Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Liquor Licenses, Steelworkers and the British Navy - an Unlicensed History and Etymology of "Speakeasies"

Liquor Licenses, Steelworkers and the British Navy - an Unlicensed History and Etymology of "Speakeasies"

The term speakeasy generally conjures images of prohibition-era mobsters, their molls by their side, throwing back bootleg liquor in a corner booth while a jazz band squeezes out those syncopated rhythms.  Some big lug guards the door with a password and a Tommy gun.  “Sellin' booze is illegal, ya see; so you’se gotta 'speak easy' boys, so no one’s the wiser.”

That would have been my guess as to the origin of the word, “speakeasy,” but perhaps I've watched too many gangster movies.  Merriam Webster's online dictionary defines “speakeasy” as “a place where alcoholic beverages are illegally sold; specifically: such a place during the period of prohibition in the United States.”  Although the word does relate to keeping quiet about illegal alcohol sales, the word pre-dates prohibition by many years.   According to Barry Popik’s online etymology dictionary, The Big Apple, Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Oxford English Dictionary attribute the origin of the phrase to 1889, in the United States.
The apparent precursor to “speak easy”, “speak easy shop,” however, appeared in a British nautical memoir written more than seventy five years before prohibition started in January of 1920. 

(See my Speakeasy Update - "Speak Easy Shop" is even older.)

Pittsburgh - March 25, 1889

The term “speak-easy” first came to into the American vernacular in Pennsylvania in about 1889.  The word first appeared in print in Pittsburgh during a spate of raids on “unlicensed houses”:

The Police Department Turns into Root Out Unlicensed Houses

While the court is busy with the licensed saloons, the city officials are rooting out the sly drinking places called “speak-easies.” Two important raids were made yesterday, one at the Point and the other at Hardscrabble.

Pittsburg Dispatch, March 25, 1889, page 2, column 4.

As noted in the article, the courts were also cracking down on the licensed drinking places.  An article on the same page discusses German workingmen’s requests for the court to be more lenient in granting licenses:

The German Workingmen Petition Judge White to be More Lenient.
A meeting of German workingmen was held in Knights of Labor Hall last evening, the object being to take action looking to the establishment of more saloons throughout the city.

Pittsburg Dispatch, March 25, 1889, page 2, column 2.

Within the following weeks and months, the word “speak-easy” appeared in the Pittsburgh newspapers hundreds of times, as the war against unlicensed houses and violations of the terms of liquor licenses continued full force.  By June, the word appeared in the New York papers, in an article about Pittsburgh's war on alcohol:

Pittsburg, June 21. – A gang of loafers in a “speak easy” saloon seized a man suspected of being a Liquor law spy and branded him by pressing a red-hot cent into his flesh.

The Evening World (New York), June 21, 1889, Extra 2O’Clock, page 1, column 4.

The appearance of a word to denote an unlicensed dram shop in 1889 was not a random occurrence.  There was no need for a liquor license in Pennsylvania before the Brooks Law went into effect on June 1, 1888.  The Brooks Law was a so-called “high license” law, which was intended to reduce the number of saloons by placing a high cost on the license and instituting various regulatory provisions to make the saloons more respectable, less dangerous, and reduce the abuse of alcohol.  Some of the provisions law included limits on the amount of alcohol that could be sold to a person (kinda like Mayor Bloomberg’s large soda ban – oh, we’ve come so far) and restricting pharmacists to dispensing alcohol only with a doctor’s prescription.

An article that appeared several weeks before the crackdown detailed the difficulty in enforcing the law:


There is also a reason why the Brooks law did not reduce this great number of saloons.  And it is worth while to note that it proves the truth of what ex-Chief Justice Gordon said in his interview in The Dispatch last week, viz: that you can’t enforce a law, no matter how severe the penalty, when that law has not the public sympathy. . . .

Consequently, when the Judge comes to consider the applications for licenses, what else can he do than grant them? No complaints are made against the applicants of violations of the law and the majority of names are on the petitions.  He holds himself powerless to do anything else than grant them.

Pittsburg Dispatch, February 9, 1889, First Part, page 1, column 7.

Within weeks, the courts started cracking down on licensed establishments (with the help of “Liquor law spies” like the one who was reportedly branded with a hot penny).  The reduction of licensed shops led to an increase in unlicensed shops, resulting in the crackdown on “speak-easies” and the introduction of a new word into the language.  

Philadelphia - March 9, 1890

The new word was soon adapted for use in pop-culture, as the title of a comedic skit that ran for at least three weeks at Carncross' Opera House on 11th Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Times (Philadelphia), March 16, 1890, page 10.

