Sunday, January 22, 2012


McSorley's today.
McSorley's in the 1940s.
The interior in the 1940s.
Wonder Woman demands a drink in 1970.
John Sloane's sketch from 1913.
Woody Guthrie performing in McSorley's in 1943.
St. Patrick's Day 1943 at McSorley's.
The first time I walked into McSorley's Old Ale House and asked for a bottle of Bud was years ago and I was informed that they only sold their own ale.  As a matter of fact, McSorley's has only sold it's own ale since it opened it's doors in 1854.  As another matter of fact, the one big change that did take place required a decision from the Supreme Court, that being the admittance women.  The feminist landmark decision forced the bar to finally install a female rest room by 1986, but other than that little has changed.  Nothing has been removed from the walls since 1910, and souveniers from visitors past include handcuffs from Harry Houdini, a chair that Abraham Lincoln sat in when he visited in 1859, and wish bones left by soldiers during World War I.  Those wishbones that remain are of soldiers who never returned to take them back.

A loyal patron who was interviewed by the New York Times in 1913 had this to say:  "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."  Well, that's gone out the window!  Nowadays, McSorley's is one of the most touristy places in the city, always crowded, and over the years it's regulars have included Babe Ruth, Woody Guthrie and John Lennon.  But I've got to give them credit, despite everything that's changed around them, the owners of McSorley's have worked hard to stay true to their roots as much as possible. 

Joseph Mitchell, the long-time writer for the New Yorker who wrote a number of human interest stories about the more colorful characters in the city, wrote a great account of the old ale house in 1940 entitled "The Old House at Home", part of a collection of short stories entitled "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon".  It is named for the bar's original name, which it kept from it's opening in 1854 until 1908, and describes old John McSorley, who drank steadily from the age of twenty to fifty-four, but abstained for the last thirty-two years of his life saying that he had "had his fill".  Other than a brief experiment with spirits for a few months in 1905, John believed that all a man needed in life was a strong glass of ale.  He was a big eater, cooking a three pound t-bone steak every night after closing and eating onions like apples -- the stronger the better.  His motto was, "Good ale, raw onions, and no ladies", believing that men could never drink with civility in the company of women, and when Mitchell wrote his article in 1940, he described the majority of the clientele as old men who had drank their since they were young, and were now pretty much alone in the world.  They were retired, living off small pensions, spending their days at the bar and their nights sleeping in flophouses on the Bowery.

A case that went all the way to the Supreme Court forced the bar to break with it's most famous tradition and allow women to drink their in 1970.  And by the '90s, they introduced their first female bartender, a daughter of the current owner, much to the chagrin of some traditionalists.  If you get their early enough in the day and grab a table with your friends by the pot belly stove, it's a memorable experience of drinking ale served two mugs at a time and eating their signature dish of crackers, cheese and raw onions.

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