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History Less < 500 Words “McSorley’s Old Ale House – Women Not Welcome”

I have never been to McSorley’s, but I still drink the beer.  As I was reading the back of a bottle of McSorley’s Irish Black Lager, I learned that women were not allowed in McSorley’s until 1970!  The shock, confusion, and anger subsided as I took another sip.  I really do not care that us women could not enter the bar until then.  Perhaps that makes me a bad feminist, but I can deal with that.

*Female photographer Berenice Abbot had to get special permission to take this picture.

*Female photographer Berenice Abbot had to get special permission to take this picture.

McSorley’s is said to have opened its doors in 1854, and is often referred to as the oldest surviving bar in New York.  Questions have been raised about the accuracy of that, but McSorley‘s website claims it is the oldest continuously operated saloon in New York (definitely a case of good wording).

The issue of women at McSorley’s had gone on for some time.  By the 1930s, women were part of the increasing number of patrons at bars.  Although women were now “allowed” to be at bars, it did not change McSorley’s, which still continued to ban females from their premises.  In 1937, a New York Times’ article, “Is Woman’s Place at the Bars?,” provided insight into the changing times of New York saloons.  The article shares the story of the recently discontinued “McSorley’s Onion,” which was a bowl of raw onions patrons could eat to help alleviate beer breath and “fool” their wives into thinking they were elsewhere at lunchtime.  Of course, women are not that stupid, and the onion was more of a tradition than a realistic approach to deception.  (At some point in the future, the onion returned).  While other bars began welcoming women, McSorley’s held firm to their belief that a “woman’s place is in the home, or if she must take a nip occasionally, that her place is elsewhere, anywhere, but not at McSorley’s.”

It is said in 1952 a woman did enter the establishment, and even drank beer.  She was a reporter for the New York Times, and was covering the story of a 90-year-old man who had been a patron of McSorley’s for 70 years.  It is true an article exists for that celebration, but the writer is not named.  The article was sure to mention McSorley’s “no women” policy.  It goes on to state that McSorley’s was founded on a policy of “’good ale, raw onions, and no ladies’ and it has been a last sanctuary from encroaching womanhood ever since.”

It was not until August 10, 1970 that women were allowed into McSorley’s.  The change came after the mayor signed in a bill that prohibited discrimination in public places on the basis of sex.  I am not sure if raw onions are still provided to patrons, but McSorley’s policy of Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Ladies had to be adapted, albeit unwillingly, over the years.
John T. McManus, “Is Woman’s Place at the Bars?,” New York Times, January 3, 1937.
“Boys of McSorley’s Whoop It Up For Oldest Oldtimer, Who’s 90,” New York Times, February 29, 1952.
Grace Lichtenstein, “McSorley’s Admits Women Under a New City Law,” New York Times, August 11, 1970.

15 responses to “History Less < 500 Words “McSorley’s Old Ale House – Women Not Welcome””

  1. Kail Kail says:

    I love this piece. I wish I was old enough to experience both pre- and post-ladies McSorley's. The fact that you're writing about this interesting topic makes you a good feminist!
    As a male, I'm tempted to google "Women's bars" or "No Men Allowed Bars" just to see what's out there, and to see if I can get in and order a pint.

  2. Avatar Christina says:

    Thanks! I find it fascinating that women were not allowed at McSorley's, and that I first learned about it on the back of their beer bottle. There probably is female-only bars, which seems unfair if the males cannot have male-only bars. Again, perhaps that makes me a bad feminist, haha. You definitely should try crashing one!

  3. fent11111 fent11111 says:

    Men only bars?
    We have them over here.
    They tend to be inhabited by assless chaps and lovingly crafted handlebar moustaches.
    And serve first rate Peppermint Schnapps.

  4. Avatar Kate says:

    There are a number of private clubs in the Chicago suburbs that banned women for a long time. My MIL told me that, up until several years ago, one of the clubs decided that women could enter the club, but couldn't order from the bar — that had to be done by a man. I guess the only upside to that was men always had to pay for the drinks.

    • Avatar Christina says:

      I believe private clubs are exempt from the rules public establishments are required to meet, so it would not surprise me if there still existed private clubs that banned women, or vice versa.

  5. Christina, Can you come do a guest lecture in my American Lit I class? I'm having trouble getting the students to relate to early American literature…maybe a few "tales" about womenless bars?

  6. BB222 BB222 says:

    What a ridiculous tradition to try to continue for as long as possible–they should have changed their policy to read "catering to the male antisocial alcoholics of New York." What a sad place that must have been–the smell of raw onions and self-inflicted misery.
    Great piece, one of the best from you yet.

  7. Avatar Christina says:

    Thank you. I am glad you enjoyed the post.

  8. papi papi says:

    i just could not imagine life without women in clubs/bars.

  9. Avatar The Tailor says:

    I agree with Kail, if you're bringing this to people's attention, you're a good feminist.

  10. Avatar Jonathan says:

    I can't understand why any women would want to go where they're not welcome. It totally defeats the purpose of having a good time. Sometimes men need a break. Geez.

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Christina About Christina

*Christina “Olives” Lamoureux is the self-fulfilling prophecy of a quirky and sarcastic procrastinator. When faced with the reality of work, she generally takes a nap instead. She currently lives and attends graduate school in Fitchburg, MA, where she spends her time studying really old stuff as an Ancient and Medieval History major. She is very slowly writing a true crime story that has nothing to do with ancient or medieval history, but aspires to write historical fiction as well. The only perfect thing she has done in her life is thrown a 300 game in ten pin bowling; since that occurred in her twenties, it is now ancient history as well. Besides history and bowling, she “sees dead people” as part of a paranormal investigation team. When she cannot afford to indulge in her martini fetish, she reads or watches terrible, pointless TV.

Read more by this author on 30POV .


December 2010
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On My Honor
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Witch Hunt
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If, Then.
May 2010
Small Crimes
April 2010
February 2010
"It's Complicated"
January 2010