Myth # 82: Signs saying “No Irish Need Apply” were common.

Rachel Sims wrote “I’m not sure if this is myth or fact because I’ve heard that its a myth and then I’ve heard its a fact. You know when Irish immigrants came to the United States and tried to find work? Were there truly signs in the store windows that say, “No Irish need apply?”

At St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, everyone in American enjoys being a little bit Irish. With the day fast approaching, it seems a good time to address this myth.

This myth has a core of truth to it, although it is exaggerated in collective memory. There were many nineteenth-century newspaper advertisements like the one above that stipulated “No Irish Need Apply.” But according to historian Richard Jensen in a 2002 article in the Journal of Social History, signs on businesses saying “No Irish Need Apply” were rare or nonexistent.

“The fact that Irish vividly ‘remember’ NINA signs is a curious historical puzzle. There are no contemporary or retrospective accounts of a specific sign at a specific location. No particular business enterprise is named as a culprit. No historian,  archivist, or museum curator has ever located one; no photograph or drawing exists.  No other ethnic group complained about being singled out by comparable signs. Only Irish Catholics have reported seeing the sign in America—no Protestant, no Jew, no non-Irish Catholic has reported seeing one. This is especially strange since signs were primarily directed toward these others: the signs said that employment was available here and invited Yankees, French-Canadians, Italians and any other non-Irish to come inside and apply. The business literature, both published and unpublished, never mentions NINA or any policy remotely like it. The newspapers and magazines are silent. The courts are silent. There is no record of an angry youth tossing a brick through the window that held such a sign. Have we not discovered all of the signs of an urban legend?”

Jensen, in my opinion, overstates his thesis here. Certainly there were signs on businesses saying “no colored allowed” and “no Chinese,”or more often, “whites only.” This photo from the Library of Congress collection shows a bar with a sign on the wall that reads, “Positively No Beer Sold to Indians.” But there’s a difference between serving and employing. Many whites-only establishments that refused to serve certain ethnic groups still hired them as laborers. 

Why were the Irish discriminated against? They were Catholic, a religion that frightened many Protestants, and the stereotype that they were lazy, dirty drunks was widespread. Some thought of them as a separate, inferior race, one that caused poverty. Their biggest crime, perhaps, was that they took jobs from native-born Americans because they would accept lower wages–the perennial anti-immigrant lament we still hear today. Employers were often eager to hire Irish because they cost less. Sure, some employers refused to hire Irish, black, or other minorities; some establishments refused to serve them. Anti-Irish sentiments were strongest in the middle part of the nineteenth century, when this song,”No Irish Need Apply,” was popular. Listen to it here:

Conclusion: The Irish Catholics faced discrimination. “No Irish Need Apply” newspaper advertisements existed. Workplace signs were not common, but Irish were effectively barred from “better”occupations and shunted into low-paying factory work and domestic service.

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20 Responses to Myth # 82: Signs saying “No Irish Need Apply” were common.

  1. Deborah Brower says:

    There is a wonderful version of the song by Mick Maloney that is worth checking out. It’s on the recording “Far from the Shamrock Shore – The Irish American Experience in Song”. For those interested in the contributions and influence of the Irish on American musical theater Mick did two great recordings that come with fabulous and well researched booklets; “McNally’s Row of Flats” and “If it Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews”. The period arrangements are delightful.

  2. Gregory Hubbard says:

    The No Irish Need Apply signs may indeed have been rare or non-existent, But… It is amazing what turns up in piles of discarded paper, and what we have destroyed.

    I have seen a number of promotional hotel brochures that state “Hebrew Patronage is not encouraged” or a similar phrase. The nicest are several in my teaching collection from fashionable late Victorian hotels in the Kennebunk Beach, Maine, area. I doubt that my examples are unique, or were when they were new.

    In addition, I have a finely printed notice on pale blue paper that states that the wild, degenerate music (it is clearly implied from ‘Negros’) is destroying America’s Youth… It has an organization’s name printed at the bottom, so it was probably mass-produced, but it is the only one I have ever seen. Rare or not?

    While curator of South Park City Museum in Fairplay, Colorado, a thirty building open air museum, I was told of a fine collection of photographs of Denver area prostitutes. Included in this collection were photographs of Mattie Silks House of Mirrors. By reputation, it was one of the most elegant Houses in the West, owned by one of the West’s most elegant Madams. The State Historical Society curator who told me of the photographs had seen the collection, and wanted to borrow them for a book.

    I could not locate them in the museum’s collections, so I asked several of the members of the Board of directors. One lady proudly told me she had destroyed them as filth. It is important to know that there are no known interior photographs of the House Of Mirrors. When I last checked only one exterior was known showing the building before it was stripped of its carved stonework, and the interior gutted for a warehouse. The photographs destroyed may have been unique survivals, and thus priceless.

