44 Vintage Photos Of Speakeasies, The Underground Bars Of Prohibition-Era America
By Austin Harvey | Edited By Cara Johnson
Published December 7, 2022
Updated December 10, 2022
While Prohibition was in effect in the United States from 1920 to 1933, speakeasies popped up across the nation as places where people could buy alcohol illegally.
Shortly after the end of the first World War and leading up to the Great Depression, two monumentally important periods in American history co-existed: The Roaring ’20s and Prohibition.
It seems strange that an era known for its surging economy, lavish parties, jazz, and the Harlem Renaissance covers the same gap of time as the era in which the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol was almost entirely banned across the United States — until you account for speakeasies.
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A group of men enjoying a last round of beers together before Prohibition began in 1919. Bettmann/Getty Images
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A poster announcing the arrival of "Pussyfoot" William E. Johnston, a Prohibition advocate. 1919.Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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A group of Prohibition officers dumps a barrel of alcohol into the sewers.Public Domain
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Patrons outside the notorious Krazy Kat Klub, a Bohemian café, nightclub, and speakeasy in Washington, D.C.Public Domain
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A collection of speakeasy cards. These were especially important, as owning a card from a well-known speakeasy in good standing granted access to most other speakeasies in town. Bettmann/Getty Images
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A group of people purchasing drinks in a speakeasy.Keystone/Getty Images
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A bartender pouring beer from a tap. Bettmann/Getty Images
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A woman sits in a soda bar, discreetly adding liquor to her drink from a flask cane. 1922.National Photo Company/PhotoQuest/Getty Images
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A group of women at the bar on the luxury ship SS Manhattan. Before the repeal of Prohibition, the ship's bar was required to close within 12 miles of the coast.FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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New York State troopers give seized alcohol to a small monkey. The monkey was their official taster.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Patrons in a New York "near beer" saloon drinking beverages that didn't cause intoxication. 1920.SeM/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
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Officials from the U.S. Bureau of Industrial Alcohol studying whiskey bottles. Bettmann/Getty Images
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Moe Smith, Izzy Einstein, and Jake Gosnell at a recently raided still.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Clients of a high-end speakeasy in New York. 1932. Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
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During Prohibition, Harry Frink collected liquor bottles from all over the world and rented them to Hollywood studios for saloon and speakeasy film sets. Pictured here are Harry Frink and actress Ida Lupino.Bettmann/Getty Images
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An outdoor lounge area of the Krazy Kat Klub. Public Domain
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A woman putting an ankle-flask into her Russian boot. Hiding flasks in clothing items like this was one of the many ways people snuck their booze during Prohibition. 1922.Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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A group of federal agents posing with the seized alcohol they acquired following a raid. 1923.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Two hostesses in a Washington, D.C. speakeasy. Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
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The interior of a speakeasy on the East Side of New York. 1932.Ewing Galloway/ullstein bild via Getty Images
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Prohibition inspectors during a booze raid on a speakeasy. 1926.Bettmann/Getty Images
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A woman wears a garter flask, a small three-drink container that was worn at the top of a garter beneath a skirt for quick and easy access to booze. 1926.Bettmann/Getty Images
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A man kneels by a not-so-subtle advertisement for a nearby speakeasy. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
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A bar in Camden, New Jersey, being forcibly dismantled by Dry Agents. Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
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Club Richman owner Louis Schwartz (left) sits with actress Lina Basquette. Sitting across from them are Cortez and Peggy, a famous dance team. 1930.Bettmann/Getty Images
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A smiling woman holding bottles of alcohol including peach brandy, port wine, gin, absinthe, and forbidden fruit. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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A dead body left in a speakeasy in Chicago. Despite their popularity, or perhaps because of it, mob activity was rampant in certain speakeasies countrywide but most prominently in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Public Domain
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Three men posing at the bar in a speakeasy. Bettmann/Getty Images
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Representative Fiorella La Guardia, an anti-Prohibitionist, purchased a bottle of malt extract, 3.50 percent alcohol, and a bottle of "near beer," which he mixed together and drank along with Major Mike Kelly of the 69th Regiment and Congressman John Moran of Pittsburgh. Afterwards, they simply waited to be arrested.George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images
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Four men drinking in a speakeasy. Bettmann/Getty Images
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Prohibition agents Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith drinking in a New York City bar in 1935, two years after Prohibition was repealed.Public Domain
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A tavern on the day before Prohibition was enacted. 1919.Cincinnati Museum Center/Getty Images
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An inspector sniffs liquor that was seized during a raid in New York. At the time, police claimed to have uncovered an "elite rum ring."Bettmann/Getty Images
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A group of women drinking in an illegal bar in New York. 1932.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
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Dec. 4, 1933, the day before Prohibition was repealed, at the Park Lane Hotel in New York. At the table, left to right: Cartoonist George McManus, Ann Cutler, writer Konrad Bercovici, cartoonist Milt Gross, Alice Denhoff, illustrator Howard Chandler Christy, and Kathleen Worden.Bettmann/Getty Images
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U.S. Dry Agents in a speakeasy "sampling" some of the confiscated liquor. 1924.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Patrons at a speakeasy in San Francisco, California. 1931.Underwood Archives/Getty Images
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Congressman J.P. Hill of Baltimore, Maryland, serving homemade hard cider illegally to a crowd in his own backyard. The alcoholic content of the cider was 2.75%. He then dared Prohibition authorities to take action against him. Bettmann/Getty Images
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A large crowd of patrons in a speakeasy during Prohibition. Bettmann/Getty Images
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A group of men anxiously awaiting the return of legal alcohol sales after the repeal of Prohibition. Bettmann/Getty Images
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A typical Ninth Avenue speakeasy in New York.Daily Herald Archive/National Science & Media Museum/SSPL via Getty Images
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A waiter mixes cocktails at the Casino Bleu in the Hotel Baltimore on Dec. 5, 1933, at one of the first repeal parties in New York.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Bartenders at Sloppy Joe's Bar pouring a round of drinks on the house as news broke that the 18th Amendment had been repealed and Prohibition was ending after 13 years. American Stock/Getty Images
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A group of people in New York celebrating the end of Prohibition with beer. 1933.Imagno/Getty Images
44 Vintage Photos Of Speakeasies, The Underground Bars Of Prohibition-Era America
Speakeasies were, in essence, illicit bars and clubs that sold alcohol to their clientele. As the Mob Museum acknowledges, however, these "discreet" spots were Prohibition's worst-kept secrets. By the end of the 1920s, there were more than 32,000 of these "gin joints" in New York alone.
In fact, speakeasies were so prominent that they came to define pre-Depression America more than anything else. Many of the iconic images that the 1920s conjure up — flapper girls, mob bosses like Al Capone, Jazz-Age noir — stem from the culture that speakeasies created.
The Not-So-Secret World Of Prohibition-Era Speakeasies
Naturally, many Americans were upset when the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act made it illegal to sell alcoholic drinks. This led to a massive and entirely underground business known as bootlegging — the production and sale of illegal alcohol.
The Prohibition movement came about as a result of growing waves of religious revivalism in the 1800s that ushered in calls for temperance and other "perfectionist" ideas like the abolitionist movement to end slavery.
While we can look to the latter as a positive example of this growing ideology, the Prohibitionist movement can largely be considered a historic failure.
Buyenlarge/Getty ImagesA wrecked car belonging to bootleggers, who were carted off to prison. 1921.
The push for Prohibition came from a few large sects: the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League, and factory owners who wanted to reduce workplace accidents and make their employees more productive during their egregiously long shifts.
The rise of evangelical Protestantism also saw saloon culture as corrupt and ungodly, and a large number of women additionally felt that alcohol ruined families and marriages.
Initially, Prohibition was a temporary measure instituted by Woodrow Wilson in order to preserve grain for food production during wartime, per HISTORY. Congress later introduced the 18th Amendment, which was officially ratified on January 16, 1919.
By then, 33 states had already implemented some kind of Prohibition legislation.
But the United States government struggled to actually enforce Prohibition over the course of the nearly 14 years it was in place. At first, the IRS was put in charge of enforcement, but the responsibility was later transferred to the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prohibition.
The "Drys" raided hundreds of illicit bars during the '20s and early '30s, but the overwhelming number of speakeasies that popped up across the country made the task effectively impossible.
Like modern drinking establishments, speakeasies ranged from hole-in-the-wall dive bars with rough seats and a few choices of beer to lavish, extravagant clubs with tableside service. They also offered something that prior drinking establishments hadn't: the chance for men and women to drink together.
In short, people who wanted to drink were still finding ways to do so — which meant there was money in making alcohol, even if it was technically illegal.
And given that alcohol production and operating speakeasies was already an illicit activity, it was the perfect industry for enterprising organized crime bosses to stake their claim and get rich.
How Prohibition Led To A Surge In Organized Crime
There were a couple of factors that allowed speakeasies to thrive during Prohibition, but perhaps the two largest were the massive number of gang members working to transport alcohol and the fact that only 1,500 federal agents were given the job of enforcing the alcohol ban.
That number breaks down to roughly 30 agents per state. Again, there were more than 30,000 speakeasies in New York alone. By some estimates, that number was actually as high as 100,000.
Organized crime gangs immediately seized the opportunity. Within one hour of Prohibition going into effect, six armed men stole $100,000 worth of "medicinal" whiskey from a train in Chicago.
All across the country, gangs were stockpiling booze supplies, but one gangster in particular made his name — and his money — in dealing out illegal alcohol and even lauded himself as a sort of contemporary Robin Hood: Al Capone.
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty ImagesGangster boss Al Capone and his attorney Abraham Teitelbaum in 1931.
"I'm just a businessman," Capone would say, "giving the public what they want."
Of course, the "businessman" was a far cry from the hero he portrayed himself as, as evidenced by the infamous 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre in which Capone ordered seven Chicago rivals to be gunned down by his gangsters.
Still, at the height of his activity, Al Capone was raking in tens of millions of dollars every year from his illegal booze business.
In New York, Charles "Lucky" Luciano found similar success when he brought together some of the biggest Italian and Jewish mobsters to control the city's bootlegging industry.
Bettmann/Getty ImagesCharles "Lucky" Luciano drinking wine in New York City.
Arnold Rothstein, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series, profited from importing Canadian booze across the Great Lakes, down the Hudson, and into New York. And in Cleveland, the Mayfield Road Gang made their mark on history by rum-running speedboats across Lake Erie.
Some of these guys, like Meyer Lansky, avoided Capone's fate by wiring money to Swiss brokers to cover their tracks.
By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933 with the passing of the 21st Amendment, gangs and especially gang leaders had stores of cash that allowed them to continue to live extravagantly well into the Great Depression — and they continued to make a profit thanks to loansharking and other booming criminal activities.
It's little wonder why Winston Churchill, looking at American Prohibition from across the sea, called the law "an affront to the whole history of mankind."
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a bachelor's degree in screenwriting (widely considered to be a bad move) from Point Park University.