30 Prohibition party photos
Prohibition was an American experiment meant to temper the thirst of drunkards, and instead it caused the country to take its drinking underground. And while the government chased bootleggers all over the country, regular citizens were largely left free to drink unregulated alcohol in speakeasies that never closed and saw nightly parties that were out of control. We’ve captured their good times and sorted through their slang to take a ride through the era when alcohol was illegal, but the party never stopped, and the booze kept flowing.
1. Behind the Eight Ball = In a Tight Spot
On the stroke of midnight on January 17, 1920 the Volstead Act (aka, the 18th Amendment), the legislation meant to enforce Prohibition in the United States, went into effect. Average citizens, bent on following through with the new law of the land accordingly, packed into bars in cities all over the country.
This New York City bar is serving what look like somber patrons, as bartenders and restaurant staff all over the country were getting ready for a career change, and drinkers getting ready to go dry. But just because the law changed, doesn’t mean enforcing it was an absolute nightmare. American citizens who were regular working class types turned into criminals over the next 13 years as the good times continued to roll.
2. Boozehound = Drunkard
Some liquor stores and brewers survived prohibition because they successfully adapted, but either way they had to get rid of their stores of alcohol. Drinking this legally purchased alcohol would not be a crime during Prohibition, as long as it stayed in peoples homes. Although it seemed that American citizens would behave at first, there were signs of trouble from the start.
On the night Prohibition went into effect, there were several robberies. Six masked men toting pistols robbed two freight cars full of whiskey, while another gang emptied four casks of grain alcohol from a government storage facility. The law was going to have some resistance, to say the very least.
3. Juice Joint = Speakeasy
Many will be surprised to learn that Prohibition didn’t actually outlaw the consumption of alcohol, just the sale, transportation, and distribution. Unfortunately, that meant that any alcohol purchased in a speakeasy (also called a “blind pig,” or “blind tiger” because entry usually came with a show featuring animals) was illegal.
But just try and tell that to these happy patrons having a good ‘ol time in a Chicago bar. The gentleman in the middle just to the left is holding what appears to be a labelled beer. In this case it’s Atlas Beer, who manufactured “near beer” on a mass scale during the Prohibition era. Despite Atlas telling us that, “alcohol was always a small factor in beer,” we’re surprised to see their nearly alcohol free beer (.5%) holding up at the party.
4. Bluenose = Prude
Of course, Prohibition didn’t come out of nothing. The Temperance movement had a legitimate gripe against a nation full of people whose lives were being ruined directly and indirectly from alcohol. The unfortunate consequence of Prohibition is that it did little to curb drinking, and mostly succeeded in funding the rise of organized crime.
Perhaps this photograph is slightly ridiculous to our 21st century eyes, and while these women were no doubt wronged in various capacities by the consumption and effects of alcohol, they sure do not look like they are having any fun. But more power to them — good luck with that, ladies.
5. Flapper = A stylish young woman having fun and defying social conventions
This beautiful, young lady represents the opposite of the ladies in the previous photograph. Women who fell on either side of the Prohibition issue, (the Temperance warriors, and the flapper seen here) would have lasting effects on feminism from utilizing the right to vote to being liberated sexually.
Bars and night clubs as we know them today were not around during Prohibition, or the pre-Prohibition era. Saloons were very popular and for the most part they were male only clubs. That changed in the 1920s as working class women, and young ladies such as the one above were expressing themselves in new ways, and having fun while doing it.
6. Dip the Bill = Take a Drink
Speaking of fun, these two men might have had a little too much. These are the men the ladies of the Temperance were talking about when they discussed the damaging effects on alcohol in peoples’ lives. And by the looks of it, they had their share of credence to their cause.
This photograph was likely taken prior to Prohibition given the advertisements in the background. Contrary to popular belief, drinking went down during Prohibition overall. But it also had some unintended and adverse consequences because it forced the whole practice to go underground, linking it with other crimes, criminals, and vice.
7. Bim, Babe, or Broad = A Woman
If that doesn’t look like the happiest man in all the world then we don’t who is. His name is Jimmy Durante, and he’s an entertainer in a time when entertainment went underground. Some of the most iconic speakeasys emerged in cities such as Chicago and New York during the era.
