New York Speakeasies

Life Archive

In 1925 there were an estimated 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone. Near the end of the ban on alcohol in 1933 Life photographer Margaret Bourke-White captured some of the city’s elite speakeasies. What an amazing time, to be forced to enjoy to your after work libations underground. It is crazy to think that for 13 years (1920-1933) religious nuts took away America’s booze. I would be scared to see what New York would be like if the liquor was gone.





Comments on “New York Speakeasies

    Mark Sutherland on July 23, 2009 11:56 AM:

    That said, the cloak and dagger element of sneaking about in search of your booze must of been fun. Almost a 1920’s Extreme Sport!

    longwing on July 23, 2009 12:04 PM:

    Somewhat off topic, but are there still any bars in NYC half a flight below street level? Like the ones in the movies. I never see them but I’m probably looking in the wrong places.

    Ryan Duffy on July 23, 2009 12:20 PM:

    The NYT recently had an article on modern speakeasies around the country. I think its a great concept and it seems to be catching on. People always want what they cant have.

    robh on July 23, 2009 12:21 PM:

    There sure are bars still half a flight below street level in Manhattan and they are usually pretty hip places. I remember a few on the Lower East Side when I lived there. Some are more exclusive than others. Most of them you wouldn’t just be able to stumble upon.

    Louie on July 23, 2009 12:22 PM:

    I’m gonna go out on a limb and say there is, because I’ve been to one in Philly a while back, so I would think NY has at least one.

    invisibleagent on July 23, 2009 12:56 PM:

    Check out “The Hideout” in Brooklyn. Great cocktails and hard to find if you’re not looking for it.


    Hollister Hovey on July 23, 2009 1:23 PM:

    100,000 speakeasies and about 10 churches. A similar ratio to that which Peter Stuyvesant bemoaned so fervently. Glad things don’t ever really change in this town.

    doc_becca on July 23, 2009 3:29 PM:

    PDT is half a flight underground

    Sean S. on July 23, 2009 3:45 PM:

    I live in a small southern city (Columbia, SC) and we have three underground bars which may make us have the highest per capita underground bars to city population in America. We also don’t pay ridiculous prices for drinks (2 dollar liquor drinks most nights out of the week!).

    The point to be taken away from these photos, however, is that these were “elite” speakeasies; as the article the other commenter mentioned, most speakeasies were a couple of chairs and a table with cheap, often lethal, liquor provided. It is also important to point out that the reason why the LIFE photographer was even allowed to take photos was that, by 1933, prohibition was on its way out the door. That year saw most states ratify the 21st amendment, and local law enforcement had long since ceased to care.

    Natalie - The Liquid Muse on July 23, 2009 3:49 PM:

    There are many speakeasy-style bars popping up around the world. NYC has Milk & Honey and Woodson & Ford, for example. Chicago has Violet Hour. Amsterdam has Door 74. Los Angeles has The Varnish. You can check out TheLiquidMuse for more!

    Jesus H. Anslinger on July 23, 2009 4:43 PM:

    It was not religious nuts who took away the booze; it was the politicians, who were all more thoroughly anti-booze than the general population. In the decades before Probeesh, no one got elected if he was not tough on booze. A lot of prohibitionists were rational, secular, socialist types, like Upton Sinclair. The amendment got put to a vote in the spirit of wartime rationing and by gum, those sober politicians passed it. A *lot* of people were surprised when the amendment was so quickly ratified by so many states.

    Prohibition was more popular that you seem to understand. It was not just the religious nuts who favored it. And many people wanted alcohol illegal, yet easy to get. It did not get old until it was law for six or eight years. And still the speakeasies were great fun. Read some H.L. Mencken, you will like it.

    sam on July 23, 2009 5:21 PM:

    i think the days of fat guys wearing suspenders and making ‘bespoke’ cocktails are behind us. its lame and played out.

    i drink scotch…neat…don’t give me lemon zest and don’t wear a stupid hat when you give me a pour.

    best bar in nyc? keens…

    Big Kid on July 23, 2009 5:23 PM:

    Hideout is cool. There are a bunch of hidden spots in BK and NYC.

    Goon on July 23, 2009 5:34 PM:

    Those struck with speakeasy nostalgia should not forget:

    The booze was terrible.

    Dani on July 23, 2009 6:04 PM:

    I’m going to second the Hideout….although part of me hates to because it literally is my hideout.

    Frank on July 23, 2009 6:26 PM:

    The Back Room (LES Toy Company) on Norfolk Street. I believe it was originally Lansky’s Lounge named after Meyer Lansky

    Sean on July 23, 2009 7:19 PM:

    Chloe on Ludlow is half a flight down. Haven’t been there in a while but had some crazy good times. ACL I’m looking in your direction.

    Jackie on July 27, 2009 11:17 AM:

    Bars in NYC half a flight below street level?

    See: ‘Bill’s’ (formerly Bill’s Gay Nineties’!)
    57 East 54th Street
    New York, NY 10022-4206
    (212) 355-0243

    A New York Original Speakeasy!

    And, no, I’m not on staff there!

    Mr. Morris on July 28, 2009 11:27 PM:

    Of course there are plenty of half below street level bars in NYC. I don’t even know why that is a discussion. I am however surprised that the truest speakeasy in NY has not yet been mentioned and then again I am not because the point (whether we like it or not) is that it is kept a secret. Those who know of it know you don’t go to this place for the hot dogs, however delicious they may be.

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