The “speakeasy” (also written as “speak-easy” and “speak easy") began in 1889 in Pennsylvania and referred to an unlicensed saloon. The customers were told to “speak easy” to escape notice by the police. According to a story in the July 6, 1891 New York Times, the term was first used by Kate Hester, a saloonkeeper in McKeesport (PA), who told her boisterous customers to “Speak easy, boys!”
New York City had thousands of speakeasies during the Prohibition period (1920-1933). Several former speakeasies, such as the “21” Club, still survive today as restaurants.
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.
A blind pig, also known as a blind tiger, originated in the United States in the 1800s, when blue laws restricted the sale of alcoholic beverages. A saloonkeeper would charge customers to see an attraction (such as an animal), and provide a “complimentary” alcoholic beverage, thus circumventing the law.
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 only beer and liquor were available.
Estimates of the number of blind pigs in some major U.S. cities in the mid-1920s are:
. Chicago, Illinois: 10,000
. Detroit, Michigan: 15,000
. New York City, New York: 30,000-100,000
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.
Main Entry: speak·easy
Inflected Form(s): plural speak·eas·ies
: a place where alcoholic beverages are illegally sold ; specifically : such a place during the period of prohibition in the United States
(Oxford English Dictionary)
slang (orig. and chiefly U.S.).
A shop or bar where alcoholic liquor is sold illegally. Also attrib.
1889 Voice (N.Y.) 14 Nov., Hundreds of unlicensed dealers in both cities continued to run under the names of ‘clubs’ and ‘speak-easies’.
1895 L. PENDLETON Corona of Nantahalas iv. 45 A sort of rural ‘speak easy’, where the colourless liquid was poured into the purchasers’ bottles from a new and innocent-looking kerosene can.
1903 A. H. LEWIS Boss xiii. 162 That..no side-doors or speak~easy racket [should be] stood for.
1922 JOYCE Ulysses 418 In the speakeasy. Tight. I shee you, shir.
1958 S. TRAILL in P. Gammond Decca Bk. Jazz vi. 75 Every cheap speakeasy had its resident piano player.
1961 W. VAUGHAN-THOMAS Anzio vii. 138 Inevitably some of these underground caves became ‘speak-easy’ dens where the local black-marketeers sold vino to the troops.
24 April 1889, Pittsburgh (PA) Post, “The Dry West End: Hundreds of Workingmen Think They Are Deprived of Their Rights,” pg. 2, col. 2:
“This part of the city is in need of one or two saloons at least. The men in the mills who are in the habit of drinking say they will have liquor, license or no license. What is the result? A number of speak-easy resorts will spring into existence and the law will by its severity only defeat its own end.”
27 May 1889, Pittsburgh (PA) Post,, pg. 2, col. 5:
A Speak Easy Raided.
A “speak easy” on West Carson street, run by M. A. Clarke, was raided last night. Clarke is charged with selling without license, on Sunday and keeping a disorderly house. The bar was in the cellar. The police say Walker has been doing a big business lately.
8 July 1889, Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, pg. 1:
Pittsburg Druggists Open Their Stores and Dispense Cold Soda Water.
SPECIAL TO THE INQUIRER.
PITTSBURG, July 7.—An open and vigorous crusade against the Sunday blue laws, as exemplified by the local Law and Order Society, was instituted to-day in Pittsburg and Allegheny. For more than a year it has been practically impossible to secure any such beverage as soda water or milk shake on Sunday and the thirsty persons have been driven to seek a stronger liquid at the ever-flourishing “Speak Easy.”
22 July 1889, New York (NY) Times, “Modern Age Blue Laws; How they are enforced in two big cities; Pittsburg and Allegheny City overdosed with law and order—odd and humorous effects,” pg. 5:
Since the Brooks high license law went into effect the sale of liquors on Sunday by legalized saloons and bars has entirely ceased. The law carries with it fine and imprisonment both, the minimum term being three months, and no man with license has yet made bold to face the possibility of ninety days in the workhouse. The new law in Pittsburg and Allegheny enforces itself in this respect at least. The closing of saloons and other places where drink, either to cool, to cheer, or to inebriate, might be secured has caused innumerable unlicensed saloons or “speak easies,” as they are called on account of the necessity of the patrons being guarded in their conduct and conversation, to spring up all over the two cities. It is estimated there are about five hundred of these “holes in the wall” in existence.
19 August 1889, New York (NY) Times, “A Gang of Blackmailers; Plight of illegal liquor sellers in Pittsburg; Curious result of the non-enforcement of the excise laws—even city officials involved,” pg. 1:
PITTSBURG, Aug. 18.—Under the low license system two years ago this town had about fifteen hundred licensed saloons, Through Judge J. W. F. White’s construction of the high license law there are now only ninety-three saloons for 230,000 people. Eleven entire wards, several among the most populous in the city, are without a single licensed retail house.
As a direct result of laxity in the enforcement of the law unlicensed saloons have sprung up all over the city. These resorts, on account of the secrecy with which they are supposed to be conducted and the necessity of quiet within, are known as “speak easies.” There are about eight hundred of them distributed in convenient sections of the town. They are of all sorts and conditions, from the low groggery frequented by thieves to the traditional “gilded palace” patronized by respectable people.
