This picture shows what McSorley's looks like today. Not much has changed from when the bar first opened. If you look through the window, you can see some of its rich history that has been hanging on the walls from 1910.

McSorley’s Old Ale House

This photo of McSorley’s Old Ale House between 1941-1942. McSorley’s is located within the 5 points neighborhood, better known today as the East Village. It was the workingman’s saloon. Courtesy of: https://www.flickr.com/

McSorley’s Old Ale House, one of New York City’s oldest bars, is still thriving destination for both tourists and residents of New York City. A visit to McSorley’s provides one with a window into the history of New York as well as McSorley’s itself. John McSorley, an immigrant from Ireland, opened the bar in 1854, as an Irish workingman’s saloon. The establishment is located at 15 E 7th St, of world-famous New York City. When John McSorley opened his neighborhood saloon, it was part of the 5 points neighborhood. The 5 points neighborhood at that time was the poor people’s neighborhood where hard-working immigrants lived. The immigrants enjoyed the good beer after a hard day of work, and the saloon became known as a workingman’s saloon. In his article, Joseph Mitchell states, “He patterned his saloon after a public house he had known in Ireland and originally called it the Old House at Home; around 1908 the signboard blew down, and when he ordered a new one he changed the name to McSorley’s Old Ale House. That is still the official name; customers never have called it anything but McSorley’s” (Mitchell).[1]

This quotation reflects how John McSorley wished to take a piece of Ireland with him to America. When building his saloon, McSorley’s wish was to create an atmosphere in which mirrored that of his Irish culture. During the time of the saloon’s construction, many immigrants were coming over seas. In doing so, New York City began to see many immigrants bringing pieces of their culture with them, and McSorley was committed to making his culture stick through the development of his saloon. McSorley’s saloon coupled with other immigrant developments and created the first signs of diversity amongst New York City.

McSorley’s continued to be located in the East Village and was previously known as “the 5 Points Neighborhood.” At the time McSorley’s was founded, the 5 Points neighborhood was considered a slum where the poor and immigrants resided. It was a tough neighborhood with gangs that fought to take control of the district. There were social tensions between different religious and ethnic groups, and the Irish unleashed a wave of nativist sentiment in their day to day activities.  After work, a stop at McSorley’s was a relief for the poor working-class male as it allowed him to escape the realities of New York City and escape into the world of “home” with other immigrants.

The walls in McSorley’s are covered with the history of New York City and McSorley’s. Over time, the 5 points neighborhood has developed into the Lower Eastside. Now consisting of courthouses, parks, and high-rise apartments, the Lower Eastside, rather than being the weak part of town it is now one of the most affluent parts of the city. The days of the immigrant having a beer at McSorley’s is long gone. The crowd today consists of many Irish who enjoy the traditions of McSorley’s as well as citizens of the neighborhood and tourists who come to see a bit of New York’s History.

America’s oldest, continuously operated bar is packed full of vast history throughout the various areas of the bar. McSorley’s is not a big bar and there are no bad seats, providing you can get one as it is always busy. From the ceiling to the sawdust covered floor, you will find photographs, antiques, and hundreds of years of history. From wall to wall history surrounds patrons as they enjoy their choice of light or dark ale. McSorley’s operated throughout the Prohibition when beer, ale and other liquor sales were illegal. To continue operating and to satisfy the beer desires of its customers, Mc Sorley’s sold “near beer.” Near beer was a malt beverage with little or no alcohol.

The entry of woman into McSorley’s is a significant part of its history.  McSorley’s opened as a male-only establishment. It was stated that, “Old John believed it impossible for men to drink with tranquility in the presence of women; there is a fine back room in the saloon, but for many years a sign was nailed on the street door, saying, ‘Notice. No Back Room in Here for Ladies'” (Mitchell).[2] McSorley’s continued to be a male only bar until 1969 when it was sued to permit women to enter the premises. McSorley’s faced a lawsuit by two women, board members for the National Organization for Women, who had entered the bar in January of 1969, after they were refused service by a bartender. The bartender politely explained to them that it is McSorley’s policy to only allow for the entry of men, as it had been for 114 years and the women were escorted out of the bar. A Federal judge subsequently ruled in the women’s favor, and the mayor at the time, John Lindsay signed legislation banning discrimination based upon sex in public places. Barbara Shaum became the first female patron to be admitted to the establishment in 1970. Shaum was allowed into McSorley’s after the passing of an ordinance which forbid discrimination based on sex within the city. McSorley’s was one of the last bars in New York City to allow women entry.[3]

McSorley’s is known as a place for good political conversation. The bar is a significant part of East Village history since its founding and has been shaped by American political discourse over time. It has also attracted many political guests including Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt. The memories of ex-presidents, popular society figures, entertainers and athletes mingle with the working class, as the poets and artists mix in to enjoy the same old ale as those before them. There is more history than what meets the eye. Every visit to McSorley’s reveals new history which may have been missed on a prior visit. McSorley’s has inspired many articles, paintings and poems.