    A friend of mine was a visitor to the building in the early 1900’s before it was gutted, and his description, as remembered by me, are probably the best record we will have.

    Another example? To judge their numbers from old photographs, most of the “Whites Only” signs have not survived.

    It is amazing what shame and societal changes have destroyed. No Irish Need Apply?

    Greg Hubbard

    • Kathy says:

      In doing genealogy and looking through old newspapers I came across someone listing a wanted ad for his runaway Mick, listed how he was dressed etc. wanted returned dead or alive. Many Irish came here as ‘indentured servants’, free labor for the cost of their boat passage here, but it included all of their children for most of their lives as well. Indentured servants, basically non-black slaves who could have a bounty put on their heads if they ‘escaped’ their labor.

      • Mary Miley says:

        Hi Kathy. This is part myth and part true. (I wonder what the date was for this ad you found.) Advertisements for runaway slaves, indentured servants, and apprentices were common throughout the 17th and 18th centuries; in the 19th indentured servants and apprentices were much less common so we find fewer ads for them, although slave ads continued until the end of the Civil War. Some Irish did come as indentured servants and it wasn’t unusual to refer to them as Micks. But indentured servitude, unlike slavery, was not passed to children, so that part isn’t true. White children could be indentured or apprenticed, but it was for a few years, seldom more than 7 and seldom lasted past age 21. Does this help? I hope you found good information about your ancestors–genealogy is a great hobby.

  3. I posted a link to this blog on twitter this morning. Seems that this is not just a “historical myth,” but a continuing example of prejudice in Australia:

    Thanks for the continuing thoughtful & informative posts!

  4. Nuranar says:

    About the “Positively No Beer Sold to Indians” sign – for a long time there were very strict actual laws about selling liquor to Native Americans. I do not know how and when those laws were repealed, but I would still hesitate to classify the sign as being an example of discrimination, when in fact it may be more in line with signs declaring “We card.”

  5. just because its law doesn’t make it not discrimination to Native Americans

  6. Fred C Dobbs says:

    This is a tough topic to deal with, since identity politics in today’s world depends on the degree of perceived suffering a group underwent in the past.

  7. Nyah says:

    This video of a flutemaker’s shop shows one of these signs:

    At 1:02 in the video we see it. I’ve been to this shop and have seen the sign myself. I assumed that it’s authentic, vintage, although I can’t be sure without asking him.

  8. academe says:

    This whole conversation is terribly interesting, but worries me somewhat. I wonder how many years it will be (200? Less?) before someone puts up a site just like this questioning and supposedly “debunking” the notion that (as some of you have mentioned) signs once prohibited minorities from businesses even as customers. Will we stick up a site in 75 years that Jews were never discriminated against in that way, on the grounds that every complaint about anti-Jewish signage on record was written by Jewish people? There are certainly published works you could reference if you wanted to make that look “professional.”

    The internet allows such ideas to spread, since we are all speaking word-of-mouth here. It just worries me.

    As an academic, it worries me about the way our research results can spread in an uncontrolled environment, away from the checks imposed by other academics. This isn’t my field, but please realize that people don’t get things published unless they are controversial. Times being what they were, as the author of this post correctly points out, it is actually quite misleading for this to appear on a page called “history myths.”

    • Mary Miley says:

      I’m afraid I can’t agree with your statement that “people don’t get things published unless they are controversial.”
      Aside from that, I don’t worry as much as you about “wrong” ideas spreading. There will always be crazies who believe that Elvis is still alive or that the U.S. faked the moon landing in 1969, but they existed before the Internet era.

  9. Joseph Rice says:

    These printed “No Irish need apply” signs turn up at flea markets and antique shops; I know one (Irish) family that bought one, as an artifact of their heritage. But applying logic (as suggested in DBP), was there such a demand that business owners would purchase a printed sign? (I am also suspicious since I have seen them too often in “theme pubs” etc.

  10. Marco Luxe says:

    I remember seeing want ads in old newspapers for office workers with the disclaimer “Gentiles Only”. Antisemitism was common and public.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Pardon me for being skeptical but I’ve never heard, nor seen, such a thing. Can you provide documentation?

  11. Noe says:

    I believe the entire NINA is a modern interpretation of older events. few people remember some of the very first slaves in America were Irish debtors. After it changed to a system of African slavery, Irish were the largest group of Catholic immigrants in America. Often the prejudice wasn’t towards being Irish, but rather being Catholic. That being said, America’s history is a long one of racial prejudice.

  12. John Sciara says:

    All you need to do is read the book by Tip O’Neil, Man of the House. He describes the NINA signs in Boston. Unless you want to claim that he would be an unreliable source.

    • Mary Miley says:

      He could easily be an unreliable source. Just because someone is well-known doesn’t mean they don’t repeat myths they think are true. The Irish ambassador visited Virginia’s governor’s mansion a year or two ago and told a blooper of a myth about A Christmas song that he believed was true. No one corrected him.

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