Friday, July 30, 2010

"Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Ladies" -- McSorley's Old Ale House

“Somewhere below Fourteenth Street is a tavern of individuality. I won’t locate it any more definitely, because the circle of congenial souls who frequent it would never forgive me. It would be spoiled for them if the crowds started going there.”

And that is how, in 1913, a patron of McSorley’s Old Ale House, began his description of the place to a New York Times writer.

The “tavern of individuality” was opened in 1854 by John McSorley, an Irish immigrant. Located at 15 East 7th Street, it echoed back to the Irish pubs McSorley had known back home. Known then as The Old House at Home, it served ale. Only ale. And it served that ale only to men.

In the 19th Century respectable ale houses, saloons and porter houses were not open to women. Those drinking establishments that had a dining room, like Pete’s Tavern on East 18th Street, provided a separate street door so the reputation of ladies would not be sullied by passing through the bar. Women who did take a drink at a saloon had no reputation to sully.

McSorley's was not fancy, but it was a comfortable sort of place where regulars felt at home. The patron speaking to The Times described “… two low rooms, lighted by an occasional gas jet. The tables are of seasoned wood that you couldn’t tell from mahogany, and the seats are comfortable armchairs.

“The ceiling is the most characteristic feature.  It is blacked with the tobacco smoke of half a century.  It has never been scrubbed off, to the knowledge of the oldest patron, and mine host would be grieved beyond measure should any vandal disturb the cinders than hang in flakes.

“The walls are covered with objects of interest, all having historical significance, from the point of view of the proprietor and his friends.”

By 1888 McSorley’s business was successful enough that he purchased the building, a non-descript brick vernacular tenement building, where he and his family lived on the second floor.

In an attempt to diversify, John McSorley experimented with selling hard liquor in 1905. The patrons, however, did not respond favorably. “Unless you are a barbarian, you want ale, the famous ale that cannot be obtained elsewhere,” said one regular.  In 1906 McSorley went back to selling his two ales – one dark, one light.

According to the McSorley legend, the signboard outside was destroyed in a storm in 1908, whereupon John McSorley replaced it with one reading “McSorley’s Old Time Ale House.”  Over time the word “Time” was dropped.

Artist John Sloan was the first “celebrity” to make his mark on McSorley’s.  Beginning in 1912 he sketched and painted the tavern and his exhibitions made it a destination spot. By now Bill McSorley was running the place -- John McSorley died in 1910. He kept his father’s tradition of gathering all the patrons around the bar at closing time each night and buying one final round.

John Sloan sketch 1913

Because of the many politicians who patronized his ale house, Bill McSorley paid little mind to Prohibition.  He tagged his ale, “near beer.” But it was ale.

It was during Prohibition that e. e. cummings added to the bar’s notoriety by penning “i was sitting in mcsorley’s," his 1925 poem that begins “i was sitting in mcsorley’s. outside it was new york and beautifully snowing. inside snug and evil.”

Three years after the repeal of Prohibition, New York police officer Daniel O’Connell bought the bar, becoming the first owner outside of the McSorley family.  O’Connell retired to run the bar; but died only two years later, leaving the business to his daughter, Dorothy O’Connell Kirwan.

Dorothy Kirwan, however, had made a solemn vow to her father: she would never set foot inside McSorley’s men-only ale house. She turned over management to her husband, Harry.

New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell walked into the bar one day and, so taken by it, began writing a series of articles that were eventually collected and published as McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon.  That same year, in 1943, Life Magazine published a feature photographic article based on the book.  McSorley’s Old Ale House was suddenly famous nationally.  It  even prompted cartoonist H. G. Peter to pen a depiction of Wonder Woman ordering an ale at McSorley’s and being refused…briefly.

Mitchell described McSorley’s much as the patron in 1913 had.  “To the left is a row of armchairs with their stiff backs against the wainscoting.  The chairs are rickety; when a fat man is sitting in one, it squeaks like new shoes every time he takes a breath.  The customers believe in sitting down; if there are vacant chairs, no one ever stands at the bar. Down the middle of the room is a row of battered tables.  Their tops are always sticky with spilled ale. In the centre of the room stands the belly stove, which has an isinglass door and is exactly like the stoves in Elevated stations.”

When Harry Kirwin’s car broke down while visiting Ireland in 1964, he was given a ride by a local.  In gratitude, Kirwin told the good Samaritan that if he ever came to New York, he would have a job.  That year Matthew Maher took him up on the offer and began working as a waiter and bartender at the bar whose century-old motto was still “Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Ladies.”

The motto was put to the test when the Women’s Liberation Movement swept the city in the 1960s.  In 1969 attorneys for the National Organization for Women, Faith Seidenberg and Karen DeCrow, sued for sexual discrimination.  Tried in District Court, the women won and McSorley’s was ordered to admit women.

Kirwin briefly entertained the idea of making the bar a private club, circumventing the law; however he relented.  When her son, Danny, asked Dorothy Kirwin to be the first woman served, she refused.  She had promised her father she would never enter the bar.

The problem of restrooms became an issue.  A women’s restroom necessarily had to be opened on the second floor of the building.  When the inevitable night arrived and National Organization of Women vice president Lucy Komisar showed up at McSorley’s, the manager demanded proof of age.

Komisar produced her driver’s license.  Not good enough.  She was told only a birth certificate was considered sufficient proof.  The ploy was merely a delay and, to much heckling and hooting, women finally entered McSorley’s Old Ale House in 1970.

World War II turkey wishbones on the light fixture

Matthew Maher, Harry Kirwin’s good Samaritan from Ireland, purchased the bar in 1977.  None of the “objects of interest” that were on the walls in John McSorley’s time have been removed, although many more have been added, and the sawdust is still on the floor.  McSorley’s still serves only ale – dark or light.  Dusty turkey wishbones from World War II hang on a light fixture waiting for the soldiers who put them there to return. If you want to feel the strong grip of a bartender on your wrist, just try to touch one.

And although the place is a little more crowded than it was in 1913, the old regular’s description could have been written today, “But, when all is said and done, it’s the people who patronize a place of that kind that give it any local color it may have…But the average crowd that gets together every evening is composed of young writers, artists, newspaper reporters. They all intend to be famous some day. It’s pleasant for an unattached time-killer like myself to know of such a place. I go there when the white lights of Broadway begin to pall, as they do at times.”

historic photographs from the NYPL Collection


  1. My brother Dave views the place as if it were a church.

  2. All of the Joseph Mitchell books provide a delightful picture of NYC in the 1930. Highly recommended. Most available in paperback.

  3. In 1970, just after the Great Imposition, I found the first hairpin on the floor of McSorley's. I gave it to one of waiters. He scowled and threw it behind the bar. I suppose it is still there.

  4. i understood that the eighteen wishbones on the gas lamp are from the First World War.