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The 1920s Speakeasy Clubs

100 years ago today the Volstead Act went into effect leading to Prohibition around the USA

“I am just a businessman giving the people what they want. All I do is satisfy a public demand”

— Al Capone on bootlegging illegal liquor and operating Chicago speakeasies during prohibition (1920-1933)

It might not sounds strange that during the so called Roaring Twenties, the Progressive era, the Jazz Age, the era of speakeasies, fast cars, industry, luxury, Art Deco, the lost generation without morals, the flappers, the crazy finance that led to the 1929 crash … - a group of moralist and fundamentalist such as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union led the United States to vote for prohibition in 1920. Their main aim was to set moralism and temperance back. The Anti-Saloon League, the American Temperance Society, the Daughters of Temperance, the Prohibition Party, the Scientific Temperance Federation and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice were just a smal portion of groups created to fight against the social degeneracy of the time.  These temperance societies were composed by very religious people organised in groups of influencers travelling across the United States to promote religion and family values among people. They were just small groups at the beginning but at the end of IX century they became well organised with their own newspapers, by which the temperance and moral values were promoted, and became a national phenomenon. 

Among the many religious purposes of these groups there was the complete prohibition of every sort of alcoholic drinks and gambling, as well as a strong chastity of morals towards many topics: from prostitution to the length of the skirts (in some states they even managed to forbid improper and lascivious sexual affairs even among married couples), erotic magazines of the times were strictly banned. They even tried to ban nude statues and paintings showing nudes from museums, but fortunately, they did not succeed with this last one. 

They denounced the lack of moderation of their times and their crusade against the society excesses had only begun to carry their message to the people.

The campaign of Temperance. The Women's Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.), the oldest non-secretarian women's organization worldwide. It was organized in 1874 at a national convention in Cleveland, Ohio. Their main aim was to fight for prohibition.

"Wet or Dry". A propaganda poster from the elections of the late 1800's made by the WCTU to vote for prohibition.

From 1893 to 1933, the Anti-Saloon League was a major force in American politics. Under their motto "The Saloon Must Go," the group worked to unify public anti-alcohol sentiment. They influenced the United States to vote againts sale and consumption of alcohol and set the Prohibition Amendment in the United States Constitution.

These religious groups looked at the saloons as politically corrupt and drinking as a personal sin. They thought the alcohol should have been banned to eliminate crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health and hygiene in America. A true Prohibition movement who got a foothold during the end of 1800s and it was able to seduce very influential people both in the industry than among the establishment at the beginning of 1900s.  They went so far spreading their dry crusade that at the beginning of the 20th century it became popular thought that the use of alcohol would lead to deficiencies at work. That’s why among top names declared themselves in favour of the prohibition of alcohol were John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford and Henry Joy, who joined the Anti-Saloon League investing huge amounts of money in their campaigns.

With the support of such influential people it was easy for them to get till Washington to introduce their anti-alcohol sentiment, with the WWI as a new justification for prohibition: the money spent on alcohol could be used to cover the war expenses. Temperance laws and anti-alcohol legislation were made across the United States and in December 1917 a Constitutional amendment (aka the Eighteenth Amendment) to carry nationwide Prohibition laws was introduced in Congress and passed by both houses. Subsequently, in 1919, the Amendment was ratified by 36 of the 48 states needed and passed then into law, known as the Volstead Act, which provided enforcement to the XVIII Amendment when it was ratified in 1920.

The National prohibition of alcohol had officially started in 1920 and it would have last until 1933. The Temperance Society and all the anti-alcohol groups won their cause and USA went dry. 

The Volstead Act, the law which provided enforcement to the XVIII Amendment of the Constitution, was ratified in January 16th 1919, which prohibited "the manufacturing, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors." This amendment stated that no alcoholic beverage could be sold, manufactured, imported or exported legally in the U.S.

January 16, 1919. the Amendment was ratified by 36 of the 48 states needed to become law.

“Everything must go!” sale in June 1920, before the Prohibition law takes effect.

The last call ... before the liquor sale is banned.

The window shop invites to buy liquor before the Volstead Law takes effect.

Workers roll away beer vats at a brewery in Washington, D.C. switching from brewing beer to making ice cream. 1920

1920, a policeman empties a barrel full of liquor in public. Alcohol is officially banned.

1920, you better get rid of liquors man!

When the Prohibition Act took effect, wine could only be sold just for sacramental purposes.

Budweiser company annoucing their beer will be de-alcoholized to conform the Federal Volstead law, 1919.

By introducing the Volstead law, the government thought that this would have helped to establish moral values and temperance back, creating a crime and violence free society. But they were wrong, as prohibition did not curb crime at all. It rather fed it. Banning the alcohol consumption did not improve the quality of lives but it caused an increase in criminal activities.  The clandestine market of alcohol became a billion dollar business for criminals who started to import it illegally or producing it in their own poor quality distilleries and breweries. A real underground economy was created, with organised crime having the monopoly on liquors trade and smuggling, supplying poor quality and over inflated price whiskey to illegal bars and saloons which number increased consistently after the prohibition law. 

