Speakeasies, the Silver Fizz, and Sidewheeling: Artists and Alcohol in Prohibition-Era New York
February 5, 2016
Less than three months after the start of the Prohibition era in the United States (January 17, 1920–December 5, 1933), John Sloan made his first picture of a speakeasy. Many speakeasies—establishments where liquor was served clandestinely—were above, below, or in the back rooms of restaurants. Others were in unassuming houses. Some restaurants just served liquor to customers who knew how to ask, sometimes in tea cups.
According to Sloan, the etching Bandits Cave depicts “uptown thrill seekers” venturing into a basement “tea room”—as such establishments would become known—in Greenwich Village. By 1920 the Village was already popular with uptowners and tourists alike for its eccentric entertainments. Prohibition only enhanced the appeal of this notoriously hard-to-navigate neighborhood known for its profusion of hole-in-the-wall cafés. The region was so littered with drinking and dining options that one guidebook remarked that “if you stumble and fall in the Village you are sure to land in a restaurant.” Set below street level and advertising both tea and dancing, Bandits Cave appears to be just such a place. From the exterior, one imagines Bandits Cave would have been a crowded space with low, stamped-tin ceilings, not unlike the one in Helen Farr Sloan’s lithograph, Prohibition Beer, from about 1930, where stylish patrons drink from big steins and schooners as a violinist and pianist provide entertainment.
Some speakeasies, however, were far more elaborate. In 1926, the illustrator N.C. Wyeth wrote to his father about a trip to New York that involved a trip to see The Black Pirate (at the invitation of Douglas Fairbanks, no less) and a visit to The Pirate’s Den, an elaborately themed bar tucked into a narrow building in the Village. They entered by “a small but heavily bolted oaken door—a pirate, ‘6 foot 6’ in great coat, cocked hat, heavily belted, bristling with flintlock pistols and a cutlass at his side, let us in.”
The theme continued inside as they traversed a hallway lit with ships’ lanterns to find themselves in a large room decorated with old guns and cutlasses, rigging, ropes, brass cannon, and cages of monkeys and parrots. The orchestra performed on a stage that gently moved up and down, giving the impression (especially after several “Silver Fiz” cocktails) that the whole floor moved like a ship’s deck. No cliché was spared: the servers acted like swaggering buccaneers; the parrot cursed like a pirate; and “Yo! Ho! Ho! And a Bottle of Rum” could be heard in the distance.
Despite the efforts of such establishments, as Prohibition came to an end, a significant portion of a generation was unfamiliar with drinking in public. The painter (and retired champion beer drinker at the Hoffbrau Haus) George Luks came to the rescue, explaining to a young reporter the proper method for lifting a beer from the bar. The key is not to let the elbow jut out. Luks called this “sidewheeling” and thought it the height of rudeness. “He might shove his elbow in the eye of the gentleman next to him at the bar, drinking that way. Especially late at night.”
Note: Wyeth described the “Silver Fiz” as a “concoction for the gods!” made with “rum, gin, eggs, cream and several other ingredients.” Saveur has a more specific recipe.
Heather Campbell Coyle
Curator of American Art