Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
Just because this August has been cooler than usual (or perhaps it just seems that way after July’s heatwave), doesn’t mean those New Yorkers of legal drinking age are any less fond of their summer cocktails. These days, one doesn’t have to wander the streets for too long before coming across a bar, or at least a restaurant with an extensive drink menu. My personal preference is to find somewhere with sidewalk seating or a backyard garden to enjoy the fresh air, like the one below, which was located not far from where my apartment stands today, in central Brooklyn. I like to imagine myself waving friends in for a drink as they come home from work.
Grabbing a drink in New York, or anywhere in the country for that matter, didn’t remain as easy as it was in the image above from the early 20th century, nor as easy as it is today. During the Prohibition era (1920-1933) the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcoholic beverages was illegal throughout the United States under the 18th Amendment. While the actual consumption of alcohol was not covered under the terms of Prohibition, I certainly wouldn’t have been sitting at a sidewalk table waving at people, drink in hand. However, when there is a will (and the incentive of making a profit), there is a way! By the early 1920’s, speakeasies, establishments largely operated by organized crime networks that sold alcoholic beverages illegally, began to crop up all over the city.
The exact number of speakeasies in operation during Prohibition is unknown due to the very nature of their business. In 1930 Police Commissioner Grover Whalen had provided an estimate of 32,000 (twice the number of legal saloons in New York City prior to Prohibition), though other estimates held the figure at nearly 100,000. David J. Hanson, Ph.D, provides more historical background on Prohibition in New York in his article posted on the SUNY Potsdam, website.
This map created by New York Magazine shows the locations of some of the more well known speakeasies, including the Stork Club, the Merry Go Round, the 21 Club, and Leon and Eddie’s. Many establishments flagrantly sold alcohol, having secured the willingness of law enforcement to turn a blind eye, thanks to generous bribes; in fact, donors to the Museum’s collection of speakeasy cards include two lawyers and a judge. However, a culture of secrecy still surrounded the illegal speakeasies, and individuals were often required to show membership cards such as the ones shown below, before being granted admittance:
In order to keep the speakeasies stocked with alcohol, the business of bootlegging, the illegal transportation and sale of alcohol during Prohibition, became extremely lucrative, and was likewise primarily under the control of organized crime. Not only would bootleggers supply alcohol to the speakeasies, they made home deliveries, as well. They advertised their trade by distributing booklets which included price lists, cocktail recipes, and even the occasional purchase incentive gifts – such as a set of glasses that packed up small enough to fit into your pocket!
And here’s that recipe for a “Summer Cocktail:”
Click here to view the entire “Mixed Company” advertising booklet. You’ll notice many cocktail recipes from this era contain heavy portions of lemon, syrup, and other flavors. These ingredients were intended to mask the actual taste of the inferior bootleg alcohol. While there are some recognizable brand names on the list below, there are others that certainly don’t ring any bells.
An increase of crime and violence surrounding the illegal alcohol trade eroded support for Prohibition. Eventually most Americans came to the opinion it was nearly impossible to enforce and created more problems than it solved. Popular opinion contributed to the decision by the United States legislature to delegate the authority for controlling the sale of alcohol to each individual state. While many states promptly repealed Prohibition themselves, some continued the practice as recently as 1966. Some local municipalities still prohibit the sale of alcohol, but by in large, it is legal to purchase alcohol in the United States today. So next time you raise a glass, you might also want to toast the ratification of the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment and Prohibition at the national level, on December 5, 1933.