Where Did the Word “Speakeasy” Come From?

“Speak easy, pal,” meaning, “Lower your voice.” 

Before Prohibition was a day old, illegal “gin joints” called “speakeasies” sprang up in basements and back rooms across America. Depending on the part of the country, they might be carefully hidden and open only to those who knew the password, the equivalent of “Joe sent me,” or they might be operated rather openly in areas where the police had been sufficiently bribed to look the other way.

Speakeasies welcomed women. That was a change from the bars and saloons of the past that were off-limits to women or had a back entrance for the use of working-class women.

Getting around the law turned into an elaborate game that often proved deadly. Some speakeasies were built at the end of piers, where boats could unload their liquor up through a trap door directly into a bar.  Others had secret rooms, rotating shelves, trap doors, fake walls, and emergency disposal shafts to thwart police. New York’s famous 21 Club was guarded by a man at the front door with a buzzer he pressed to warn people inside if the place was about to be raided. When that happened, shelves holding liquor bottles collapsed, dumping their contents into a space below and snapping back into place empty. The club’s basement had secret passages and fake walls that hid a large liquor vault that still exists. No liquor was ever found at the 21 Club. 

the secret passageway at the 21 Club

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Published in: on September 18, 2011 at 11:28 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] WBEZ91.5 – A shot of history: ingredients of the Chicago speakeasy Mary Miley’s Roaring Twenties – Where did the word “speakeasy” come from? […]

  2. I hear many answers re: where did the term speakeasy come from. Nowhere do I hear a reference to the doors in most of the establishments. Those doors had a speakeasy in them you announced your presence through before you could enter. Yes, those little openings were (even before prohibition) called a speakeasy. Although not so popular now they are still available. (look up “doors with a speakeasy”). Isnʻt it possible the term for the establishment came from the devise you used to enter? Or at least had something to do with it?


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