McSorley's opened its doors in 1854, although amateur historian Richard McDermott claims it really opened in 1862. In reality the first printed reference was in 1862; a document at the Museum of the City of New York from 1904, in founder John McSorley's hand, declares it was established in 1854 and a New York Tribune article from 1895, states it "has stood for 40 years. . . " a short distance of Cooper Union. A 1913 article in Harper's Weekly declares that "This famous saloon ... is sixty years old." (pg 15 Harper's Weekly Oct. 25, 1913.)
Women were not allowed until 1970 when National Organization for Women attorneys Faith Seidenberg and Karen DeCrow took their case to District Court and won (Seidenberg v. McSorleys' Old Ale House). It did so "kicking and screaming."
McSorley's serves only two ales, light and dark - $4.50 for two (2007 pricing, each glass is a half pint). The aged artwork, newspaper articles covering the walls, the sawdust floors, and the Irish waiters and bartenders help give McSorley's Old Ale House an atmosphere that many consider, correctly or not, reminiscent of "Olde New York." No piece of memorabilia has been removed from the walls since 1910. After the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994, they took the cup to McSorley's and drank out of it, the resulting dent caused the NHL to take the trophy back for several days.
Famous people have imbibed at McSorley's, including Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Boss Tweed, and Woody Guthrie. Literary figures like Brendan Behan, Paul Blackburn, LeRoi Jones, Gilbert Sorrentino, George Jean Nathan have been cited as regulars.
In his 1923 poem "I was sitting in mcsorley's," poet E. E. Cummings described McSorley's as "the ale which never lets you grow old." He also described it as he describes the bar as “snug and evil.”
McSorley's was the focus of several articles by New Yorker author Joseph Mitchell. One collection of his stories was entitled McSorley's Wonderful Saloon (1943).
Much historical paraphernalia exists in the bar, like Houdini's handcuffs, which are connected to the bar rail. Also one must take notice of the wishbones hanging above the bar. Story has it that they were hung there by boys going off to World War I and when they came back they would remove them, so those that are left are from the men that never returned.
Two of McSorley's most famous mottos include "Be Good or Be Gone", and "We were here before you were born". Prior to the 1970 Supreme Court ruling, the motto was "Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies." The raw onions can still be had as part of the famous McSorley's cheese platter. The prime condiment is some extremely spicy hot mustard found on each table in a beer mug.
New York magazine considered it to be one of New York City's Top 5 Historic Bars.