How Much for that Drink, Buddy?

In the mystery I’ve just started, two of my characters go into a speakeasy in Chicago in 1924 and order martinis. I wondered how much this would cost. Details like that enrich the writing and give readers a greater sense of the time and place. So I started investigating. And EUREKA! I found this price list from a Chicago speakeasy, dating from the mid-1920s. Perfect! 



So this is what I wrote: 

A haze of smoke hung over the place like thick fog on a fall morning. It shrouded the piano man and the young colored woman who stood beside him singing I Wish I Could Shimmy Like my Sister Kate. Her warm, throaty voice caressed the notes like a lover. Freddie and I sidled up to the crowded bar and ordered martinis. We surveyed the joint as we waited for the bartender to deliver.

Two long wooden bars divided the room. Two bartenders worked between them, serving customers from both sides. On our side a dozen café tables, each with two chairs, formed an arc around the musicians. The opposite side was busier, with card tables ringed with gamblers. No one was paying much attention to the music, which was a shame. That girl was good.

The martinis arrived. Freddie put three quarters on the counter. “Keep the change.”  

Published in: on February 14, 2016 at 7:49 pm  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Cheap tipper too! Or were tipping rules different back then? Especially bartenders, I think of tips as 20%. $1 per drink if it’s cheap, $2 per drink if it’s around $10-15. Was it more standard for a lower percentage?

    I know I ALWAYS pay attention to tipping if it’s mentioned. I waited tables too long to not notice it. 😛

    (but the menu is super cool — I wonder what a lot of those drinks taste like… 😀 )

    • Here’s my thinking: Freddie is 17 years old, inexperienced, and makes $10 a week, so a nickel is not a small tip for him. And while it’s not overly generous, it’s still a tip. Only in recent decades has 15% come to be a standard restaurant tip–I remember years ago 10% was typical, and nowadays, people are often tipping 20%. At the bar where Freddie is drinking, 10% would have been 7 cents, so I rounded down. Three quarters seemed good.
      In other books I have Jessie tipping a whole quarter to the red cap at the train station–something I learned from old movies.
      I never worked for tips myself, but I think about them carefully when I’m creating my stories, because, like you, I think tipping says something about the character of the tipper.

    • 20% tips are way out of line for the time. A tip was supposed to be 10% before it was decided that 15% was more appropriate in the face of high inflation in the 1970s.

      • Didn’t know that tips had inflated over time! Huh. Thanks for the “tip” 😛

        — Tegan

  2. Clever way of sneaking in an interesting historic detail, though I might suggest: I dropped six bits on the table and said keep the change.

    • I did consider that, but was afraid most readers wouldn’t know that 2 bits was a quarter.

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