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During Prohibition, Harlem Night Clubs Kept the Party Going

A witty 1932 cartoon map shows where to find famous musicians, gambling policemen, and a guy selling marijuana.

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Cab Calloway holds court at the Cotton Club while people do the Lindy Hop nearby at the Savoy Ballroom.


Prohibition may have put a damper on alcohol sales in much of the United States in the 1920s and early ’30s, but it didn’t stop the party up in Harlem. The map above, created in 1932, shows a thriving nightlife centered on New York jazz venues like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom. The map is filled with caricatures of famous musicians and dubious denizens of the nighttime scene, as well as helpful tips for partygoers.

“It’s pretty fantastic,” says Melissa Barton, curator of drama and prose for the Collection of American Literature at Yale University’s Beinecke Library. “It’s just packed with details.”

The map advises readers that “nothing happens before 2 a.m.” at Club Hot-Cha, and suggests they ”ask for Clarence.” At the Cotton Club, Cab Calloway leads “one of the fastest stepping revues in N.Y.” Nearby, “Snakehips” Earl Tucker practices “that weird dance—the ‘Snakehips.’” Tucker pioneered the kind of fluid-then-halting moves later associated with hip hop (fortunately, they’ve been immortalized on YouTube, so you can see for yourself). A “Reefer man” works the corner of Lenox Ave. and 110th Street. (“Marahuana cigarettes 2 for $.25”).

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Cab Calloway holds court at the Cotton Club while people do the Lindy Hop nearby at the Savoy Ballroom.


One thing that’s not on the map: speakeasies. “But since there are about 500 of them you won’t have much trouble,” the map reassures readers. The men strewn across the compass rose in various states of inebriation (bottom right corner) would seem to suggest that this was true.

All over the map—even inside the police station—people are asking each other variations of “What’s the number?”, a reference to illegal lotteries run by racketeers. They worked much like a modern Pick 3 lottery, Barton says. Players picked three digits, and the winning number was determined by the day’s closing figure for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, or by some other number tied to the stock market (as good a way as any to generate random numbers in the days before computers).

The creator of the map was E. Simms Campbell, who went on to work at Esquire magazine for 25 years and have his work syndicated by other publications. “He’s considered the first commercially successful African-American illustrator,” Barton says. Campbell made the Harlem night-club map for a short-lived magazine called Manhattan: A weekly for wakeful New Yorkers, two years before he was hired at Esquire.

Manhattan had a readership similar to that of Esquire, Barton says: “mid-Manhattan, predominately white, middle class.” Readers would have wanted to think they were in on Campbell’s jokes, but they were a target of them too. Campbell may have seen them as genuinely curious but slightly clueless.

“There’s actual advice on the map, but it’s also poking fun at these downtowners who are hurrying up to Harlem in their fur coats to enjoy the clubs,” Barton says.

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The “Reefer man” plies his trade on a street corner while couples drink and dance at nearby clubs.


Campbell’s map appears to hint at some darker themes too. At the time the map was made, the Depression was hitting Harlem hard, Barton says. “Fifty percent of African-Americans were unemployed by 1932,” she says.

On the map, a blind man with a cane sells newspapers on Lenox Avenue, and a moving van near the top is being loaded, perhaps with the belongings of a family that had lost their home.

The Beinecke Library acquired the original artwork for the map last year. The watercolor and ink drawing is currently on display in a Harlem Renaissance exhibit curated by Barton. Although scholars typically think of the Renaissance as a literary movement—a time when African-American writers and visual artists gained mainstream recognition for their work—the Harlem jazz clubs aided that movement by generating interest in African-American culture and making it seem glamorous to a wider swath of American society, Barton says.

Plus, she adds, the nightlife helped draw all those writers and artists to Harlem in the first place. “The nightclub scene is a big part of what makes Harlem so popular in this period.”

Looking at Campbell’s map, it’s not hard to understand why.