A speakeasy, also called a blind pig or blind tiger, is an establishment that illegally sells alcoholic beverages. Such establishments came into prominence in the United States during the period known as Prohibition (1920–1933, longer in some states). During this time, the sale, manufacture, and transportation (bootlegging) of alcoholic beverages was illegal throughout the United States.
The term “speakeasy” might have originated in Pennsylvania in 1888, when the Brooks High-License Act raised the state’s fee for a saloon license from $50 to $500. The number of licensed bars promptly plummeted, but some bars continued to operate illegally. Kate Hester had run a saloon for years in McKeesport, just outside of Pittsburgh. She refused to pay the new license fee and wanted to keep from drawing attention to her illegal business. When her customers got too rowdy, she would hush them by whispering “Speak easy, boys! Speak easy!” This expression became common in McKeesport and spread to Pittsburgh.
An alternative theory is that the term was simply derived from a patron's manner of ordering alcohol without raising suspicion — bartenders would tell patrons to be quiet and "speak easy."
Speakeasies were numerous and popular during the Prohibition years. Some of them were operated by people who were part of organized crime. Although police and agents of the Bureau of Prohibition would often raid them and arrest their owners and patrons, they were so lucrative that they continued to flourish.
The term "blind pig" (or "blind tiger") originated in the United States in the 19th century; it was applied to lower-class establishments that sold alcoholic beverages illegally. The operator of an establishment (such as a saloon or bar) would charge customers to see an attraction (such as an animal) and then serve a “complimentary” alcoholic beverage, thus circumventing the law.
“In desperate cases it has to betake itself to the exhibition of Greenland pigs and other curious animals, charging 25 cents for a sight of the pig and throwing in a gin cocktail gratuitously.”
“[They] are in a mysterious place called a ‘blind tiger,’ drinking the very bad whiskey for which Prohibition is indirectly responsible.”
The difference between a speakeasy and a blind pig was that a speakeasy was usually a higher-class establishment that offered food and entertainment. In large cities, some speakeasies even required a coat and tie for men, and evening dress for women. But a blind pig was usually a low-class dive where only beer and liquor were offered.
Blind pigs continue to exist in the United States. Some people sell alcoholic beverages for off-site consumption from their homes (often at double the retail price, or more) during hours when legal sellers are closed by law, and some people operate bars illegally.
Some speakeasies were used as homes and offices by gangsters, who adopted an extravagant and easily identifiable lifestyle. Successful gangsters could be identified by their fashionable silk suits, expensive jewelry, and guns.
The term “bootlegging” came into use in the 1880s, when it referred to the practice of hiding flasks of illegal liquor inside boots.
Bootlegging was widespread in the United States during Prohibition. Even though the Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, the law was widely disobeyed by the public and even by government officials.
During Prohibition, the production of illegal beer and whiskey quickly expanded across the country. Bootleggers made large profits by distributing these products to speakeasies and other consumers. Bootlegging became an organized business run by crime families and gangsters, (e.g., Al Capone).
In many rural towns, small speakeasies and blind pigs were operated by local business owners as a way of making extra money. These family secrets were often kept even after Prohibition ended. For example, in 2007 secret underground rooms thought to have been a speakeasy were found by renovators on the grounds of the Cyber Cafe West in Binghamton, New York.