A speakeasy might be something as simple as a side-room serving bathtub gin, but there were big ones such as New York City’s 21 Club, which still survives today. The upscale, swanky night club brought in some of the most famous people of the era, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
8. Cabbage, Kale, Spinach, or Lettuce = Cash Money
The most iconic novel to emerge from the era was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The decadence written about in the book was personified in many restaurants and night clubs that could still cater to the rich. It was a time where even the wealthy had to go underground to wet their whistles.
Now this looks like the good life, as servers are taking care of these patrons every need. From swanky to seedy, an estimated 30,000 speakeasies in New York City alone kept the populous spirited and wet, and for the most part were run by big name gangsters.
9. Johnson Brother = Criminal
The Four Deuces is one of the most widely known Chicago speakeasies in the country, and was run by none other than the notorious gangster Al Capone. Capone is said to have made $60 million from the sale of illegal booze in one year, and The Four Deuces also included upper floors devoted to gambling and the sex trade.
Some of the slang of the era is on full display here. “Jake” emerged around WWI and means “ok” or fine.” “Lettuce” is cash, and “tiger’s milk” is an alcoholic beverage. It also includes some more obvious terms, and a reader can see that patrons were supposed to leave their guns at the door, their criminal secrets quiet, and limit their sexual advances on the women who work there.
10. Out on the Roof = Drunk
Bohemian style is at its finest here at the Krazy Kat Club, which is more of a tree fort than it is club. This speakeasy operated in Washington DC, featured a full service tree house out back. The club operated through the entirety of Prohibition despite being raided several times.
The club’s proprietor is sitting to the far right, and her name was Cleon “Throck” Throckmorton, and on top of the entrance she wrote “All soap abandon ye who enter here.” In 1919 the speakeasy was raided after a gunshot was heard from outside (they should’ve had Capone’s rules in effect), and the resulting arrests of over 20 people revealed that government officials were imbibing at the illegal bar.
11. Bee’s Knees = The Best (also a popular Prohibition cocktail)
The Prohibition era produced some of America’s most notorious women, and one of those was Lois Long, code-name “Lipstick.” She was a writer for the New Yorker when the magazine first started publishing, and was hired when the editor was looking for “edgy” columnists. Long wasn’t neck deep in Prohibition lifestyle, she was drowning in it and loving every moment.
On a typical day she’d stumble into her office coming directly from speakeasies, and write about her sexual and social exploits. Later in her life she would write, “We women had been emancipated and we weren’t sure what we were supposed to do with all the freedom and equal rights, so we were going to hell laughing and singing,”
12. Ritzy = Elegant
While Lois Long was considered the consummate flapper, Texas Guinan may have been the most famous women of the Prohibition era. Her act was a major attraction to big city speakeasies, and when she would greet customers at speakeasy El Fey she was known to say, “Hello suckers.” Solid catch phrase.
She eventually opened her own place, and the 300 Club featured the act of Texas Guinan, and no less than 40 more beautiful women dancing to the sound of music. She encouraged her ladies to be outgoing to the male patrons, and after the 300 Club was raided one time, she is rumored to have told police her dancers had to dance so close to men because the place was “too small.”
13. Tip a Few = Have a Few Drinks
As the years went on, support for Prohibition began to wane, and speakeasies were popping up all over the place. The only problem was the fact that reputable brewers and distillers were out of business, meaning countless bootleggers tried their hand creating drinkable alcohol at home. Turns out it’s not that easy.
For patrons this meant they better watch what they drank to avoid being poisoned. Cocktails grew in popularity enormously during the era to help mask the flavor of less distilled alcohol. Lois Long even said she generally stuck to brandy, because even the most savvy moonshiners couldn’t mask the smell of cognac.
14. Wrong Gee = A Bad Fellow
Bootleggers were essential to Prohibition speakeasies, and there is no shortage of examples of them hiding their liquor in some pretty clever ways. The truck below is well-disguised, but other bootleggers chose to hide their booze in plain site. Reports say that some loads of alcohol were delivered in ice cream trucks.
New York gangster Larry Fay who ran El Fey, is said to have had an entire fleet of taxi cabs to ferry his booze from Canada to the city. The above truck comes to us from Los Angeles, where efforts to mask the transport of alcohol didn’t need to be as incognito as this one, as s healthy supply reportedly came from the mayors office.
15. Pinched = Getting Arrested
Los Angeles, like many major cities, either developed or used existing tunnels like underground rivers to keep the booze flowing. The tunnels helped in the cat and mouse games played by law enforcement and gangsters, but there were still many seizures of stockpiles all over the country.
