The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of NYC Speakeasies

Concerns about alcohol consumption were becoming more prevalent throughout the 19th century in America, primarily fueled by religious groups that feared the results of drunkenness on the citizens of the United States. Eventually, Congress listened and responded with the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919, which prohibited manufacturing, transportation, and sales of alcohol as of January 16, 1920. Although passed with the best of intentions, Prohibition had a much different impact than what was expected. In response to this overreaching legislation, bootlegging of alcohol became a common practice, and organized crime rose significantly as the syndicates controlled the illegal production and sale of alcohol. Physicians were able to prescribe alcohol for medicinal purposes during Prohibition, and prescriptions for medicinal alcohol rose sharply. A religious exemption was also in place for people to consume wine in places of worship. In December of 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified, which was a repeal of Prohibition.

President Herbert Hoover called Prohibition "the noble experiment." Although the motive may have been noble, the impact socially and economically was far from positive. In New York City, about 75 percent of the revenue came in from liquor taxes. This revenue immediately disappeared with the ratification of the 18th Amendment, plunging the city into dire circumstances. As law-abiding bars and alcohol-selling retailers went out of business, illegal establishments such as the infamous speakeasy bar suddenly became thriving businesses.

New York City was a bustling mixture of immigrants of many different ethnicities. Although these people had striking differences, many shared a common love of alcohol. Shutting down alcohol consumption may have been a federal law, but many New Yorkers never really accepted or followed this legislation. It's even said that New York City was the booze capital of America during Prohibition, thanks not only to bootlegging and speakeasies, but also smuggling via the New York Harbor.

Speakeasies were establishments that secretly and illegally served alcohol during Prohibition. Generally, to conceal a speakeasy, an owner would hide it behind a legal business or it would be operated underground or in a hidden backroom. Organized crime syndicates were often the owners and operators of speakeasies. These illegal establishments received their supply of alcohol via bootlegging and illegal distilleries, usually managed by organized crime groups.

Prohibition had the opposite impact on the nation's drinking habits. Instead of eliminating consumption, Prohibition actually caused consumption rates to rise significantly. Anyone who was looking for a rousing good time wouldn't have much trouble finding a speakeasy in New York City. Two categories of speakeasies existed, one for working class drinkers and another for the upper echelon. "Blind pigs" were speakeasies designed for the lower class. Generally, an animal attraction would be offered for people to see for a price. With admission, patrons would be given complimentary drinks that contained alcohol. "Blind tigers" were the speakeasies for the higher class drinkers. These establishments were usually formal, serving fancy food and spiked beverages while offering live jazz music and dancing for entertainment.

Police task forces were formed as a means to enforce Prohibition. As such, speakeasies were often raided by the police. Thus, these establishments were hidden so they couldn't be found easily, and they typically featured numerous escape routes for patrons. It wasn't unusual for police officers to accept bribes to ignore speakeasies. Often the speakeasy owners would receive tips about raids so they could be ready to avoid arrests and confiscation of alcohol.

Learn more about prohibition in the United States and specifically New York City by visiting these websites: