Some Like It Hot - Billy Wilder's 1959 film starring Marilyn Monroe, is an iconic film that focuses on the 1920's Prohibition era. Remember this scene (to the right)??
The History of the Speakeasy
Speakeasies were most popular in the 1920's. They were initially formed in protest and violation of the 18th Amendment. These underground saloons defied Prohibition by offering contraband alcohol - and for every legitimate saloon that closed because of the 18th Amendment, dozens of these speakeasies popped up. By the mid-1920's, it is estimated that there were over 100,000 speakeasies solely in New York.
Part of the appeal that these speakeasies bring us today is all the romantic nuance of the 1920's. A sense of mystery. Perhaps even a sense of nostalgia, even for those of us who were born decades after this time period.
Given the name "speakeasy" by the need to whisper, these clubs were often protected by changing passwords to avoid being discovered by law enforcement. Oftentimes, these speakeasies were hidden in basements and attics, or disguised as other venues - like soda shops and cafes.
Speakeasies represent a very valuable period of history. The introduction of the Jazz era went hand-in-hand with the development of speakeasies. There are traces of the Women's Rights movement - Prohibition was a time when many women, particularly those of the younger generation, shed previous ideals and began to stay out just as late as the men, drinking and dancing in speakeasies. Speakeasies also provided the opportunity for the upper-, middle-, and lower-classes to interact. Social classes were no longer as important - everyone was there for the same reason: To drink without getting caught.
Many speakeasies were, in fact, established and run by organized crime. Al Capone and his Chicago crime ring led an underground business, smuggling bootlegged liquor into speakeasies and engaging in other criminal activities, such as bribery of government officials and prostitution.
The Speakeasy - Revived
Many people will be surprised to know that some of these speakeasies have been preserved and still operate. No - there isn't (usually) bootlegged alcohol, but these places try hard to recreate the atmosphere of speakeasies during the Roaring Twenties.
Oftentimes, employees will dress in authentic 1920's clothing. Jazz music, secret passageways, even passwords - they are all still in use today, keeping the Speakeasy alive.
These speakeasies are so much more than just smoky taverns - they represent a period of time that we now associate with such romance and freedom and extravagance.
One of the most well-known operating speakeasies today is Bourbon and Branch, which is located in San Francisco, California. This speakeasy operated illegally from 1921-1933, disguised as "JJ Russell's Cigar Shop," and was fortunate enough to avoid ever getting raided by Prohibition Agents.
Historically, in order to gain entrance to the cigar shop, one had to knock and provide a password. Then, patrons were to request a particular brand of cigar, which would cause a floor trap door to open. They were then escorted to the basement by a cigar salesman, where they were treated to some of the finest bootlegged alcohol in California.
Nowadays, visitors are relieved from using passwords and climbing through hidden tunnels. There are five secret exit tunnels that allowed for a quick getaway in case of a raid - tunnels that you can use to this day.
The sense of ambiance is also protected by a few simple rules enforced at Bourbon and Branch. No cell phones are permitted. Visitors must enter and leave quietly. And, included on their list of rules, is "Don't even think of asking for a 'Cosmo.'"
Secrecy is still key at PDT, a speakeasy in New York's East Village. PDT (Which stands for "Please Don't Tell) In order to enter, visitors must enter through a phone booth in a connecting hot dog shop. The bar is small and intimate, covered with exposed brick walls and taxidermy heads. It is well known for it's cocktails, which are just as authentic today as they were in the 1920's.
PX, located in Alexandria, Virginia, is the complete package if you're looking for the upscale atmosphere of a speakeasy. It is secretive and elegant, and the interior is truly gorgeous, paying homage to the romantic exclusivity of the era. There isn't even a sign - just a blue light to let patrons know when it is open. Chandeliers and vintage shakers bring all the elegance of a 1920's bar.
PX is also unique in that they have an unofficial dress code. There is an expectation that men will wear a jacket to dine and drink at the bar. It is highly exclusive - the kind of speakeasy that you'd expect to see depicted in The Great Gatsby.
People love secrets. A bar cloaked in secrecy and exclusivity evokes an era long since forgotten, and luckily for us, there is a recent resurrection of the mystery and romance of the 1920's. The speakeasy is alive and well today.