The bag being held in the middle may be a grape concentrate called wine bricks, from which many bottles can be fermented into something palatable. Many big brewers such as Coors used the same concept for their malt syrups. The syrup could be bought in bulk, and when mixed with water and yeast it produced beer.
16. Lip or Mouth = Lawyer
When spilling a drink in front of others, fellow drinkers are likely to scream “sacrilege,” or “party foul!” Now just think of what illicit words you’d use if the booze was dumped on purpose, and en masse. Fortunately, these youngsters know the score, and somehow the photo is making you root for the children collecting strong drink!
Many historical photos of the Prohibition period show law enforcement smashing up and dumping out copious amounts of alcohol, but since we can’t bear to see such a sight, this is the only photo where either one of those is taking place. We wouldn’t lie to you about something like that.
17. Jalopy = Old Car
“If it hadn’t been for whiskey, NASCAR wouldn’t have been formed. That’s a fact,” said NASCAR and bootlegging legend Junior Johnson. Moonshiners and bootleggers who ran their hooch from the backwoods souped up their rides to outrun whatever chased them. And they came up with some pretty clever stuff that got incorporated into newer performance models.
Running from law enforcement was dangerous business, as this poor soul found out the hard way when he crashed his car at 70 miles per hour. Running illegal moonshine continued even after Prohibition, and once it was repealed, drivers of the fast cars traded the back roads for NASCAR racetracks.
18. Tomato = Pretty Woman
While many have probably heard of the “Charleston” dance, what you are seeing below is what’s called the “Charleston on ice,” the slip factor obviously making this style of dance harder. The Charleston was named for the city where it originated, and was an extremely popular dance from the mid-1920s and onward.
The Charleston was a dance that originated in the South, which is the same case for the music of the era: jazz. A mass migration had taken place in the years following WWI that saw many southern blacks head to northern cities. When they came, they brought their music with them and contributed to what would become called the “Harlem Renaissance.”
19. Oyster Fruit or Marbles = Pearls
This New York City jazz hall has the dance floor packed, and thanks to plentiful libations, so many of these party-goers look like they’re having an incredible time. Especially the woman at front, who seems to be grabbing the arm of the conductor, perhaps to play the song she wants to hear.
Jazz did not originate during Prohibition, but it was popularized during the era. Soon jazz legends such as Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and Fats Waller were on the scene, and the Cotton Club was the most popular speakeasy in Harlem. It was a place where black and whites would interact regularly during a time of segregation.
20. See A Man About a Dog = Go to the Bathroom
This is convenience and customer service at its finest. The boys in the boat are delivering fresh brews for the thirsty workers in Boston Harbor. Boats were a big part of Prohibition, and popularized the term, “booze cruise.” Yeah, go ahead and drop that fact next time you’re on one.
“Cruises to nowhere,” as they were also known, saw ships head for international waters and circle around until the party stopped or the booze ran out. In the backwoods, the cities, and even in the sea, organized crime was regularly beating Prohibition agents’ efforts to enforce the increasingly unpopular law.
21. Sheik = A Good Looking Man
These people are thirsty, ready for a good time, and several are giving the universal sign for “cheers!” So we “cheers” you back for keeping the party going. While these patrons are drowning in sudsy brew, Prohibition gave birth to some of the most widely known cocktails today. Let’s hope they stuck to the liquor before beer rule.
Famous bartender Eddie Woelke created the rum based “Mary Pickford” after he escaped to Havana with many other bartenders. Another popular drink was the “Southside,” which was a gin based drink that was said to be the favorite of Al Capone and his cronies. The ever popular old fashioned was also a drink from Prohibition.
22. Sheba = A Good Looking Woman
Perhaps the most iconic look of the Prohibition era was the flapper. Flappers pursued their own social agendas, and often drank, smoked, and danced to their her hearts content. Lois Long was the very embodiment of Flapper. It went through a nice little revival when F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gastby was adapted into film in 2013.
She was said to know all the secret code words to get into speakeasies such as “The Spider’s Web,” “The Garden of Joy,” “The Drool Inn,” and “The Bucket of Blood.” Her own boss opened a speakeasy to keep a better eye on his staff, but when Long and her future husband were found naked on a couch in the office after a night of drinking, the speakeasy closed.
23. Squeeze = Girlfriend
A flask is a drinker’s best friend in a pinch, but in the Prohibition era it was necessary to transport liquor anywhere as opposed as into public events. This flapper has her garter belt a little low as she’s slipping her flask down her leg and just about ready to take a taste.
