December 5th marks what was the most important event in American history:
Aaron Allen patenting the folding chair the end of Prohibition. The 21st Amendment, which grants us the right to imbibe and shut down the dry America of the 1920s, celebrates 80 glorious years of existence today. We figured this was the right time to clear up some facts you might have backwards on the dark, booze-less (but not really) age it ended. If your knowledge of speakeasies begins and ends with that completely legal one behind a donut shop in your hood, you're gonna want to listen up.
It wasn't just temperance activists who got Prohibition passed
WWI-era anti-German sentiment played a role, since a lot of beer was coming out of Germany and importing it became seen as paying the Kaiser. Racists were also pro-Prohibition, because they didn't want black people to have any hooch, because -- surprise! -- they were crazy racist.
Blind pigs existed long before 1920
Poor Maine had been suffering through Prohibition for almost 70yrs by the time the rest of the nation went dry, so it's no surprise the "blind pig" code originated there. One enterprising saloonkeeper discovered he could circumvent the law if he charged patrons for tickets to see a "blind pig", and then just happened to hand out complimentary glasses of rum. The rest of the country was happy to crib his style when the Volstead Act reared its ugly head.
You didn't always use a password to get into a speakeasy
There were also cards that served as evidence of membership for regulars, like these.
The flappers frequenting speakeasies weren't barfly vets
Bars were mostly seen as dude territory up until the 1920s. It was the rise of speakeasies that made them acceptable hangouts for women, who were previously stuck at home sipping whatever booze their husbands brought back.
Drinking might've been underground, but speakeasy patrons wouldn't take just any cocktail
The practice of ordering brand name booze actually started during Prohibition, since people were wary about what was in the unregulated well liquor the bootleggers supplied. They were also too insecure to just ask for a Long Island Iced Tea.
It wasn't the FBI running the no-booze enforcement
It was the IRS. Sure, they called it the Bureau of Internal Revenue then, but yep, the tax geeks were running point. Any and all "agents" were part of the Bureau's Prohibition Unit, which eventually grew so large that it spun off and became its own bureau in the Department of Treasury in 1927, and later was adopted by the Department of Justice in 1929. Still, the numbers men were the bosses throughout all the shuffling. Even Eliot Ness and his Untouchables crew were revenue guys, not G-men. (In fact, the FBI turned Ness down when he applied in 1933. Scandalous.)
Not every state government complied with the law
New York repealed its Mullan-Gage Act in 1923 to free up their cops to bust actual criminals rather than sax players buzzed on gin. That meant it was basically the NYPD's call whether they wanted to crack down on speakeasies or not. In nearby Maryland, they never even passed an enforcement law.
You could get liquor from more places than a speakeasy
Like your doctor's office, or synagogue! Doctors could technically prescribe you "medicinal" booze, so shady docs started making extra money off their patients, and pharmacies became a front for many bootleggers. (True story: Walgreens went from 20 outlets to 525 in the 1920s thanks to its, ahem, well-stocked pharmacy.) Rabbis were still allowed to obtain wine for ceremonial purposes for their congregation, too, which meant the number of fake rabbis skyrocketed. Seriously.
Light beer was actually legal before the 21st Amendment passed
To tide his constituents over until December 5th, FDR signed into law the Cullen-Harrison Act in March of '33. It made any beer or wine with an ABV up to 3.2% legal for sale again, and is probably the reason we have wine coolers.
Speakeasies continued to be a necessity for some states long after 1933
A few holdouts in the U.S. refused to repeal Prohibition when FDR gave the green light. The last state to repeal was Mississippi, which was dry until 1966. 1966! If you have a buddy from Jackson, go buy that man a drink.
Kristin Hunt is a Food/Drink staff writer for Thrillist, and would like to thank those brave, trail-blazing women who made it possible for her to go to bars today. Follow her to champagne towers at @kristin_hunt.