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Men Only: McSorley’s Old Ale House is the oldest “Irish” tavern in New York City

Neil Patrick

McSorley’s Old Ale House, known simply 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 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.

 

When it opened, the saloon was originally called “The Old House at Home.” McSorley’s has long claimed that it opened its doors in 1854; however, historical research has shown that the site was a vacant lot from 1860 to 1861.

McSorley's Bar, a 1912 painting by John French Sloan. Source:Wikipedia/Public Domain

McSorley’s Bar, a 1912 painting by John French Sloan. Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain

Women were not allowed in McSorley’s until August 10, 1970, after National Organization for Women’s attorneys Faith Seidenberg and Karen DeCrow filed a discrimination case against the bar in District Court and won. The two entered McSorley’s in 1969 and were refused service, which was the basis for their lawsuit for discrimination.

The case decision made the front page of The New York Times on June 26, 1970. The suit, Seidenberg v. McSorleys’ Old Ale House (1970, United States District Court, S. D. New York) established that, as a public place, the bar could not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. The bar was then forced to admit women, but it did so “kicking and screaming.” Barbara Shaum was the bar’s first female patron.

With the ruling allowing women to be served, the bathroom became unisex, it was only sixteen years later that a specific ladies room was installed.

The interior of the bar Source:Wikipedia/Public Domain

The interior of the bar Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain

 

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.

This increase 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.