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 variety of speakeasies as there were speakeasies, and 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 exiting 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 in order to grant admission.
Membership card were also quite popular and 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 determined 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.
WBEZ91.5 – A shot of history: ingredients of the Chicago speakeasy
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