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Discover the secret world of the American speakeasy during the 1920s Prohibition Era, an intriguing period in U.S.

history, and quiz yourself to see how much you’ve learned about the subject!

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Personal Freedoms and Prohibition

As an American, I very much enjoy having the power to choose. I love living in a country where I have the personal freedoms that I do. Admittedly, I do live a rather boring life. While some of my friends are very politically active and exercise their right to rally and protest, I’m more the type to exercise my right to a nice glass of wine accompanied by a box of chocolates on a cool summer evening.Of course, though the United States of America was established to protect personal freedoms, there was a time period in our history when enjoying a glass of wine was actually illegal. This time frame was called Prohibition, which took place from 1919 to 1933.

During Prohibition, the production, sale, distribution, and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the U.S. was illegal.Prohibition came to be with the passage of the Volstead Act. The Volstead Act, also called the National Prohibition Enforcement Act, was passed on January 16, 1919.

Though it preceded the 18th Amendment, the Volstead Act substantiated the provisions of Prohibition. Effectively, the Volstead Act was more important to the launch of Prohibition, consisting of more than 25 pages of stipulations and law. Comparatively, the 18th Amendment was very brief, needing only 111 words to change the Constitution.

It was ratified on October 29, 1919.

Speakeasies

With the ratification of the 18th Amendment, the production, sale, distribution, and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the U.S. was rendered illegal overnight. Seen as a result of the temperance movement, Prohibition pleased many citizen groups, such as farmers, women, and religious sects, who believed that drinking was detrimental to the prosperity of a decent society.

While the idea of Prohibition was popular with some, there was a large portion of the population that refused to comply with the new law. People wanted to be able to drink alcohol and took to brewing their own, such as moonshine, or illegally-distilled liquor. The practice grew and the opportunity for a blackmarket was overwhelmingly powerful.In cities big and small, and even in rural areas, mob-controlled saloons sprang up to satisfy the public’s desire to drink.

These establishments were called speakeasies, a place where, during the Prohibition, alcoholic beverages were illegally sold and consumed in secret. In addition to drinking, patrons would eat, socialize, and dance to jazz music. Often owned by criminals, speakeasies were in abundance during the Roaring Twenties, the time period from 1920 to 1929.

Two Speakeasy Patrons
spez

The popularity of speakeasies cannot be underestimated. In New York City, for example, it has been estimated that anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 of these establishments flourished during the 1920s. There were so many speakeasies peddling bootleg, or illegal, alcohol that the town was called ‘City on a Still’.

Success of the Speakeasy

Prohibitionists found it difficult to control the locations of speakeasies. Due to their secret nature, ordinances and licenses could not be used to sanction alcohol sales.

Defying the law, most speakeasy owners set up shop wherever they could and maintained unlimited hours. As the years of Prohibition passed, a multitude of concealed saloons continued to be established in hidden locales within stores, in basements, and in back rooms. Prohibition agents and police forces toiled away, as they attempted to discover illegal alcohol.

However, the agents and police often accepted bribes from owners and looked the other way.

1920s Prohibition Agents at Work
agents

Nonetheless, people flocked to these locales in droves, seeking pleasure and enjoyment.

Speakeasy owners who provided the alcohol were very wealthy, while their patrons varied in social and financial status. For the first time in American history, rich and poor patrons illegally drank together. Inside these establishments, cultural, socioeconomic, and even racial barriers were broken down, as African American and whites alike drank outside of the law.In order to gain entrance to a speakeasy, patrons were stopped at the door and had to produce a secret password, a special card, a secret handshake, or a special code. Once the password was verified, patrons were led inside to the speakeasy location, which was often hidden in a basement or behind a false door. While on the premises, the bartenders warned all patrons to ‘speak easy’ when ordering drinks so that no one could tell liquor was being sold. Therefore, bartenders gave alcoholic beverages, such as wine, beer, and mixed drinks, secret code names.

Flapper on Magazine Cover
girl

Some speakeasies admitted both men and women, while others were open exclusively to men. In those that welcomed ladies, women who became known as ‘flappers‘ were common customers. These young women most often wore short, bobbed hair and revealing clothing. Fringe dresses that moved as the girls danced to jazz became iconic for the time.

End of an Era

The Roaring Twenties were a time of jazz music, expressive dancing, and and a distinctive cultural shift in America towards effusive expression of personal freedoms. The decade came to a screeching halt with the crash of the American stock market in 1929. Accompanying the abrupt halt of the Roaring Twenties, the Prohibition Era began to fade by the end of the decade. Increasing gang violence associated with bootlegging made many Americans fearful.

Not long into the 1930s, progressive groups began to call for a repeal of the Volstead Act, as the Great Depression subsided and people became hopeful that they could get jobs in distilleries and breweries nationwide. On December 5, 1933, the 18th Amendment was repealed with the ratification of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution. With this, the term ‘speakeasy’ became obsolete, and Americans openly returned to the business of legally consuming alcohol.

Lesson Summary

In 1919, Prohibition, a time during American history when the production, distribution, sale, and consumption of alcohol was illegal throughout the U.S.

, came into effect. It was a result of the combined passage of the Volstead Act, or the National Prohibition Enforcement Act, and the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Prohibition came into effect just as the Roaring Twenties emerged on the cultural scene in the U.S.

The American speakeasy became an icon of the decade. Speakeasies were secret establishments where alcohol was illegally sold to patrons during the Prohibition. In places now depicted as full of glamour and glitz, speakeasy patrons defied the law in an effort to enjoy drinking, cavorting, and other activities in secret. Among patrons of varying socioeconomic statuses and races, flappers, young women distinguished by bobbed haircuts and short, fringed dresses, became a symbol of the Roaring Twenties, speakeasies, and jazz music.The Roaring Twenties came to a screeching halt with the stock market crash of 1929. Soon after, the popularity of the speakeasy declined as Americans looked to the possibility of job opportunities with distilleries and breweries if Prohibition were to come to an end.

With such a distinct loss of public support, Prohibition was abolished with the overturning of the 18th Amendment in 1933.

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