The term Flapper may originate in Great Britain, but writer F. Scott Fitzgerald popularized the term in the United States. Though he wrote critiques of the glamour life, he did partake in it. He wrote that a perfect Flapper is much like the young lady above saying she should be, “lovely, expensive, and about nineteen.”
24. Rats and Mice = Gambling Dice Games
“When I sell liquor it’s called bootlegging; when my patrons serve on Lake Shore Drive, it’s called hospitality,” said Al Capone. Capone flaunted his wealth, but did an excellent job hiding his stranglehold on bootlegging in Chicago. He did so well that the only way he was ever prosecuted was for tax evasion.
Speakeasies in New York such as the “21 Club” featured such elaborate measures to hide alcohol as trap doors, and bar tops that would open up. When cops raided speakeasies, a bartender could send all the booze in the place into the sewers below with one touch of a button. Whew! Close one, guys. Party on.
25. The Rumble = The News
When the “300 Club” was raided in 1929 Texas Guinan didn’t try to hide all the alcohol, and instead told police her patrons brought their own drinks. She put on quite a show during the subsequent trial and was found not guilty after just an hour of deliberation by the jury.
Guinan may have gotten the last laugh, but later in 1929, she closed the “300 Club” and moved onto a career as an actor. Upon being found not guilty, Guinan allegedly “screamed [her] opinion” about Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who was the “First Lady of Law,” and fought cases involving violations of the Volstead Act.
26. Duck Soup = Easy
On April 7, 1933 at the stroke of midnight, Americans were granted the right to buy bottled beer for the first time in 13 years. Parties erupted all over the country, as in St. Louis, where thousands of people clogged the main avenue and sang “Sweet Adeline” until the early hours of the morning.
The President himself got in on the festivities too. Upon signing new legislation allowing production, distribution, and consumption of bottled beer President Roosevelt is reported to have said, “I think I’ll have a beer.” The next day six Clydesdale’s carrying beer from the Anheuser Busch brewery showed up at the White House to deliver a case to the President.
27. That’s the Crop = That’s Everything
Prohibition stated with the best intentions, but in the end, it was a failed experiment. Billion of dollars that otherwise would’ve gone to reputable brewers and distillers went to gangster like Chicago’s Al Capone and New York’s Lucky Luciano, who arguably had more influence over the city that the politicians.
On December 5, 1933 at 5:32pm Eastern Standard Time prohibition, just under 14 years in effect, was repealed and the party was on. Journalist and political satirist H. L. Mencken marked the occasion by taking a shot of water, reportedly saying it was the first water he’d drunk in 13 years.
28. Big Cheese = The Boss
For the first and only time in United States history an amendment in the Constitution was stricken from the law when the 18th Amendment was replaced by the 21st Amendment. The entirety of Section 1 of the 21st Amendment reads, “The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.”
Take a look at the Constitution today and you’ll see that the 18th Amendment is still there, even though it effectively was repealed. And the 21st Amendment basically says, “don’t listen the 18th Amendment.” When those words became the new law of the land, patrons in bars all over the country toasted a “farewell” to Prohibition.
29. Skid Rogue = A Bum Who Can’t be Trusted
Drunkards taking intoxication is something that will happen as long as people drink, but the country was incredibly relieved to have the choice back in their hands. And even though statistics say drinking did go down during Prohibition, historians agree that, thanks to government regulations after the fact, it was much easier to get a drink during Prohibition than after.
A writer named Studs Terkel, who had his first beer on April 7, 1933, later said of the night, “It was marching through Paris day, Mardi Gras Day, Independence Day, all the triumphal days put together!” The nation was in a celebrating mood, and many even took to the streets. Cheers to that!
30. Giggle juice, or Giggle water
In another solid marketing move from Anheuser Busch, Clydesdale’s also showed in New York City on April 7th, and delivered a case of beer to former Governor of New York Al Smith for his support during Prohibition’s repeal. So much better than a fruit basket. Organized crime continued to flourish after Prohibition as their stranglehold on illegal rackets only widened.
But one of the more positive results is the fact that the male only saloons that were the enemy of the Temperance movement were gone forever, and in its place the bars and night clubs we’re more familiar with, where men and women alike are free and uninhibited to imbibe how they choose, for better or for worse, serve as Prohibitions legacy.