The bar itself remains the main event at McSorley’s. As you span the room, you will notice there are no bar stools. The bar is famous for its standing room only, as it contains crowds up to three rows deep during busy times. Unfortunately, the original taps no longer in use, still stand today and are another fixture in the bar’s history. There is also an old ice chest that houses a small variety of sodas, the only drink other than the light or dark ale on the menu. You will find that there is no cash register at McSorley’s. There has never been one and to preserve its extensive history, there will probably never be one. To commemorate the unique difference of no cash register, there is a sign hanging in which states “We Trust Here” and shows the backside view of a pig. Above the bar, wishbones covered with many generations worth of dust are visible from their seat upon an old gas lamp. As you begin to take a closer look, you can spot an original wanted poster for Abraham Lincoln’s assassin following that tragedy, dating back to 1865. As well, you may have the good fortune to spot Babe Ruth’s farewell photo from Yankee stadium, which was a donation from the photographer who was a regular himself.

As you venture further into the ale house, you will come across the legendary backroom, the spot where near beer flowed during prohibition. This legendary backroom contains the infamous and very risqué painting of a nude woman with her parrot. Until 1970, she was the only female allowed in the saloon. There is a famous old fireplace found in the backroom, where the original owner John McSorley held court. The motto of McSorley’s, “Be Good or Be Gone” is located above the fireplace as well as a portrait of Peter Cooper, the founder of Cooper Union. The interior structure of McSorley’s has remained the same over the years except for the addition of a kitchen and bathroom upgrades. With the Supreme Court ruling of 1970 in which allowed women entry into McSorley’s, the bathroom became coed. Sixteen years later, a lady’s room was installed in the location of the old galley. The menu of McSorley’s consists of pub fare…nothing fancy, but always good. A daily menu can be found posted on two chalkboards. The prices are reasonable, and the food does not disappoint.

There seems to be a resounding theme for every inch of McSorley’s, including the northwest corner of the backroom which is a monument to music. In this corner, you can find J. Giles gold record from his million-selling album “Love Stinks,” in which he donated and still hangs today coupled with period sheet music. On the wall, there is also a collection of John Sloan’s McSorley art works. The next area you will come upon is the literary nook. Joseph Mitchell’s book, McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, and his obituary from the New York Times, hang beside a LIFE magazine feature story from 1943. You may also find a signed copy of Frank McCourt’s best-seller Angela’s Ashes, which was a gift from the author after Tom Snyder conducted his television interview at McSorley’s. Returning to the front, there is the newspaper headline of Daily News from August 11th, 1970, announcing the landmark admission of women accompanied by a photo of reporter Marcia Kramer and then manager, Daniel Kirwin. Finally, the coal burning stove, a fixture standing for as long as McSorley’s has been in business, is still working today. It has provided heat for patrons on cold winter days and casts its fiery glow upon the whole bar.[4]

McSorley’s, an iconic part of New York City, has been the subject of books and newspaper and magazine articles. A primary source of information about McSorley’s is The Old House at Home by Joseph Mitchell.  In the article, Mitchell reveals, “The saloon opens at eight. Mike gives the floor a lick and a promise and throws on clean sawdust” (Mitchell).[5]

McSorley’s Old Ale House reveals a lot about New York history as its walls capture many of the greatest moments in American history. As the walls are covered with newspaper articles, photographs, records, and more, a visit to McSorley’s is an educational experience. History and traditions abound in McSorley’s. To this day, McSorley’s is the only New York City bar that still throws saw dust on the floor. It is another lasting tradition that McSorley’s has kept since its founding.  The tradition started back when many customers were chewing tobacco and spit would go flying everywhere. The sawdust was put on the floor to absorb the spit along with any beer spills. The sawdust made it easier to clean the ground as well as to provide a smooth surface on which boxes could be moved. Another iconic landmark inside are the turkey wishbones. According to the Business Insider, “During World War I, McSorley’s began a tradition of giving troops heading off to war a turkey dinner and, of course, pints of ale. The turkey wishbones were left as a good-luck charm, and those who returned would bring their wishbone back down. The bones left still hanging represent the troops who did not return. In 2011, the two dozen wish bones were finally dusted off and cleaned in response to health inspectors’ orders.” This quote describes a rich piece of history McSorley’s had to it, as honoring troops by giving them a good meal and ale was McSorley’s contribution to American history. As the bar had upmost respect for the soldiers fighting for America, their way of extending their gratitude came in the form of food and beer as they thanked them for allowing immigrants to have freedom in the United States.