With the coming of Prohibition all alcohol related industries closed. Some companies converted to other activities, always in the food industry, but most of them were not enough bold to reinvent themselves from one day to another and quit the business. Many people became unemployed all of a sudden and without their wages they soon fell into poverty. The only people who did benefit from this chaos was organised crime. As a true business company they used to recruit their employees among these poor devils, who thought that becoming a criminal or being a gangster was dangerous but was not too bad as long as it could provide a fast way to make money. 

On the night of January 16 1920 an armed gang attacked a train and robbed a cargo of whiskey of the value of 100’000 USD, the bootlegging had officially begun as well as the myth of Gangster, whose most prominent exponent was Al Capone. The turnover of the black-market business of liquors reached several billion dollars and social degradation exploded. 

The business related to illegal alcoholic beverages trade, due to prohibition, contributed to the beginning of the era of Gangsters. The XVIII Amendment was recognised as one of the greatest mistakes in the history of the United States afterwards. 

Unemployed men outside Al Capone's soup kitchen in Chicago during prohibition and Great Depression

Al "Scarface" Capone, the biggest crime boss of the 20th century, and his squad in Chicago.

From top left: Joe Masseria, Bugsy Segal, Frank Nitti, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, Bugs Moran, Arnold Rothstein, Johnny Torrio, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, Al Capone (not in this picture), these are the most powerful gangsters who rose up to power thanks to the prohibition law. Their fame and wealthy did not generate just from robbery, booze, gambling, racketeering, murders and prostitution but from the illegal import of whiskey from Ireland, Scotland, Canada and Caribbean. From New York to Chicago, from Atlantic City to Las Vegas and Los Angeles (with the Ardizzone Family), this huge supply- demand gap in the alcohol business was Gangsters main source of cash.

During the 1920 Chicago gangsters reigned supreme and executions between local gangs were constantly in the agenda.

Lucky Luciano (3rd from left) at a Gangsters Convention in Chicago, 1932

The government set up the "Federal Prohibition Bureau" to fight illegal trade of alcohol.

Federal Prohibition Agents confiscate an illegal liquor still, 1920

Prohibition agents examine liquor confiscated from a captured rum runner, 1924

Police agents confiscating illegal moonshine distillery in 1920

Federal Prohibition Bureau confiscating illegal liquors at a speakeasy.

Police agents worked so hard to confiscate as much illegal alcohol they could in the illegal bars.

Los Angeles Evening Herald news on Aug 14, 1930

In 1929 on St. Valentine’s Day, seven members of Bugs Moran’s gang were gunned down in cold blood in a garage in Chicago. This massacre was leaded by Al Capone, the biggest Boss of the prohibition era. This massacre, which shocked the nation with its brutality, was reported by major newspapers and made Al Capone a public enemy.

The Bootleggers were people who distributed liquor illegally on behalf of their bosses. They were trade mediators between the producers (or the importers) and the illegal bars or eventually end consumers. They were called bootleggers because originally they used to hide the flasks of liquor inside their boot legs. Then they would hide the flasks in hollowed out canes, in false books and under their winter coat. 

A bootlegger arrested by the Minneapolis police displays her apparatus for dispensing "wet goods" during prohibition. April 10, 1924.

The bootleggers wore these cow shoes to cover their footprints. and mislead the police. The Agents always looked for human footprint in the woods that bootleggers used to cross on their way to or from the hidden alcohol stills.

The greater was the load of alcohol to carry to the customer, the larger was the space needed to contain (and hide) it. It is funny nowadays to see the crazy things they invented to protect their cargo from the police!

A bootlegger trunk in disguise

The Speakeasy Clubs

Organised crime made a lot of money, by distilling liquors in their illegal breweries or importing it illegally in the US. This distilled liquor they sold to illegal bars, called Speakeasy clubs. They were so called because everybody had to speak quietly about such spots in public so that the police would have found out nothing  about the existence of clubs serving alcohol.  They were not so hidden like the breweries were, they were just simple bars (most of them operated by organised crime) that everyone could find on the street but just a few knew they served more than orange juice inside. Therefore, while the police officers of Bureau of Prohibition were busy in looking for illegal stills, these unsuspected bars operated in the full light of the day.  However, how could these pubs work undisturbed and why was so hard for police agents to find out them? The truth is that they were just normal street pubs or clubs (the same you could find before the Prohibition) and normally not everybody could come inside and ask for a shot of whiskey. Speakeasy Clubs were a bar in a bar. That means customers had to use a password to get it and eventually pass through a false bookcase to step into the Speakeasy. So tricky!

