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What is a Speakeasy?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A speakeasy is an establishment that sells alcoholic beverages illegally. Although the origins of this term lie in the United States, speakeasies can be found all over the world. These establishments became especially famous in the United States during the Prohibition era in the early 20th century when alcohol was banned as a result of lobbying from the temperance movement.

The term is believed to be derived from the idea that people patronizing such an establishment needed to stay quiet or “speak easy” to avoid detection. To avoid attracting the attention of law enforcement, the structure is often well insulated to minimize noise, and it may be drab so that it does not catch the eyes. Some speakeasies historically were established in buildings that looked like they were falling down from the outside, but revealed lavish interiors on the inside.

In nations where there are bans on alcohol or restrictions on the types of alcohol that can be sold, a speakeasy provides alcohol in violation of the ban. The alcohol may be produced on site, in the case of simple beers and distilled beverages, or smuggled in to the facility. The operating costs for an establishment can be high for organizations that smuggle in alcohol because the cost of the liquor is inflated as a result of the dangers of manufacturing and smuggling it. This is passed on to customers of the establishment, who pay a premium for the drinks they consume.

In addition to offering alcohol, a speakeasy may also offer entertainment. Some operate as night clubs with music, dance, and other entertainment for guests. They also may offer gambling, an activity that can also be banned or restricted by law. Some speakeasies operate relatively openly, while others may require people to submit a password or pay a cover charge to enter. These restrictions are designed to keep government agents out and may also be used to select elite clientele.

Some of the 1920s clubs that became famous during the Prohibition era transitioned easily once the ban was lifted, using their reputations to expand their clientele and continue operating. Thanks to a nostalgia for the United States of the 1920s, a number of restaurants and nightclubs in the United States decorate themselves in a Prohibition style and may refer to themselves as speakeasies to attract clientele. Guests need not fear, however, the appearance of the dreaded "Revenue Men" who were once charged with enforcing Prohibition.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By CaithnessCC — On Sep 04, 2011

I've never been in a real speakeasy, but I did once happen upon a bar in Tokyo, Japan that was decorated in that style.

Everything from the music to the staff uniforms made you feel like you'd stepped back in time. I have to say that the drinks menu reflected that historic era too - they were highway robbery!

I can't recall the name of the place now I'm afraid. But if you happen to be in the city and go looking, don't mix it up with the bar lounge using the actual name Speakeasy.

By Sinbad — On Sep 03, 2011

A friend of mine was renting a house from and older couple at a low price because they were fixing it up as they stayed in it, and it needed quite a bit of work as pieces of the roof fell down at times.

So while the house was not in its heyday while my friends stayed there, we did learn from the older couple who owned it, that it had its time in the illegal spotlight!

The house had a speakeasy, but not just any speakeasy - it had an underground with only tunnels to get to it, speakeasy.

I do not know what I was more impressed by the thought of the work that went into the tunnels or the thought of the work that went into the tunnels all in the name of drinking?!

Though maybe it was a lucrative business at the time...

When I think of a speakeasy now, I think of a bar in my town actually named Speakeasy.

By Bertie68 — On Sep 03, 2011

There must be many countries where speakeasy clubs exist because of the religious ban on use of alcohol. I'd like to find out some details about how the ban on alcohol is handled in these countries. Is the ban an actual civil law, and if so, how is it prosecuted?

I imagine that in these countries, the makers and distributors of alcohol to be sold to the speakeasy nightclubs, as well as the purchasers, have to very careful in their dealings to avoid being caught. I can see why the drinks at the nightclubs are very expensive.

By BoniJ — On Sep 02, 2011

I totally understand how people want their freedom, but I think it's really important to remember the reasons for the Prohibition - destruction of family, violence and crime, job performance, moral decay and others.

Though I'm not sure I agree with it, I just think it's important to include stories about supporters of the Temperance Movement and their constant fight to alter people's drinking habits.

By julies — On Sep 01, 2011

The only reference I had ever heard regarding the term 'speakeasy' was a restaurant that has this as it's name. This restaurant has been in business for as long as I can remember and always has a crowd of people on the weekends.

I have been familiar with this restaurant since I was in college, and finally decided it was time to eat there and see what it was like.

