Speakeasy: Roaring Twenties America in a Shot
My novelette Give in to the Feeling entirely takes place inside a speakeasy. A friend who read it told me it was a brave choice. To me, it was just what made the most sense. But I’ll admit I do have a fascination with speakeasies, and not only because of the romantic (and largely undeserved) air that surrounds them – their secrecy, the mystery, the exciting jazz music, the daring young women. Speakeasies were microcosms where the larger change in American society showed itself at its fullest. All the daring, the good, the bad and the very ugly were going on in speakeasies, and if romanticism was actually miles away, history was truly happening in these places.
Speakeasies aren’t a product of the 1920s
It may come as a surprise, but it is still debated whether Prohibition worked or didn’t work. In general, there is agreement on the fact that it did work in smaller, rural towns and communities and was a complete failure in big, especially very big cities (I won’t name names, but New York City and Chicago might ring a bell).
I’m talking National Prohibition, which went into effect in 1920 and was repealed in 1933. The history of the United States is in fact dotted with many prohibition laws, which were most of times regional, and in some cases aimed at a particular group or situation. One of the first prohibition laws was designed to prohibit the selling of alcohol to Indian trappers, back in the second half of the 1700s. But all through the 1800s several individual states enacted prohibition or temperance laws.
You could say there had been speakeasies since there have been prohibition laws, so they could be found in the 1800s already, mostly rooms in private houses or back rooms inside otherwise legitimate shops.
But the truly famous incarnation of the speakeasy was during National Prohibition, and with good reasons. The smaller, poor version common in the 1800s kept existing and was still very common, but in the 1920s a new kind of speakeasy arose, one that was the expression of the time and showed off everything that was new and daring.
Women: flappers enter the male space
1920 didn’t just mark the beginning of Prohibition, it was also the year American women won the right to vote. The decade that followed saw the rise of a completely new breed of woman, young, daring, very focused, one who knew her value and was determined to make everybody aware of it.
It would be quite naïve and very superficial to say that in the Twenties women suddenly gained their freedom. It wasn’t at all sudden, and it wasn’t as fast as one may think or as complete as we like to think. The change in the minds and hearts of both women and men had started generations before. The roles between men and women, for example, had been slowly changing following the desire to take control of their life, children and motherhood being of crucial importance.
The 1920s brought about exceptional advance in contraception methods and the fact that these methods became more available made them more acceptable. The change that this caused was huge and touched on many level of American society, not just women.
Though women were the most affected, of course. They could now decide when to have children. Being a mother was now a choice. Which meant that being just a woman was equally a choice, a woman that could decide how to look, a woman that appropriated, first and foremost, the right to be sensual and desirable.
On the other hand, men accepted this new kind of woman, who became not just a lover and a mother for them, but a companion, someone who could share their lives, even before they built a family.
Sharing, this is the crucial change. Men and women did things together, went places together, they shared the same experience.
This was probably nowhere as apparent as in the speakeasy. Women didn’t frequent saloons before Prohibition, that was a male’s space. But now the new woman who was a companion did frequent speakeasies with their men, she drank and she smoked, like men did. She danced and she showed off, she made herself up to look more attractive, she showed naked arms and legs.
True, there were still lines they wouldn’t cross (women were still expected to be chaperoned, for example, and not to sit at the bar) but the speakeasy made utterly obvious that women had won a new space that wasn’t theirs before and they were going to use it.
Jazz: the devil music grabs America by its throat.
Nobody knows when jazz was born, although there is general consensus that it was born in the South, in and around New Orleans. By the 1920s, jazz was already quite popular in the South, and it was still a black music. Almost only African Americans played it, and because they were mostly not allowed to play in reputable places, they had to make do with less savoury establishments: brothels, dens, game houses. So people started make the connection that jazz was the music of vice and deviance, that it was brutal and animalistic.
When jazzmen went North at the time of the Great Migration, they kept playing in this kind of establishments, in the black belts of big cities. Many of them found work in speakeasies, which were spreading and becoming ever more numerous and needed entertainment.
People came to get drunk, but also to dance and soon jazz was the music you wanted to dance to.
It was still disreputable, because it was played mostly in outlaw bars, where young people of all races were giving themselves to the syncopated music that (it was said) killed all inhibitions. It was still played mostly by African Americans, so there was much debate whether the music was worth calling art (at first) and whether African Americans truly invented it (later on).
But it infiltrated every crack of life. Young people loved it, it was liberating and new and daring. The music industry, that was just rising, loved it because it was the rage of the day. White musicians loved it because it was so new and different.
Jazz influenced the 1920s to a point that that time was called Jazz Age. It penetrated every aspect of life.
In the speakeasy, it happened every night.
Integration: black-and-tan fantasy
Black-and-tans – bars and ballrooms that could be patronised by both Blacks and Whites – and slamming had existed before Prohibition, but in the Twenties it became a true fashion.
There was a general feeling that new, interesting things where happening in the black belts of big city. Where else was the best jazz performed, after all? Where else was it possible to dance the newest, craziest dances?
Black jazz bands generally performed in the segregated parts of town. Some managed to perform outside of it, but they were exceptions. So people, especially young people in search of strong emotions, flocked to the black belts of every big city. Here, speakeasies adjusted to it and many offered the possibility to both Whites and Blacks to patronised.
But we shouldn’t think the same that happens to day happened back then. The places where Blacks and White could actually mingle were very rare. Mostly, black-and-tans offered a level of interaction that was very stylised and closely controlled. One of the most famous black-and-tans of the time, for example, NYC Cotton Club, was a place where artists and stuff were black, but where black patronage was actually discouraged. There were black-and-tans where Black and Whites could dance on the same floor, but with a rope separating black couples form white couples. There were places where there were two different dance floors. Places that allowed mix couples to dance (but not to sit at the same table) and places that didn’t. And yes, there were even places where people could actually intermingle. I won’t go so far as to say that black-and-tans were integrated places, but they did become more common and they did allow more interaction.
This was particularly true for jazzmen. Black jazzmen were very seldom allowed to play outside of Black Belts, but they were the true masters of the art. So white jazzmen often traveled to the black belts to listen to black jazzmen and learn from them, they sometimes even play together.
So, in the smoky atmosphere of speakeasies, integration was timidly taking its first steps.
All of these changes weren’t just happening in the twilight of speakeasies. Change was happening in the society at large. Was it disquieting? It sure was. Was it upsetting that in these illegal places this kind of behaviour was common and sometime unchecked? Yes it was. But it was happening. But if in everyday life people may have pretend not to see, in speakeasies it was so plain it couldn’t be denied.