The skit was a "burlesque" of life in a "Speak-Easy," which included lessons on "How to run a Speak-Easy," "Dodging the Police," and the "New language, Speak-Easy."  The finale was a "Police Battle of the Kegs" in with the "Safety Department Triumphant," followed by a "Grand Hop Tableau!"

The Times (Philadelphia), March 9, 1890, page 11.

The Times (Philadelphia), March 9, 1890, page 11.

Who Coined the Expression?

An article in the New York Times in 1891 attributed the origin of the word to a specific inn-keeper in McKeesport, Pennsylvania:

Pittsburg, July 5. – The commonest item in the police news of Pittsburg is the raid of a “speak-easy.” A speak-easy is an unlicensed saloon.  In Pennsylvania it is the illegitimate child of the Brooks high-license law. 
The term “speak-easy” is said to have originated in McKeesport, this county.  Mrs. Kate Hester has for years been a saloon keeper there.  She greeted the High-License act by defying it and continuing to sell beer without license.  Her customers were a boisterous lot.  When their conviviality became too noisy it was her custom to approach with warning finger upraised and awe-inspiring look and whisper: “Speak easy, boys! Speak easy!”  Soon the expression became common in McKeesport and spread to Pittsburg.

The New York Times, July 6, 1891.

But the Pittsburg press was less certain in 1889:

No man knows who invented the term “speak easy,” now famous as the generic name of such places as circulate the flowing bowl among presumably trustworthy persons, unrestrained by any consideration save a fear that the limbs of the law may be lingering somewhere in the vicinity and be attracted by indiscreetly boisterous conversations to the fact that something illicit is in progress.

Pittsburg Dispatch, June 30, 1889, Second Part, page 16, column 3.

Wherever the name started, it apparently started long before they became famous in Pittsburgh.

Hawaii – April 1, 1889

My first clue that the phrase may predate its appearance in Pittsburgh in 1889 is a comment in a Hawaiian newspaper that appeared less than a week after the start of the “speak easy” crackdown in Pittsburgh.  In an article critical of the Government of Hawaii’s practice of seizing foreign vessels for very slight customs violations, the writer asks, rhetorically:

May I ask with a speak-easy whisper: “What is the matter with the Hawaiian Government employing a man for that purpose?”

The Daily Bulletin (Honolulu, Hawaii), April 1, 1889, page 2.

The first sub-marine telegraph cable to Hawaii was not completed until 1902, so Honolulu could not have received news of the Pittsburg “speak-easies” so quickly.  In addition, the comment is made in an off-hand way, without specific reference to Pittsburg or alcohol.  

Admittedly, the meaning of the phrase is not clearly related to illicit alcohol sales.  It may have been used simply refer to speaking quietly.  But why would one need to modify “whisper” with the phrase, “speak easy”?  But it was related to a discussion of the smuggling of illegal intoxicants, so it made me curious.  Is a “speak easy” whisper the type of whisper used in a “speak easy” – or does it refer to modulating a normal whisper to an even quieter whisper? 

Although we may never know what was intended in the Hawaiian article, there is at least one earlier use of “speak easy” from the memoir of a British sailor, which may explain how the phrase ended up in Hawaii; Hawaii was a busy seaport with a long history of interaction with British vessels and seamen - the Union Jack is still in the flag of the State of Hawaii.

Selsea (Selsey) England - 1844

The earliest appearance of “speak easy,” in the sense of an unlicensed tavern, that I could find is from a memoir written by a retired British sailor in 1844; it was published in 1847.  The author, who had been a gunner in a Royal Navy, tells the story of pursuing a smuggling ship near Selsea (Selsey) England.  The smugglers' ship sank during a storm that came up during the chase.  After the storm, while looking for contraband that may have washed up on the beach, the author came upon the body of a drowned smuggler.  He recognized the smuggler as one his former shipmates. 

This former shipmate had worked for several years as an informant, giving the Royal Navy intelligence about the movements of smugglers and their goods in and around Selsea.  During this time, he met and fell in love with the widow of a smuggler who had died.  He married the widow against his commander’s wishes and left the service when his five year hitch was up. 

The woman, the smuggler’s widow, operated a business in Selsea that sold alcohol without a license:

The old widow kept what was called a speak easy shop; or in other words, sold, or rather gave away, beer and brandy to any one who called at her house and made her a present of the full value of what they drank.  She thus avoided duty on the spirits, and a license for her house.

John Bechervaise (Gunner, R. N.), A Farewell to My Old Shipmates and Messmates: with some examples, and a few hints of advice, By the Old Quarter Master, Portsea, W. Woodward, 1847, page 102.

(See my Speakeasy Update - "Speak Easy Shop" is even older.)

The phrase used here, “speak easy shop,” is nearly identical to the phrase, “speak-softly-shop,” that appeared in a slang dictionary published in 1823:

Speak-softly-shop – the house of a smuggler.

