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The Secret Lives of Speakeasies

Decades before Prohibition, the unlicensed saloons of Pittsburgh flouted state liquor laws, fomented social movements, and started a national trend.
Bottles and barrel of confiscated whiskey (circa 1920-1932)
Bottles and barrel of confiscated whiskey (circa 1920-1932)National Photo Company Collection/Library of Congress

This post is part of a CityLab series on open secrets—stories about what’s hiding in plain sight.

Whisper “speakeasy” into a search engine of your choice and odds are you will stumble across the story of Kate Hester, the Pittsburgh hotelkeeper at the center of the amusing, possibly apocryphal origin story for the word.

Hester appeared in what can only be described as a prototypical trend piece for The New York Times in July 6, 1891. The story goes like this: Hester owned a saloon in McKeesport, just southeast of the city, that sold booze in defiance of a state law that upped the costs of licenses for alcohol so much that it was nearly prohibited. When customers got too rowdy, Hester would hush customers with “speak-easy, boys!” to avoid attracting the attention of authorities; the expression soon spread to the city, and the nation. “Some day, perhaps, Webster’s Dictionary will take it up,” the yarn concludes.