Speakeasies – Getting Alcohol in the Roaring Twenties

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Almost immediately after Prohibition went into effect, underground bars called “speakeasies” sprung up.

Speakeasies hid in plain sight among other types of businesses. Typically they were very plain on the outside, and were sometimes even located behind the storefront of a legitimate business. Patrons needed a secret password or knock to get in.

Illegal Liquor

There were speakeasies in almost every community, serving up all the illegal alcohol their customers wanted. Some featured jazz bands and gambling as well.

Prior to Prohibition it would have been in extremely poor taste for a woman to be seen in a saloon. But women flocked to speakeasies in the 1920s.

The cost of alcoholic drinks skyrocketed. What used to cost a nickel now sold for 50 cents. Most of the liquor sold was either poor quality or watered down, so “cocktails” became popular. People would add ginger ale, tonic water, or fruit juices to cover up the bad taste of the alcohol. Cocktail parties became a fashionable alternative to risking a raid at a speakeasy.

Other Ways to Get Alcohol

People who couldn’t afford black market booze often learned to make it themselves. Some resorted to drinking concoctions of hair tonic, aftershave lotions, and over-the-counter medications, which often resulted in death.

If you could persuade your doctor that you needed alcohol “for health reasons,” he would write you a prescription to be filled at a local pharmacy.

In his seminal book Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s, written in 1931, Frederick Lewis Allen writes, “In those days people sat with bated breath to hear how So-and-so had made very good gin right in his own cellar, and just what formula would fulfill the higher destiny of raisins, and how bootleggers brought liquor down from Canada.”

Legal Alcohol

California grape juice was shipped legally, even with United States Department of Agriculture labels stating that if allowed to sit and ferment in 60 days, it would become 12% alcohol content wine!

As a result, the California wine grape industry grew 400% in the 1920s. This made people think the government did not consider homemade fruit-based beverages to violate Prohibition.

In the 1920s, Prohibition-related violations accounted for 65% of all federal court cases, clogging the system with cases. In 1926, there were 96,000 inmates in federal prison.

New Words in the 1920s

A variety of new words were coined in the 1920s relating to alcohol and Prohibition. Here are a few:

  • Moonshiners: Producers of homemade distilled spirits
  • Rumrunners: Alcohol smugglers
  • Bootleggers: Alcohol distributors
  • Bathtub Gin: Gin made in the bathtub, because the preferred style of bottle didn’t fit in the kitchen sink!

Slang Words for Alcohol:

  • coffin varnish
  • white mule
  • horse liniment
  • monkey rum
  • panther sweat
  • rot gut
  • tarantula juice

Slang Words for Getting Drunk:

  • oiled
  • fried
  • tight
  • wet
  • blotto
  • corked
  • stewed
  • tanked
  • lit up like a Christmas tree

Sources:

  1. Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940 by David E. Kyvig
  2. The 1920s by Kathleen Drowne and Patrick Huber