McSorley’s in the Letter Columns – 1916

Made in the Shade

I stated in my previous post on McSorley’s, the venerable bar on East Seventh Street, Manhattan, that I’ll canvass a few journalistic mentions not likely to have been covered by others.

I started with 1922 in the early flush (?) of National Prohibition. Now to May 1916, America isn’t in the war yet although it is having some effect on national habits including the alcohol business, with more to come. Still, the beer houses are open and one beerman, every bit the equal of today’s beer obsessives and maybe then some, wrote to The Sun to lyricize McSorley’s as the ideal “quaint” ale tavern.

The immediate reason for the letter was his desire to clarify that another New York bar also called The Old House at Home – McSorley’s full original name – should not be confused with McSorley’s. In fact, as we will detail anon, the term was used by many establishments in the 19th century. A play of that name, and poem earlier, can also be documented. The term wasn’t proprietary and was akin more or less to “bar and grill” with a homey, folksy bent. “Dew Drop Inn” is perhaps a better example.

The other “Old House” had an interesting history of its own, a big flashy Bowery hall that combined a saloon with a boxing ring – typical 1800s entertainments all bound in one.

Once he made his main point, the writer stated of McSorley’s, “I don’t know of a more interesting town tavern”. He even invested it with intellectual trappings, tempting readers with his occasional conclave there that included a reporter, physician, and civil service examiner. He said their combined knowledge was to be found nowhere else in the world, and maybe he was right.

There is no mention of the cream stock ale that after all was the sine qua non of the place, or cozy “grate fire” so beloved of gas lamp New York. McSorley’s had reached another level.

Below is an extract of the letter, but read the whole thing to get the full flavour.

This guy wanted to lead tours of “old New York” to show people the surviving ale haunts! Too bad websites didn’t exit then, he’d have been laughin’. He sent a letter to McSorely’s from another city addressed, “McSorley’s, New York”, and it got there in a jiffy! Talk about nerdy, but then readers of this blog know all about that.

Already barely past the century’s turn people are reminiscing about New York’s irretrievable golden past. It’s always like that, once people reach a certain age, an aura envelops the past no present can rival, much less what’s in prospect.

But mythos had already enveloped McSorley’s in 1894, 22 years earlier. That’s next.