John Badcock, Slang, A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon-Ton, and the Varieties of Life, London, T. Hughes, 1823, page 163. 

Presumably the word “house” here may be thought of as a place of business where the smuggler could unload goods without paying duty, taxes or business license fees – more or less the same thing the widow did in her “speak easy shop.”  It seems safe to say that the words “speak easy shop” and “speak softly” shop may have been used interchangeably among certain types of people in the first half of the 19th Century.

To “speak easy” generally means the same as to “speak softly.”  The construction, however, appears to be specifically Irish.  In pre-1850 database searches for “speak easy” (in the sense of speaking quietly or carefully) nearly all of the results expressly relate to Irish speakers or writers.[i]  The phrase “speak softly” is much more common, appearing nearly a hundred times more often in a similar search on the same database, but is not similarly limited to a specific location or dialect.


In the United States, the Irish influence among the working class patrons of unlicensed drinking establishments in Pittsburg may have contributed to the adoption of the phrase, “speak easy” for unlicensed drinking establishment.  Or perhaps Kate Hester (the reputed/disputed originator or the phrase) was Irish – or her cousin was in the British Navy?  The specific link between the nautical lingo of England and the dens of iniquity in Pittsburg remains a mystery.  But the modern word, “speakeasy,” clearly has roots in the seaports of England and the British Empire.

But why “speak-easy” eclipsed its more poetic and evocative synonyms, “blind tiger” and “blind pig,” that were already in widespread use throughout the United States before 1889, is an even bigger mystery.

[i] See, e.g., Mary Leadbeater, Cottage Dialogues Among the Irish Peasantry, London, J. Johnson, Part Second, 1811, page 118 (“Speak easy, he’s asleep still . . .); Sir Jonah Barrington, Judge of the High Court of Admiralty in Ireland, Personal Sketches of His Own Times, Volume 1, London, Henry Colburn, 1827, page 100 (“Ah, Sir, speak easy,” said the wretched being . . . “Ah, Gentlemen!” exclaimed the poor culprit, “speak low: have mercy on me, Master Davy . . . .”); Gerald Griffin, Holland-tide; or, Irish Popular Tales,London, Saunders and Otley, 1827, page 306 (Easy, speak easy, eroo!); William Carleton, Valentine M’Clutchy, the Irish Agent; or, Chronicles of the Castle Cumber Property, Volume 1, Dublin, J. Duffy, 1845, page 88 (“Speak easy,” said Deaker, in a voice of terror, “speak lower, or she may hear you . . . .”).
NOTE: This post updated April 8, 2021, to add references to the "Speak-Easies" skit at the Carncross' Opera House in March 1890.


  1. Yes, "Speak easy" originally meant to speak discretely about illegal sale of alcohol.

    The first "talkie" movies with dialogue came out in 1928 during Prohibition, and we can see by then they were places of lively entertainment and where people would go to relax from the "political correctness" of the time.

    The name "speakeasy" might have seemed fitting for a totally different reason, once inside. People there could speak more easily about things that were considered "politically incorrect" by the Prohibitionists running around trying to clamp down on everyone else's freedom.

    There's ALWAYS been officious types who view their brief sojourn on Earth as a holy mission to appoint themselves "authorities" and clamp down on human freedom to relax.

    25 years ago the Internet was the Speakeasy, where people could speak freely and easily and exchange ideas, largely going over the heads of the backward control freaks among us.

    This was a clever strategy, for today, 25 years later, we see the backward control freaks of the world concentrating their efforts into attempting to turn cyberspace into a GULAG where anything anyone posts can get them "in trouble" with these color-of-law, anti-human chickenshits pretending they are now "authorities" over what everyone else may say or think.

    This was a wise strategy, for the more the control freaks turn cyberspace into the GULAG they've always wanted, the more the SPEAKEASIES revert to regular "meatspace" where people can and will exchange "politically incorrect" views face to face.

    So these sad self-appointed authoritarians who have been the BANE of human happiness, and the cause of suffering, for thousands of years, can have the "web" to stomp around in all they like. We humans are taking the meatspace.

    1. Interesting take. But as I understand it, prohibitionists clamped down on people's ability to buy a drink, not so much "politically incorrect" speech - they didn't even have the concept of "politically incorrect" speech in the 1920s. Freedom of speech has always been protected by the 1st Amendment of the Constitution. The freedom to buy a drink had never been guaranteed by the Constitution - and still isn't as far as I know; I believe there are still dry counties and town in various places. You may have a point of some kind, but I'm not sure how it relates to the content of this post. And if you decide to enter the meatspace, please continue to take the time to check in on my blog now and then which is firmly rooted in cyber-space. Anyways, thanks for reading and participating.