AskDefine | Define speakeasy

Dictionary Definition

speakeasy n : (during prohibition) an illegal barroom

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. An illegal saloon operated during the Prohibition period in the 1920s.

Extensive Definition

This article is about Prohibition-era liquor establishments. For other uses, see Speakeasy (disambiguation).
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. The difference between a speakeasy and a blind pig is that a speakeasy was usually a higher class establishment, whereas a blind pig was a lower class dive.


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.

Public reception

F. Scott Fitzgerald once commented that during Prohibition, "the parties were bigger..the pace was faster...and the morals were looser." Prohibition engendered public outcry, especially from German-Americans, many of whom were long dependent on brewing for income, and the working class and immigrants.
Though national Prohibition was created in hopes of reducing crime and other problems related to alcohol, it instead precipitated an age of jazz and liquor, as well as an age of corruption, which contributed to the popular image of the "Roaring Twenties". Bootlegging seemed respectable. Ordinary people manufactured liquor in their homes. Speakeasies led to the corruption of those who owned them, those who went to them, and those who were supposed to enforce laws against them. For every saloon that closed, a dozen speakeasies sprang up (Our American Century Jazz Age: The Jazz Age, 114). They were disguised as everything from funeral homes to regular family basements. This made it easy to find speakeasies because there was generally one nearby. Those who went would see a mixed crowd of people ranging from the rich to the poor. They would see those who were against the prohibition and those who were for it (“Speakeasies, Flappers, and Red Hot Jazz: The Music of the Prohibition”). People believed the laws of America should reflect the ethics of society, not its practices. Because of this, most of the general public had broken the law at some time (The Twenties: the American Destiny, 53).
Those who were best known for hanging out in speakeasies and breaking the law were flappers. Flappers were easy to spot. They were women with short skirts and bobbed hair, smoked and drank cocktails. They dared to go where women had not gone before. Their boyfriends wore knee-length raccoon coats and corrupted themselves with illegal activities. They blamed it on the fast paced jazz music. They were the spokesmen for the corruption the speakeasy caused (“Speakeasies, Flappers, and Red Hot Jazz: The Music of the Prohibition”).
The speakeasies corrupted the general public by making it easy to break the laws of the prohibition. To get into speakeasies, all one had to do was know the password or have a membership to what the speakeasies called a supper club (The Twenties: the American Destiny, 54). This made it easy to obtain liquor. Many speakeasies had code words for drinks such as a cocktail. They also commonly served alcoholic drinks in tea cups. During raids, many speakeasies would have the band play a certain song or have a code word of some sort to sound the alarm. At that alarm, patrons would get rid of their alcohol and flee. This made it easy to avoid arrest (The Roaring Twenties Encyclopedia, 37).
Most speakeasies were started by ordinary people who saw an opportunity to make money, and when the money rolled in, so did the criminals (The Twenties: the American Destiny, 55). Many gangs took over entire cities and began to control the speakeasies. They had a system of smuggling the alcohol around. They bribed federal officials to “protect their speakeasy for a cost.” This caused corruption all around, and the mafia was born (The Roaring Twenties Encyclopedia, 37). Many owners of speakeasies spent a good amount of the money they made to offer bribes. They had secret compartments to hide liquor from raiders, as well as secret exits used to escape. The gangs were bribing federal officials to raid rival gangs’ speakeasies, as well as stealing and having wars over alcohol. It is strongly believed that mobsters were bribing Government officials in office to keep the prohibition alive. If the prohibition ended, their main source of money would be eliminated. Corruption and gang activity became common during the time period speakeasies were open (The Twenties: the American Destiny, 53).
The job of enforcing the prohibition was given to 1,550 federal agents, a small number for the problem at hand. The Feds were corrupt and protected speakeasies. They would accept bribes to report no findings of liquor. Many also worked for gangs, and would go and shut down rival speakeasies (Our American Century Jazz Age: The Jazz Age, 126-127). Some agents even blackmailed speakeasies to not reveal them to the Feds. They would return to collect money. Government officials were accepting bribes not to do anything and to keep the speakeasies going, and not end the prohibition. Corruption was a common thing in the government (The Twenties: the American Destiny, 54). The prohibition was created in hopes of reducing crime and other problems that were related to alcohol, but instead it jump started an age of jazz and liquor, as well as an age of corruption. Corruption existed everywhere, from bootleggers, and everyday people making booze in their own homes, to the most corrupt, the speakeasies. The speakeasies led to the corruption of those who owned them, to those who went to them, to those who were supposed to enforce the law against them.


  • Loretta Britten, Paul Mathless, Ed. Our American Century Jazz Age: The 20’s. 1998. New York: Bishop books inc., 1969.
  • “The Dry Years” The Roaring Twenties Encyclopedia. 2007 Ed.
  • “Speakeasies Flappers and Red Hot Jazz: The Music of the Prohibition” 18 April.2008..
  • The Twenties: The American destiny. London: Orbis Book Publishing Corporation Ltd. 1986.

Further reading

  • Kahn, Gordon, and Al Hirschfeld. (1932, rev. 2003). The Speakeasies of 1932. New York: Glenn Young Books. ISBN 1-557-83518-7.
speakeasy in Catalan: Speakeasy
speakeasy in German: Speakeasy
speakeasy in French: Speakeasy
speakeasy in Swedish: Lönnkrog

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

alehouse, bar, barrel house, barroom, beer garden, beer parlor, bistro, blind tiger, cabaret, cafe, cocktail lounge, dive, dramshop, drinking saloon, gin mill, groggery, grogshop, honky-tonk, local, nightclub, pothouse, pub, public, public house, rathskeller, rumshop, saloon, saloon bar, taproom, tavern, wine shop
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