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McSorley's Old Ale House, generally known as McSorley's, is the oldest "Irish" tavern in New York City. Located at 15 East 7th Street in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, it was one of the last of the "Men Only" pubs, only admitting women after legally being forced to do so in 1970.
The aged artwork, newspaper articles covering the walls, sawdust floors, and the Irish waiters and bartenders give McSorley's an atmosphere that many consider, correctly or not, reminiscent of "Olde New York." No piece of memorabilia has been removed from the walls since 1910, and there are many items of "historical" paraphernalia in the bar, such as Houdini's handcuffs, which are connected to the bar rail. There are also wishbones hanging above the bar; supposedly they were hung there by boys going off to World War I, to be removed when they returned, so the wishbones that are left are from those that never returned.
Two of McSorley's mottos are "Be Good or Be Gone", and "We were here before you were born". Prior to the 1970 ruling, the motto was "Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies"; the raw onions can still be had as part of McSorley's cheese platter.
The evidence for the 1854 date was considerable, but second-hand. A document at the Museum of the City of New York from 1904, in founder John McSorley's hand, declares it was established in 1854, and a New York Tribune article from 1895 states it "has stood for 40 years. . . " a short distance from Cooper Union. A 1913 article in Harper's Weekly declares that "This famous saloon ... is sixty years old."
According to a 1995 New York Times "Streetscapes" article by Christopher Gray, the census taker who visited the Irish-born McSorley in 1880 recorded the year the founder of the pub first arrived in the United States as 1855, but immigration records show that he arrived on January 23, 1851, at the age of 18, accompanied by Mary McSorley, who was 16. When confronted with the fact that the 1880 census did not contain this entry, Gray corrected it to 1900 in his book. John McSorley first appeared in city directories in 1862, and the building his bar occupies was built no earlier than 1858, according to city records.
McSorley's is included within the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District, created by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2012. In the district's designation report, the building's date of construction is given as "c.1865", but it notes that indirect evidence may indicate that there was a small structure on the lot before that, since the value of the lot increased between 1848 and 1856, while that of surrounding lots did not, which may be explained by the existence of an unrecorded structure. By 1861 there was a two-story building on the lot, according to tax records, and by 1865 the present five-story one, but it is "unclear" if the former was extended upwards or a new building was constructed.
When it opened, the saloon was originally called "The Old House at Home".
Women were not allowed in McSorley's until August 10, 1970, after National Organization for Women attorneys Faith Seidenberg and Karen DeCrow filed a discrimination case against the bar in District Court and won. The bar then was forced to admit women, but it did so "kicking and screaming." With the ruling allowing women to be served, the bathroom became unisex. Sixteen years later, a ladies room was installed.
Notable people who have visited McSorley's include Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, Peter Cooper, Boss Tweed, and Woody Guthrie. Literary figures like Hunter S. Thompson Brendan Behan, Paul Blackburn, LeRoi Jones, Gilbert Sorrentino, George Jean Nathan have been cited as regulars.
In his 1923 poem "i was sitting in mcsorley's," poet E. E. Cummings described McSorley's as "the ale which never lets you grow old." He also described the bar as "snug and evil." McSorley's was the focus of several articles by New Yorker author Joseph Mitchell. One collection of his stories was entitled McSorley's Wonderful Saloon (1943). According to Mitchell, the painters John Sloan, George Luks and Stuart Davis were all regulars.
After the New York Rangers hockey team won the Stanley Cup in 1994, they took the cup to McSorley's and drank out of it; the resulting dent caused the NHL to take the trophy back for several days for repairs.
McSorley's Old Ale House has no other locations; however, a company called Eclipse Management has opened three McSorley's Ale Houses in Hong Kong and Macau "based loosely on the appearance of the original McSorley's Ale House in lower Manhattan, NYC". These bars sell McSorley's Ale, but are not associated in any way with McSorley's.
Joseph Mitchell, the inimitable chronicler of old New York, once wrote that the founder, John McSorley, simply liked to save things, including the wishbones of holiday turkeys. But Mr. Maher, who has worked at McSorley’s since 1964 — he predates some of the memorabilia — insists that the bones were hung by doughboys as wishful symbols of a safe return from the Great War. The bones left dangling came to represent those who never came back.