  • Barbara In Caneyhead
    Posted April 22, 2015 at 04:57

    Very interesting! I have a better understanding of how they operated thanks to this.
    Visit me at: Life & Faith in Caneyhead
    I am Ensign B of Tremps’ Troops
    with the A to Z Challenge

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2015 at 06:51

      I’m happy 🙂
      Researching speakeasy life is hell, because no one addresses the matter organically. I had to piece togehter info from so many different places, often combing novels and films, because apparently, everyday life in a speakeasy was taken for granted by contemporary people and isn’t all that interesting for historians.
      I hope what I put together is vivid enough in my story 🙂

  • Sara C. Snider
    Posted April 22, 2015 at 08:13

    Seems kind of amazing that there were so many of them. Didn’t really seem like a secret, but if you’re bribing the cops and are protected by the mob, then maybe it didn’t need to be. Really quite interesting

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2015 at 20:37

      When we think about speakeasies, we tend to think they were secret, isn’t it? I think they were, but mostly in towns. In the big cities, the situation was quite different.

  • Tasha
    Posted April 22, 2015 at 08:36

    Doesn’t seem like anyone really wanted to enforce Prohibition – it was making them far too much money! 🙂
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2015 at 20:40

      The ones who didn’t make money on breaking Prohibition laws, either hated them or just didn’t care abotu them and so most people didn’t abit to them. In the cities.
      As it was often the case, in the Twenties there was still a huge difference in lifestyle between big cities… and all the rest of the country.

  • Fee
    Posted April 22, 2015 at 09:08

    What a wonderful age to be alive in the 20’s must have been. Great post 🙂

  • Andrew Leon Hudson
    Posted April 22, 2015 at 09:35

    Interesting stuff, all this, JF!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2015 at 20:48

      Hey, Andrew! Thanks so much for visiting. I’m happy you’re liking my stuff 😉

  • Linda
    Posted April 22, 2015 at 10:33

    Excellent post and informative. Visiting from A – Z Blogging Event. The variety of posts presented in this challenge astounds me and I would never have thought I’d come across a topic on the Roaring Twenties. It was a breath of fresh air. Thank you for being different 🙂 (Linda)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2015 at 20:50

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Linda. I’m happy you’re enjoying my topic. It’s been fun to research 🙂

  • Sue Coletta
    Posted April 22, 2015 at 13:28

    The Green Mill is a beautiful place. I’d love to visit.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2015 at 20:54

      In London, there is a speakeasy-like place called the Candlelight because only candles lit the place. You can only enter if you’re dressed up in Twenties attire and if you have an invitation, which you can only get from other customers.
      If I can find where is it, I’m going to go! 🙂

  • Jolie du Pre
    Posted April 22, 2015 at 12:02

    I’m glad alcohol is legal now. Frankly, pot should be legal too. (Not that I smoke it.)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2015 at 20:52

      There has been much discussion whether the Prohibition experiment and its results may have any relevance to the drug market.
      Personally… I don’t know.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 22, 2015 at 13:37

    Nowadays people love to use the term “speakeasy” for storytelling slams. I think it is very fitting since the venues are similar 🙂 We actually had some story slams in Tennessee in one of the hideouts of Al Capone that is now a bar…

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    Multicolored Diary – Epics from A to Z
    MopDog – 26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2015 at 20:55

      I’m so envious!!! Tell me about it!!! 🙂

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 22, 2015 at 15:47

    Besides the historical images of speakeasies, I’m reminded of the speakeasy scene from the Marx Brothers’ 1932 film Horsefeathers. It’s impossible for me to forget the password is swordfish!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2015 at 20:57

      The password to my fictional speakeasy – should I tell it? Oh, ok, it’s “The dog is hungry.” Tell the doorman I sent you, he knows me very well 😉

  • Alana
    Posted April 23, 2015 at 01:25

    I am interested in history, but never knew much about speakeasies except that they existed, and that a restaurant (now closed) where I work in Binghamton had a basement where a speakeasy had once existed. Thank you – this was fascinating. Visiting from A to Z.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 23, 2015 at 14:31

      I was in a bar in Winchester (Massachusetts) last year. In the Twenties, there was a speakeasy in their basement, though it was more a blind pig. A very little room, with a crude counter and a big ice box (it was actually more an ice chamber). It didn’t look anything like what I expected, but I suppose most speakeasies looked like this doring Prohibition.

      What did ‘yours’ look like? 🙂

  • Elizabeth Mueller
    Posted April 23, 2015 at 04:27

    Great post! Thank you for dropping by and leaving a comment over on my blog!

    Though I’ve head of the word “speakeasy”, I’ve always found it peculiar-sounding. I find history fascinating and wonder if, 95 years from now, they would think we are fascinating history. What do you think?

    Elizabeth Mueller
    AtoZ 2015
    My Little Pony

    • Post Author
      Posted April 23, 2015 at 15:15

      Hi and thanks for stopping by 🙂

      Well, I don’t know about the US, but here in Europe these years will certainly be remembered. Exciting? I don’t know. Challenging. Definitely so. Fascinating? They may be considered such, because in changing there is always fear, but also fascination.
      These are actually reasons why I think Roaring Twenties America was very similar to nowadays Europe in so many things.

  • Sue Archer
    Posted April 27, 2015 at 00:32

    Thanks for the link on where the word speakeasy came from. You’re right, there is a lot to say on this topic! 🙂

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2015 at 05:28

      Maybe one day I’ll do a series of posts about speakeasies. I just may.

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