Down the alley, to the right, at the back of the building. Knock, say the magic word, and gain admission to a place where there were no laws – no boundaries – that couldn’t be forgotten. Scofflaws – the men and women who literally scoffed at the law – sipped cocktails made from harsh strong illegal liquor made thick – and drinkable – by the addition of sugar and sweet juices. Dark-skinned musicians played jazz as light-skinned gals danced the Charleston, their short sparkling dresses catching the eyes of their gangster boyfriends who held court in the corner booth. The men might later deliver a barrel of illegal liquor to another club or procure more product from a secret source. They were businessmen who were simply, as bootlegger Al Capone once said, “giving the people what they want.” The lines between past and future, white and black, and right and wrong were smudged and blurry in this world, if they remained at all. This was Prohibition-era America.
On January 16, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution was ratified, making the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquor illegal in the United States. When it went into effect one year later, it marked the beginning of a cultural revolution, defined by its new music, new fashion, new dances, new methods of doing business, and new social interactions. Speakeasies were symbols and the place of Prohibition-era culture. They delineated a physical space in the urban world where the law did not apply. But it wasn’t just the liquor laws which were broken behind the doors of the speakeasy.
Speakeasies developed within them a culture of rule breaking. The boundaries of race often blurred as African-Americans and European-Americans mixed together socially. Jazz, brought north by African-Americans migrating from the Jim Crow South, broke all the expected conventions of rhythm, harmony, and melody. This new music called for new kinds of dancing: the Charleston filled this void, requiring its participants to fling their limbs in a manner that, compared to older, more restrained forms of dance, must have seemed like some sort of devilish possession. And the middle-class women who danced the Charleston with their girlfriends and boyfriends would have likely never been seen in pre-Prohibition male-dominated public taverns. And when the girls literally kicked up their heels dancing the Charleston, the already scandalously short hemlines of their beaded dresses showed off more than just their knees.
But the speakeasy existed for one activity in particular: drinking illegal alcohol. The alcohol sold during Prohibition was of terribly poor quality; some of it was poisonous and induced hallucinations, blindness, and even death. But whether or not it killed you, first, you still had to drink it. And so the cocktail – liquor mixed with sugar and often fruit or fruit juice – became all the rage. Even men who had been long-time whiskey and gin drinkers often opted for the sugared cocktails over taking the liquor neat. And of course that women were generally unaccustomed to hard liquors doubled the necessity of adding tasty sweets to liquors. The French 75 was a popular choice. It was named for a piece of artillery used in the First World War and likely gave a similarly strong punch. The French 75 was laced with lemon juice, sugar, and champagne, which made “bathtub gin” go down much easier.
But the spirituous world of speakeasies and flappers and jazz began to collapse in the fall of 1929 when the stock market lost 40% of its value in two months. The slide would continue for another three years and the market, at its nadir, would be worth a mere 10% of what it had been before the fall 1929 crash.
Meanwhile, national Prohibition had only intensified the problems it set out to destroy. Violent crime, crime syndicates, deaths and injuries from alcohol – all of these had risen instead of decreased since 1920. Government officials could no longer pretend they were capable of enforcing Prohibition by the early 1930s. On December 5, 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment was ratified and overturned the Eighteenth Amendment. Prohibition was set to end ten days later, on December 15, but few adhered for ten more to the law they had been flaunting for years. Prohibition was over.
If you’re interested in celebrating this major historical moment, here’s a recipe you might enjoy. And before you indulge, don’t forget a toast to the Twenty-First Amendment.