2 September 1889, Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, pg. 1:
Charged With Keeping “a Speakeasy.”
Patrick Holden, living in the old Hallowell mansion at Twenty-third and Dickinson streets, was arrested yesterday by officer Reynolds, of the Seventeenth district, on the charge of selling liquor without a license.
5 September 1889, Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, pg. 8:
A FRANKFORD SPEAK-EASY.
27 November 1889, New-York (NY) Daily Tribune, pg. 6, col. 5:
The term “speak easy,” applied to a drinking-place without a license, has become popularized in Philadelphia. The Quaker City is such a quiet town that the habitues of such places have to speak easy to escape the notice of the police.
16 March 1890, Chillicothe (MO) Constitution, pg. 1, col. 3:
“Speak easy” is the new slang name for a saloon that sells intoxicating drinks against the law and without license.
6 July 1891, New York (NY) Times, “The Illegal Speak-easies; Defiance of the law in Pennsylvania; Saloons in which beer and whisky are sold without license—how the term “speak-easy” was first applied to them,” pg. 2:
PITTSBURG, July 5.—The commonest item in the police news in Pittsburg is the raid of a “speak-easy.” A speak-easy is an unlicensed saloon. In Pennsylvania it is the illegitimate child of the Brooks high-license law.
The term “speak-easy” is said to have originated in McKeesport, this county. Mrs. Kate Hester has for years been a saloon keeper there. She greeted the High-License act by defying it and continuing to sell beer without license. Her customers were a boisterous lot. When their conviviality became too noisy it was her custom to approach with warning finger upraised and awe-inspiring look and whisper: “Speak easy, boys! speak easy!” Soon the expression became common in McKeesport and spread to Pittsburg. Here the newspaper men accepted the term as filling a long-felt want. It now passes current all over the country as descriptive of a resort where strong drink is sold without license. Some day, perhaps, Webster’s Dictionary will take it up.
The speak-easy has all hours and all seasons for its own. It flourishes best through the week between 12 midnight and the hour when legalized saloons open—3 A. M. Sunday is its harvest time, for then it is not possible in Pittsburg or Allegheny County for the thirsty mortal to buy openly even so harmless a draught as soda water to quench his thirst. There are nearly 400 licensed saloons in Pittsburg, and more than that number of speak-easies. There are four classes of speak-easies—drug stores, houses of ill repute, low groggeries, and gilded dens—which the so-called better classes patronize. The police know the location of all of these, but refuse to molest them unless the inmates become disorderly.
3 May 1897, New York (NY) Press, pg. 2, col. 3:
The serving of liquor in coffee cups was said to have begun last night. This is on the same level as the “Speakeasy” of Pennsylvania and the “Blind Tiger” of South Carolina, and the authorities expect to have no trouble in suppressing it.
Blogorrhea: New York’s Speakeasies
Wednesday, December 6, 2006
New Yorkers have never done well without their alcohol, so just about every bar and club in the city kept serving it throughout Prohibition from 1920-1933. Even the Ritz had eight employees arrested for serving liquor. Wily bar owners who paid off the right people and installed enough secret rooms and shelves kept the city stocked up with plenty of hooch.
The 21 Club: 52 West 52nd St.
Julius’: 159 West 10th St.
Chumley’s: 86 Bedford St.
Bill’s Gay Nineties: 57 East 54th St.
The Cotton Club: 666 West 125th St.
Club Napoleon: 36 East 56th St.
El Morocco: 154 East 54th St.
Fanelli Café: 94 Prince St.
Hard Rock Hotel: 235 West 46th St.
The Backroom: 102 Norfolk St.
New York (NY) Times
Weekend in New York | Speakeasies
Tell Them Seth Sent You
By SETH KUGEL
Published: April 29, 2007
ON April 4, 1929, nine parched years into Prohibition, New York City’s police commissioner, Grover Aloysius Whalen, told a crowd at the Rotary Club in Manhattan that there were a whopping 32,000 speakeasies peddling forbidden hooch in New York City.
That was one for about every 215 New Yorkers (including children), and those were just the ones the police had documented. Ten days later, The New York Times called speakeasies — which it also called “resorts” — “one of the outstanding social institutions of New York.”
In case you couldn’t tell, Prohibition never really caught on here.
Want to spend a weekend visiting the sites of former speakeasies? It’s not hard, given the sheer number. The building housing the grilled-cheese purveyor Say Cheese in Hell’s Kitchen? Check. The parking lot at 100 Bayard Street in Chinatown? Check. But you want the ones that are still slinging the sauce to this day.
Though the expensive (and jacket-required) “21” Club may be the most famous, what with its secret wine cellar and storied clientele and all, the award for coolest history goes to Onieal’s Grand Street, whose predecessor was connected by a secret tunnel to the old Police Headquarters across the street. The tunnel was filled in (they say), but the cellar’s stone walls and the barroom’s carved-wood ceiling — said to have been imported from Venice in 1875 — has been left alone. (More recent history: Onieal’s was the location for Scout Bar on “Sex in the City.”)
New York City • Restaurants/Bars/Coffeehouses/Food Stores • (0) Comments • Sunday, January 11, 2009 • Permalink