On January 17, 1920, the United States became a dry country when the prohibition came into force. This marked the start of the prohibition speakeasy – a hidden section of an establishment used to illegally sell alcoholic beverages.
Some prohibition speakeasies were similar to today’s clubs, with singing and jazz performances.
To enter a speakeasy you needed to say a password to the doorperson. The aim was to ensure access wasn’t given to secret agents who were trying to stop these illegal drinking dens from trading.
The prohibition speakeasy came into distinction in the United States from 1920 to 1933. They were found everywhere. But were most common in New York, especially between 45th and 52nd street on 5th and 6th avenues, where almost every building contained illegal liquor.
More than 95 years after its inception, people are still fascinated by the prohibition speakeasy era, with bars that mimic these times popping up all over the place.
To indulge your fascination we have put together 5 fascinating facts about the prohibition speakeasy. Enjoy!
1. The Word Speakeasy Came From A Bartender’s Term
People were encouraged to ‘speak easy’ when at a bar. This meant they were not supposed to draw any suspicion towards buying alcoholic beverages by looking nervous or talking quickly. Slang words used for alcohol included coffin varnish, rot gut and horse liniment. These code words were used so people could fool officials and the government, stopping them from finding out about the prohibition speakeasies.
2. It Wasn’t Illegal To Drink Alcohol During The Prohibition
The 18th Amendment outlawed the ‘manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquor’, but it failed to consider outlawing the consumption of alcohol too. This left the gate wide open for illegal underground drinking which the prohibition speakeasies took full advantage of.
3. Thousands Died From Drinking Tainted Liquor
Because the manufacture of liquor was banned people were forced to make their own, often with disastrous consequences. In many cases industrial methanol was used, otherwise known as wood alcohol, which was a legal but extremely dangerous poison. This type of homemade ‘moonshine’ caused irreversible injuries including blindness and paralysis. One government report stated out of 480,000 gallons of liquor confiscated in New York in 1927 alone, nearly all contained poisons.
4. Drug Stores Sold Alcohol As Medicine
The Volstead Act, passed on October 3, 1919, was developed to enforce the prohibition of alcohol. It stated that beverages over a 0.5 alcohol volume were illegal. However, it included some interesting exceptions to the ban on distributing alcohol. For example, sacramental wine was still permitted for religious purposes. This skyrocketed the number of questionable rabbis and priests. Drug stores were allowed to sell ‘medicinal whiskey’ to treat everything from toothache to the flu. With a physician’s prescription patients could legally buy a pint of hard liquor every ten days. These ‘prescriptions’ often often came with laughable doctor’s orders such as taking ‘three ounces every hour for stimulant, until stimulated’. Many speakeasies eventually operated under the guise of being a pharmacy, further assisting the prohibition speakeasies to flourish.
5. Cocktails Masked The Flavour Of Poorly Made Alcohol
Cocktails gained significant popularity during the prohibition era. This was due to their ability to mask the flavour of poorly made alcohol, which often tasted medicinal. While chasers such as the Pickleback helped to cleanse the burning palates of drinkers, illicit bartenders and party-throwers soon discovered that a wealth of delicious mixed drinks could be made from a few simple ingredients. Thus giving birth to cocktails such as the Mary Pickford, named after the curly-haired silent movie star of the 1920s, and the Gin Rickey which was said to be the cocktail of choice for F. Scott Fitzgerald.