At the beginning of prohibition they were a few bunch, relatively small with little or no entertainment in it, but through the 1920s they gradually became more popular and expanded to different areas of the country and live shows involved. The Speakeasy Clubs became one of the most source of income for criminal bosses. By 1925, in New York City alone, there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs. 

The 21st New York club was a famous Speakeasy serving alcohol during the Prohibition. The first picture shows the club as an illegal bar during the 1920s. The club still exists in its original place in the heart of Manhattan (picture 2) and it's also a high-end restaurant.

300 Club at 151 W. 54th Street in New York City. Texas Guinan was a former acteress (bottom picture on left) who opened a Speakeasy in New York and became the Queen of the Nightclubs. The place became a hot bed for talent such as Peggy Hopkins Joyce, Pola Negri, Mae West, Al Jolson, Jeanne Eagels, Gloria Swanson, John Gilbert, Beatriz Michelena, Clara Bow, Hope Hampton, Irving Berlin, John Barrymore, Dolores Costello, Leatrice Joy, and Rudolph Valentino , as Broadway and Hollywood agents would constantly mingle with the dancers, musicians and artists that would frequent the club. She used to rub shoulders with Prohibition bootleggers, who provided the liquors to the club and were regular clients. The club does not exists anymore. At its place there is The London NYC today.

Chumley's at 86 Bedford Street in Greenwich Village, Manhattan NYC. Chumley's is a historic pub and former speakeasy. It has been closed for renovation for a while and it has re-openen on last September the 26th.

The entrance to the Dill Pickle Club in Chicago, a social club popular among artists, intellectuals, and bohemians from the 1910s to the 1930s. It was a famous Chicago Speakeasy club during prohibition.

Gallagher's Steakhouse in New York City. Helen Gallagher, former "Ziegfeld Follies" girl, opened this speakeasy club in 1927. It still exists today and it is located in the same place.

KGB bar, East Village, New York city. In the 1920s the second-floor venue of the KGB Bar was a speakeasy for Ukrainian Socialists who met behind its double-locked doors to hide their political affiliations from the rampant McCarthyism of the era.

Light Horse Tavern in Jersey City, New Jersey. It was a speakeasy club during the prohibition and the neighbourhood bar.

Tobacco Road, Miami. The upstairs was used as a speakeasy during Prohibition. Unfortunately, it does not exists anymore. In 2014 Tobacco Road, the oldest bar In Miami, closed and was demolished.

The Mayflower Club, 1223 Connecticut Ave , Washington DC. It served illegal alcohol and offered gambling during the prohibition. It is now home to the bar/restaurant Dirty Martini

Funny cocktail shakers

Bootleggers used to hide liquor flasks in the craziest spots such as fake books, inside the boot legs, under their coat ect… and what about the Speakeasies? How did they trick the police coming inside the club? How could they hide illegal alcohol? The Speakeasy cocktail shakers differed very much from the classic shakers shape in fashion those days … They used different shakers designed on purpose to make them less easily recognised by the police.

These original shakers are very rare today and they cost a lot of money in auctions. Authentic Models, a Dutch company making true replicas of furniture and decoration from various age (the Age of Exploration, the Victorian Age, the 1920s and the 1930s) brings back to life these unique objects today. Authentic Models Cocktail Shakers are a true reproduction in the minimum detail of the original ones!

Authentic Models Thirst Extinguisher Cocktail Shaker

Authentic Models Fire Extinguisher Cocktail Shaker

Authentic Models Bell Cocktail Shaker

Authentic Models Dumbell Cocktail Shaker

Authentic Models Lighthouse Cocktail Shaker

After thirteen years, the government finally realised that prohibition was not working. It did not improve the quality of life, at the contrary it had in fact created more problems to society. In 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was passed and ratified, ending national Prohibition. Without the business of illegal alcohol, crime substantially decreased and Gangsters, who rose up thanks to this illegal trade, used their wealthy to go to other markets. Prohibition caused many problems not just in economy (with the unemployment rate exploding during those 13 years) and not just in criminal activities which expanded during those 13 years. People health was badly effected too by this intoxicating poor quality alcohol and a lot of people were hospitalised or even died of cirrhosis of the liver. 

The Volstead law was only good for gangsters, who made a lot of money with it. By the way, the police efforts made during prohibition to cut down crime rate were fully rewarded by the imprisonment of Al "Scarface" Capone, the most powerful Boss of 1920s. He was convicted of tax evasion and went in jail on 17th October 1931.

The "Repeal" (aka the abolition of prohibition on alcoholic beverages), promoted by the President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt, brought positive effects to the society. Millions of Americans were finally free to buy alcohol. Regularly taxed, alcohol boosted government’s revenues and million jobs connected to its industry were created.

The Daily Mirros' title on December 5, 1933

17th October 1931. Al "Scarface" Capone goes to prison. He was convicted of tax evasion.

Bye Bye Volstead Law! Prohibition ends at last!



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