4927½ Penn Ave
Closed during pandemic
Door Password: TBD
Guest Barkeep: TBD
Speakeasies in Pittsburgh
Most people think "speakeasies" were a 1920's Prohibition-era invention, when in fact the very first American speakeasies – including the term – originated in Pittsburgh in the late 1880s.1,2
Pittsburgh has had a long and tumultuous relationship with alcohol regulation. Tensions started in 1791, when Alexander Hamilton convinced the 1st US Congress to sign the Excise Whiskey Tax into law. This was the first tax imposed on a domestic product in the US and was deeply unpopular in Western Pennsylvania, the largest whisky producing region in the country at the time. Long story short, no one paid, and President George Washington dispatched 13,000 militiamen to put down the "Whisky Rebellion", in what many historians view as the first test of federal authority.3
Over the next century, Pittsburgh's population exploded, as did its saloon scene. To regulate the sale of "intoxicating liquors", the Allegheny County Liquor Law was passed in 1872 (April 3, P.L. 804). This instituted alcohol licenses, set closing times, prohibited sales to minors, and in general, tried to bring a rowdy scene under control. For the most part, Pittsburgh barkeeps complied with the new regulations, until 1888, when the Brooks High-License Act raised the annual license free from $50 to $500. A few bars paid, a few shut down, but most went underground. By 1890, Pittsburgh had roughly 700 speakeasies, but only 92 licensed liquor dealers.4
The most famous of the barkeeps who refused to pay the license fee was Kate Hester, who ran a unlicensed saloon in McKeesport. As a widow and mother of nine children, running an illegal bar was a great way to make money. In fact, many proprietors at the time were women, unable to enter mainstream professions. Hester is notable not only for her long running legal battle with Allegheny County for a license,5,6 but also for being credited with the popularization of the term "speak easy" in the United States, captured in this 1891 New York Times article:7
"Her customers were a boisterous lot. When their conviviality became too noisy it was her custom to approach with warning finger up-raised and awe inspiring look and whisper: 'Speak easy, boys! Speak easy!' Soon the expression became common in Mckeesport and spread to Pittsburg[h]. [...] Some day, perhaps, Webster's Dictionary will take it up."
Webster's did indeed take it up, and soon the term was commonplace throughout the United States. Speakeasies continued to proliferate in Pittsburgh throughout Prohibition (1920-1933) and some real ones continue to exist today. And of course, let's not forget Pittsburgh's illustrious after hours clubs that charge one-night "memberships" in order to serve alcohol past 2am, continuing Pittsburgh's long standing tradition of innovation in evading alcohol regulation.
References1. "The Speak Easies." The Pittsburg Dispatch, June 30, 1889.2. Wall Street Journal. Speakeasies With a Twist. 3. Learn more at Wigle Whiskey Distillery, as Phillip Wigle was a central character in the Whisky Rebellion.4. Fernald, James. (1890). The Economics of Prohibition. Page 79.5. "The Secret Lives of Speakeasies." CityLab. April 19, 2017.6. Pittsburgh Post Gazette. December 14, 1903. 7. "The Illegal Speak-Easies." The New York Times. July 6, 1891.
Penn Ave and Gross Street originally formed a four-way intersection, before our building was constructed in 1904 by Pierce H. Butler (born 1853 in Ireland). The basement and first floor were built by Martsolf Brothers, while the upper two stories were completed by Iron City Construction Co. It is designed in a Dutch Colonial Revival style, as seen in the windows with splayed keystones, diamond window grids, belt course linking the third story windows, brick quoins, and parapeted front gables with circular ornamentation. This style is rare in Pittsburgh, though somewhat more common in New York City, where Butler lived before moving to Pittsburgh in 1899. That same year, he opened his first grocery story at 5013 Penn, just down the street. 4927-29 Penn Ave marked P.H. Butler’s first specially constructed grocery store, with four rented apartments above. The company, continued by his son James after P.H. Butler’s death in 1906, expanded to 267 stores in the region by 1924, becoming the first supermarket chain in Pittsburgh, eventually becoming Thorofare Markets.