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A Hooch 'n Hellraisers blog post: Entrepreneurial women thriving in Prohibition America

When Prohibition took effect in America on January 17, 1920, many thousands of formerly legal saloons across the country catering only to men closed down. People wanting to drink had to buy liquor from licensed druggists for “medicinal” purposes, clergymen for “religious” reasons, or illegal sellers known as bootleggers.

However, there was another option available… to enter private, unlicensed barrooms, nicknamed “speakeasies”  for how low you had to speak the “password” to gain entry so as not to be overheard by law enforcement. These illicit bars were also known as “blind pigs” and “gin joints”. Ranging from fancy clubs with jazz bands and ballroom dance floors to dingy backrooms, basements and rooms inside apartments, they multiplied, especially in urban areas.

Speakeasies became synonymous with the Roaring Twenties. Generally ill-kept secrets, owners exploited low-paid police officers with payoffs to look the other way, enjoy a regular drink, or tip them off about planned raids by federal Prohibition agents.

In the early days of Prohibition, speakeasies sold smuggled imported liquor. However, as Prohibition dragged on, bootleggers who supplied the private bars would add water to good whiskey, gin and other liquors to sell larger quantities. Others resorted to selling still-produced moonshine or industrial alcohol, wood or grain alcohol, even poisonous chemicals such as carbolic acid. The bad stuff, such as “Smoke” made of pure wood alcohol, killed or maimed thousands of drinkers.

To hide the taste of poorly distilled whiskey and “bathtub” gin, speakeasies offered to combine alcohol with ginger ale, Coca-Cola, sugar, mint, lemon, fruit juices and other flavorings, promoting the enduring mixed drink, or “cocktail,” in the process.

Speakeasies often went to great lengths to hide their stashes of liquor to avoid confiscation – or use as evidence at trial — by police or federal agents during raids. At the 21 Club on 21 West 52nd in New York City, the owners had the architect build a custom camouflaged door, a secret wine cellar behind a false wall, and a bar that with the push of a button would drop liquor bottles down a shoot to crash and drain into the cellar.

Perhaps the most elaborately disguised vault in New York City, ’21’s Wine Cellar was built to be invisible. Behind several smoked hams that hung from the basement ceiling and a shelved wall filled with canned goods, stood a perfectly camouflaged 2 1/2 ton door that appeared to be part of the wall. Opened only by inserting a slender 18″ meat skewer through one of many cracks in the cement wall, the secret door silently slid back to reveal ’21’s most coveted treasure: two thousand cases of wine.

Prohibition didn’t work in the Garden of Eden. Adam ate the apple.

Prohibition and its speakeasies offered entrepreneurial women an unprecedented business opportunity managing and owning these new drinking establishments. Whether to supplement the family income, or as the sole support for her family, many women were inspired by the money that could be made by running shoestring speakeasies of their own. These small scale speakeasies were often called “home speaks” or “beer flats” and were run out of living rooms or from basements.

Papa’s in the shed, mixing up the mash;
Junior’s in the parlor, counting all the cash;
Mama’s in the kitchen, washing out the mugs;
Sister’s in the pantry, filling up the jugs.

In 1928, Prohibition officials estimated that Chicago had five thousand beer flats, often run by women. Replacing the corner saloon, they served as gathering places for the locals and tended to thrive in the blue-collar neighborhoods where ethnic groups had a strong tradition of beer drinking.As a general rule, strangers weren’t welcome in these mom-and-pop places, so the patrons knew one another, and the beer flat had an intimate, clubby feel. Typically, the drinkers sat at card tables in the family’s living or dining room, and the beer was served from a barrel in the kitchen.

In Barre, Vermont, the granite industry employed many men in hazardous workplaces where they inhaled dust that caused chronic disease. These diseases, combined with the Spanish flu epidemic, produced a large number of widows in the Barre after World War I. The women had few job choices. Some tried to make ends meet babysitting, doing laundry, or cleaning houses.

A few enterprising Barre widows scraped together enough money to buy a supply of booze and turn their homes into bars. After work, men would come to enjoy a drink and play a friendly game of cards. “Men in Barre were thankful for the widows,” a local resident said. “It gave them a place to drink, hang out with friends. The widows didn’t get rich, but they made enough money to pay their bills.”

“Successful (Prohibition-era) red-carpet speakeasies and nightclubs were a mix of high society, artistic wits, and seedy mobsters.”

However, women were also infamous in the Roaring Twenties for running some of the more upscale and exclusive private clubs that catered to a very different kind of clientele.

During Prohibition, no city had more illegal speakeasies than New York City, an estimated 32,000, most of them unattractive “clip joints” with cheap booze and suggestive women serving as shills to make men spend more.

Three women who ran stylish nightclub-type speakeasies for the affluent crowd – Texas Guinan, Helen Morgan, and Belle Livingstone — dominated New York’s nightlife from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s. You can read more about these feisty trailblazing businesswomen here.

Every Night Was Ladies’ Night During Prohibition

Of course, I can’t talk about women owning speakeasies without mentioning their clientele.
While women hadn’t been typically allowed in men-only saloons prior to Prohibition, speakeasies became among the first spaces outside of church where men and women could gather and socialize together.

With thousands of underground clubs, and the prevalence of jazz bands, liquor-infused partying grew and had profound social effects. The term “dating” originated during the “Roaring Twenties” – young singles meeting without parental supervision. Gasp!

Fiction Inspired by Truth

As a writer of historical fiction who is also fascinated by the way entrepreneurial-minded women thrived during Prohibition in America, women running speakeasies seem to pop up in many of my books.

A reporter described Justo as “pretty and vivacious.” And said she catered to “a better class of the student business.” Her clientele included hip young faculty members as well as Joe College and Betty Coed. Her speakeasy was the “rendezvous for many a collegiate whoopee party.”

Jenni Justo out of Madison, Wisconsin was a historical figure who I fictionalized in my serial The Unstoppable Jenni Justo. Both in real life and in the serial, Jenni takes over running the family’s speakeasy, eventually expanding it to take advantage of the local university crowd.

After Prohibition was repealed, the real-life Jenni transitioned it into a legitimate establishment that served patrons in Madison for many years.

The popular Rum Runners’ Chronicles series features the story of Edith Duffy, widow of notorious Philadelphia bootlegger Mickey Duffy. (Mickey is another historical person who becomes fictionalized in my novels.)

Arriving in Miami after Mickey’s funeral and at a crossroads in her life, Edith turns to what she knows best and opens a speakeasy. Perched on the edge of the everglades and the ocean, Gator Joe’s is in a little place called Coconut Grove just outside Miami. After a tragic fire, Edith rebuilds it even bigger and better as the nightclub Good Times.

Other blog posts in the Hooch ‘n Hellraisers series:

Coming soon….

  • Hoochie-Coochie Hooch Haulers

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