This photo is an inside view of McSorley’s. McSorley’s is the last known bar to put sawdust on the ground. The sawdust absorbs spills which makes it easier cleaning up. The walls are filled with historical pictures and news clippings.    Courtesy of: https://www.flickr.com/

Overall, McSorley’s Old Ale House is jam packed with both New York City and American history as it continues to uphold its original traditions from the 1850s. As it is one of New York City’s oldest bars, it draws a large crowd daily of patrons looking to be asked whether they want their ale light or dark. Originating as an Irish workingman’s saloon, McSorley’s has spread a lot of Irish tradition to New York City as well as patrons of the saloon. In my opinion, and being a patron myself in the past, I highly recommend McSorley’s Old Ale House to any individual looking for a historical saloon experience. It is quite near impossible to put into words the McSorley’s experience. I am lucky enough to have once been a patron and to have experienced the vast history amongst the walls of the old ale house.

Today, McSorley’s gives individuals a window into changing New York City. As McSorley’s refuses to modernize, and instead encompasses hundreds of years of history, it stands to remind the community of how changed New York City has become. The same photographs hang on the walls, the same appliances sit in their original position, and the everchanging community continues to live the same experience as many before them. Right in the heart of it all, McSorley’s stands unchanged by the Sport’s bars, restaurants, theater, and busy modernized environment surrounding it. McSorley’s is the epitome of New York City and American history, as it stands as a symbol of what 1850s New York City was like at that time.

 

References

[1] Mitchell, Joseph. “The Old House at Home.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, June 19, 2017.https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1940/04/13/the-old-house-at-home.

[2] Mitchell, Joseph. “The Old House at Home.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, June 19, 2017.https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1940/04/13/the-old-house-at-home.

[3] Lichtenstein, Grace. “McSorley’s Admits Women Under a New City Law.” The New York Times. The New York Times, August 11, 1970. https://www.nytimes.com/1970/08/11/archives/mcsorleys-admits-women-under-a-newcity-law-mcsorleys-is-forced-to.html.

[4] Roberts, Sam. “McSorley’s Old Ale House.” McSorley’s Old Ale House, January 13, 2020.https://mcsorleysoldalehouse.nyc/.

[5] Mitchell, Joseph. “The Old House at Home.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, June 19, 2017.https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1940/04/13/the-old-house-at-home.

Bibliography

Blackwell, Daria. “’Best Irish Pub in the World’ Competition Entry: McSorley’s Old Ale House, New York.” The Irish Times. The Irish Times, February 22, 2015.https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/abroad/generation-emigration/best-irish-pubin-the-world-competition-entry-mcsorley-s-old-ale-house-new-york-1.2112809.

Charitan, Alexandra. “Drinking with the Dead: New York City’s Oldest Irish Pub Is Steeped in History.” Roadtrippers, January 13, 2020. https://roadtrippers.com/magazine/mcsorleysirish-pub/.

Cold Winds.” The New York Times. The New York Times, January 2, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/08/dining/reviews/comfort-from-the cold-winds.html.

Ibrahim, Ismail. “The Top 10 Secrets of McSorley’s Old Ale House in NYC.” Untapped NewYork, April 17, 2019. https://untappedcities.com/2018/08/15/the-top-10-secrets-of-mcsorleys-old-ale-house-in-nyc/3/.

Jacobs, Sarah. “Inside One of New York City’s Oldest and Most Famous Bars, Which ServesOnly 2 Beers and Didn’t Allow Women in until 1970.” Business Insider. BusinessInsider, July 23, 2018. https://www.businessinsider.com/mcsorleys-bar-history-beer-photos-2017-11.

Lichtenstein, Grace. “McSorley’s Admits Women Under a New City Law.” The New York Times. The New York Times, August 11, 1970. https://www.nytimes.com/1970/08/11/archives/mcsorleys-admits-women-under-a-new-city-law-mcsorleys-is-forced-to.html.

Mitchell, Joseph. McSorleys Wonderful Saloon. New York: Pantheon Books, 2001.Mitchell, Joseph. “The Old House at Home.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, June 19, 2017.https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1940/04/13/the-old-house-at-home.

Roberts, Sam. “McSorley’s Old Ale House.” McSorley’s Old Ale House, January 13, 2020. https://mcsorleysoldalehouse.nyc/.

“Seidenberg v. McSorley’s Old Ale House.” Justia Law. Accessed March 31, 2020. https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp/317/593/1415390/.

 

 

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