Revisited 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?”

It’s neither myth nor fact. The statement has a core of truth to it, as many do, although it is exaggerated in collective memory. There were some 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. 

“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 The business literature, both published and unpublished, never mentions NINA or any policy remotely like it.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?”

8c15746rJensen, 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.” A rebuttal of Jensen’s thesis claims to have located several signs relating to Irish. But that doesn’t mean “common.” And remember, 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 in the 19th century. 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 hear today. Employers were often eager to hire Irish because they would work for 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 serious discrimination in America. “No Irish Need Apply” newspaper advertisements like the one above existed, but were rare. Work-related signs were rare, but Irish were effectively barred from “better” occupations and shunted into low-paying factory work and domestic service. 

I don’t think anyone is denying that discrimination against the Irish immigrants existed, or that advertisements or even individual signs were posted. The issue is whether pre-printed signs reading merely “No Irish Need Apply” were in use (which, from lack of evidence as well as logic makes this particular printed product an unlikely item).

Being from an immigrant family myself, I can vouch for the fact that some narratives (such as the name change at Ellis Island) cannot always be taken as fact.

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My ancestors were Irish and there are plenty of stories passed down through the family about how commonplace what you’re calling “myth” was back then. I liken articles like this to the people who deny the Holocaust ever happened, though obviously on a much lesser scale. As the above article shows, there are so many derogatory phrases demeaning the Irish that are still in our vernacular, I just don’t understand why people like you choose to write long articles denying it ever happened. To what end? What are you trying to prove? Does it make you feel better to think that white-on-white racism didn’t exist?

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Yes, they existed . Despite the fact there are few left . It like saying that slaves weren’t sold. The fact that few exist . The declaration states all men are created equal. The rebel flag has recently fell under scrinity . The civil war cannot be denied. Yet people at that time free labor is not bragged about these days. People have done cruel behavior towards those not of the same religion or race they are. Funny thing is people whom are not catholic . Forget that they all were. That the protested against the church & the Church of England came from a murdrering King to marry another in the church so he created another. People ask about the worship of statutes . During the churches early days , people could not read during this period of time . Thus they made statutes to symbolize – the salvation of God. Irish need not apply was very real. They hated the Irish catholic! Called garbage . Those signs do exist , I’ve seen them . Because someone not showing people how stupid and prejudice their forefathers were. Suppose
Selling slaves happened signs do still exist . Even back then it wasn’t the English finest moments . Sadly people can pretend it didn’t happened. Next they say that ww2 . And the mass killing of Jews the mental ill , Catholics , liberals those with a different polical party… Apparently people whom are not affected by those whom are not well/versed in the subject make a blanket statement . Like they don’t exist ? Oh well.,

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Mary Miley In reply to Nate.
Did you download the article here? I read the abstract, which they said was free, but wasn’t able to download the actual article.

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Nate In reply to Mary Miley.
HEre you go:

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Mary Miley In reply to James Dailey.
Have you actually read the high school student’s paper? I have not been able to find it, and I wouldn’t care to comment unless I had read it myself.

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James Dailey
The Jensen study was thoroughly debunked by a high school student in 2015. The NINA signs were found to be quite common, and were found all over the U.S. Thanks to Beth(?) Fried, the Washington high school student, who toppled the quite frankly racist assertions put forward by Jensen. In my mind, Jensen and whoever was in charge of the “peer review” that his
poorly researched, invective-filled racist rant of a “thesis” should be consigned to teaching at Know Nothing University, in KKK county, Redneckville USA.

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Pat Young
Jensen’s article was the real myth.

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Mary Miley In reply to M H.
Interesting article. Kudos to the high school student who did some fine primary research. But there is nothing to contradict what is written above. The young lady’s paper purportedly shows many instances of newspaper advertisements that read “no Irish need apply,” but we knew that, and I don’t see where she has uncovered any evidence of signage. These are two different, if related, issues. I couldn’t read her article (well, I could if I wanted to pay $39 for a one-day subscription to the journal, but I didn’t) so I can’t be sure about what else she wrote.

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This has been reevaluated recently thanks to more in depth research. See an excerpt from a paper in the Oxford Journal of Social History at

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

  1. What I’ve found in looking into the subject myself is that “no Irish” or “no Catholic” (the latter of which included a bunch of other ethnicities) notices in newspaper classifieds tend to be for female domestic servants in more affluent areas. Going by census records, hiring Irish or Irish-American maids was extremely common – having a Protestant English or American girl was a sign of status. It was discriminatory and unpleasant, but people comparing it to slavery or even the post-event period of African-American oppression are offensively way off.

    • Curtis Cook says:

      Note, however, that the typical Irish laborer during the famine exodus period cost half as much to employ as it cost to feed, clothe, house and equip a black slave to do the same work.

  2. Dulcie Andrews says:

    Having only just begun reenacting and finding myself immersed in reading blog after linked blog or Google search for accuracy in my impression, I found my way here.
    I have enjoyed the few hours of reading your debunking blog.
    I began with the myth of the courting candle, since a fellow reenactor said she was looking for one because her daughter would be “coming of age” soon.
    From The 2nd/4th of July to poisonous golden apples to the improbability of early Americans weaving their own cloth, I appreciate all your research.
    I have heard of the NINA sentiment from my grandmother who was of Scottish decent.(questioning that now,since it seems many Irish suddenly became Scottish during early the prior centuries)
    Anyway, I digress.
    My comment is in regards to the picture above. Particularly of the sign.
    I believe that sign was altered prior to the picture being made.
    Notice how the first two lines of print are centered and the letters evenly spaced and sized?
    in the last line the letters “TO” follow the centering and uniformity of type, but the word “Indians” goes to the right edge of the paper and the letters are neither uniform nor spaced as all the other writing on the sign.
    However, if one were to use the same uniformity of lettering as the writer did on.the rest of the sign and write the word “IRISH” which, is two letters shorter in the same space, it would fit just fine.
    I believe it would cause the last line to be centered just as the rest of the writing is.
    I surmise that the sign in the picture above originally said IRISH rather than INDIANS.
    It’s quite possible many other NINA signs had similar changes done to them and that’s why they’ve not been located.

    Im on my phone& and don’t have the editing software to cut and paste the Lettering from elsewhere on the sign to make the reversal.
    But I think , if you’ve ever painstakingly hand-lettered a car wash or lemonade fir sale sign at any point in your life, you’ll agree that having all the letters in the last word all mushed together and throwing your spacing & centering off, just would not have been done.

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