I had no idea what the term 'speakeasy' meant until reading this article. There must be some original meaning to the name given this restaurant, but everything was completely legal. It was no different than any other restaurant that you eat or drink in.

I might have to do some research and see if I can find out why they named this restaurant what they did.

By letshearit — On Sep 01, 2011

Apparently a lot of physicians were up in arms over prohibition because alcohol was commonly prescribed for various ailments back in the 1920's. They argued for medicinal alcohol, just as those argue for medicinal marijuana today.

I wonder how many speakeasies were visited by doctors looking to get their prescriptions filled? I suppose it would be a funny sight to see, watching the town doc sneaking around with canteens of contraband rum.

I am actually glad that prohibition ended, I just can't imagine some of those really bad days at work without a little something to take the edge off. I suppose if you advertise alcohol is stress reducing, than yes, it does have a medicinal benefit.

By wander — On Aug 31, 2011

It's amazing to me that there are so many countries that still practice prohibition. Though, of course, these are mostly due to religious reasons as alcohol is forbidden many Islamic countries. In places like Saudi Arabia there have been some pretty famous stories leaked about the massive underground bars and nightclubs that manage to survive there. And yes, the booze does flow.

Much like the speakeasies of American prohibition I think that banning alcohol just makes people more clever about how they get it, it does nothing to deter drinking. In Saudi Arabia the punishment for drinking is a public lashing, but that certainly doesn't stop those who are determined to party.

By summing — On Aug 31, 2011

I've always wondered how much it cost to buy alcohol during prohibition. We all know that it was available and pretty easy to find, but it was still illegal and kept kind of underground. So surely the price was inflated.

Lets say a beer in a bar today is $2. Would it then cost $4 or even $6 if we were following the inflation caused by prohibition? How much of a mark up was there?

By truman12 — On Aug 31, 2011

@jennythelib - A few months back I read a history of the United States that was focused on alcohol consumption. People hear about prohibition and they think that the early 20th century must have been a pretty drunken time. But in fact the period between 1790 and 1820 was the most drunken periods in American i. Americans drank significantly more liquor and beer per capita than at any point in history.

According to this historian, over half the population was effectively alcoholics. People drank with breakfast and it was not uncommon for people, even the rich and wise, to get extremely drunk on an almost nightly basis. Visitors to our new nation often commented on how much people drank and what a scourge drunkenness was. So it sounds like prohibition was about 100 years late in coming. Imagine how all those settler wives felt.

By gravois — On Aug 30, 2011

I live in a city that recently passed a city wide smoking ban. There are some exceptions, but by and large all bars are now non smoking. This has been a huge change and there has been a lot of bitter grumbling.

In the wake of all this a culture has developed that is very similar to the speakeasy from the 20s. Some bars secretly allow smoking if it is late enough at night or they are not busy enough or really anytime they think they can get away with it. Others have created designated rooms where people can go and smoke anytime. All of this flies in the face of the law but I am a smoker and I'm glad to still be able to smoke inside. I also can't deny that there is an illicit thrill in doing something you know you are not supposed to.

By jennythelib — On Aug 30, 2011

@dfoster85 - It *is* kind of surprising. I'm not sure if alcohol abuse was worse then than it is today - goodness knows we still have drunk dad who beat up their kids, drunk drivers, people who drink themselves to death, all those lovely things - but it was a really particular time in history.

Somehow, women who feared themselves vulnerable to drunken, abusive husbands wound up making themselves incredibly powerful on this issue during the Progressive Era. Before the 19th century, people blamed drunks for their own behavior rather than going after alcohol directly. Middle-class reformers, though, had more of an interest in taking charge of the environment for people's own good.

They really thought they could do some good, but of course their "Nobel Experiment" wasn't particularly successful (witness the rise of the 1920s speakeasy and moonshiners - "Dukes of Hazzard, anyone?).

Well, you can tell I once did a report on Prohibition for my women's history class! But it does make an interesting look at how people in different time periods have looked at similar problems with their own eyes and seen totally different solutions.

By dfoster85 — On Aug 29, 2011

What was the point of Prohibition? Looking back, it's hard to believe that anyone really thought it would work. People in this country - and a lot of other countries, for that matter - do love their booze. Considering that, I'm surprised it even got passed!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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