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Thursday, August 07, 2014

McSorley's, 1940

One of my regular tipsters, BB, was taking advantage of the New Yorker's momentary open archives when he found this remarkable article from 1940 on McSorley's Old Ale House in 1940.  McSorley's had already been open 86 years (it's been another 74 and the place is still open).  It's a fly-on-the-wall story, panning around the old place and zooming in from time to time on a few historical photographs.  It gives you such a rich sense of a different time.
It is equipped with electricity, but the bar is stubbornly illuminated with a pair of gas lamps, which flicker fitfully and throw shadows on the low, cobwebby ceiling each time someone opens the street door. There is no cash register. Coins are dropped in soup bowls—one for nickels, one for dimes, one for quarters, and one for halves—and bills are kept in a rosewood cashbox. It is a drowsy place; the bartenders never make a needless move, the customers nurse their mugs of ale, and the three clocks on the walls have not been in agreement for many years. 
and
[John McSorley] patterned his saloon after a public house he had known in Ireland and originally called it the Old House at Home... In his time, Old John catered to the Irish and German workingmen—carpenters, tanners, bricklayers, slaughter-house butchers, teamsters, and brewers—who populated the Seventh Street neighborhood, selling ale in pewter mugs at five cents a mug and putting out a free lunch inflexibly consisting of soda crackers, raw onions, and cheese; present-day customers are wont to complain that some of the cheese Old John laid out on opening night in 1854 is still there. Adjacent to the free lunch he kept a quart crock of tobacco and a rack of clay and corncob pipes—the purchase of an ale entitled a man to a smoke on the house; the rack still holds a few of the communal pipes.
There's even a word or two about the ale, like:
In warm weather he made a practice of chilling the mugs in a tub of ice; even though a customer nursed an ale a long time, the chilled earthenware mug kept it cool. Except during prohibition, the rich, wax-colored ale sold in McSorley’s always has come from the Fidelio Brewery on First Avenue; the brewery was founded two years before the saloon. In 1934, Bill sold this brewery the right to call its ale McSorley’s Cream Stock and gave it permission to use Old John’s picture on the label; around the picture is the legend “As brewed for McSorley’s Old Ale House.” During prohibition McSorley’s ale was produced mysteriously in a row of washtubs in the cellar by a retired brewer named Barney Kelly, who would come down three times a week from his home in the Bronx. On these days the smell of malt and wet hops would be strong in the place. Kelly’s product was raw and extraordinarily emphatic, and Bill made a practice of weakening it with near beer. In fact, throughout prohibition Bill referred to his ale as near beer, a euphemism which greatly amused the customers. One night a policeman who knew Bill stuck his head in the door and said, “I seen a old man up at the corner wrestling with a truck horse. I asked him what he’d been drinking and he said, ‘Near beer in McSorley’s.’ ” The prohibition ale cost fifteen cents, or two mugs for a quarter. Ale now costs a dime a mug.
and
In the centre of the room stands the belly stove, which has an isinglass door and is exactly like the stoves in Elevated stations. All winter Kelly keeps it red hot. “Warmer you get, drunker you get,” he says. Some customers prefer mulled ale. They keep their mugs on the hob until the ale gets hot as coffee. 
But mostly, it's a snapshot of the past taken in 1940--a glance at what a New York alehouse might have looked like in 1920 or even, possibly, 1890.  It's a long article, but very much worth the read.

McSorley's in 1937.  There's the onions on the bar and the stove--
sans warming beer--and the earthenware mugs. [Source]

7 comments:

Craig said...

Good show, old man! Good show!

J said...

I used to go there in the late 1970s, shortly after they started allowing women in the place, when I was stationed in NYC in the Army. They had two beers made for them under contract, a light and a dark. Nothing to write home about, but the place was thick with history and we'd usually just stop in for a beer or two if we were in the neighborhood.

Gary Gillman said...

Great picture. The same hand pumps are still there, and in general the place has hardly changed. The Mitchell piece is well-known.

Gary

Anonymous said...

Joseph Mitchell was a fantastic writer on scenes of daily life in this period- its worth paging through his collection Up In the Old Hotel for this piece alone, but in his body of work there is a wealth of great writing on New York City before WWII

Christopher Grzan said...

Light and Dark are still the only options, and if you're surrounded by good company, no two beers will taste sweeter.

Gary Gillman said...

Jeff, here are the same hand pumps, today:

http://www.flickriver.com/photos/skyliner72/2994635121/

The unit is clearly from the 1800's. The center part was I think used to dispense pressurized ale. The hand pumps were used to dispense the equivalent in the late 1800's to today's cask beer. A barman told me the unit stopped functioning before WW I because it couldn't keep up with the draft demand. Today a normal CO2 dispense system is hidden from view toward the far left. But clearly you can see that despite passage of almost 80's years you are looking at the same thing in the same place.

Gary

Anonymous said...

Great rooms to drink in. Decent beer when I was there (late '70s - early '80s) considering the lame beer scene at the time. For a McSorley's type of experience in the PNW, head to Centralia's Olympic Club.

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