For many years, the employment ad or sign indicating “No Irish Need Apply” had been part of the historical memory of discrimination against the Irish immigrant in America. In 2002, University of Illinois Professor Richard Jensen set out to disprove the existence of such signs. As recounted by the Irish Central website:
Jensen claimed that because his exhaustive search for any material or archival evidence of the NINA signs yielded only one result, they were likely a myth, a figment of the collective Irish American imagination.
“The fact that Irish vividly ‘remember,’ NINA signs is a curious historical puzzle,” he stated.
“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.”
Jensen’s article appeared in the Oxford Journal of Social History, and now the same journal has an article definitively debunking the Jensen Thesis that NINA signs did not exist. Incredibly, the new article was authored by a teenaged high schooler. Rebecca A. Fried, a student at the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC, found numerous instances of ads in major American newspapers and small-town journals advertising for workers with the prohibition “No Irish Need Apply.”
I have long had a personal interest in this question. When Jensen’s original article appeared in 2002 I was active on the Urban Legends Message Board (snopes) where it was an object of much discussion. Even with the more limited data bases of the time I came up with two ads that said Irish would not be accepted for employment. However, in later years Jensen’s Thesis became part of the wallpaper of discussion, with a lot of academics just accepting that the signs had never existed.
The burning of the Catholic Ursuline Convent in 1834 outside of Boston by a nativist mob was the opening incident of violence against the Irish.
I will admit that a few years ago I cautioned a colleague who wrote something about NINA that Jensen’s paper that indicated that the ads were not common. So, even though I had seen some NINA ads, a peer-reviewed paper in an Oxford journal led me to question my own lying eyes.
When I told my girlfriend Michele Ascione about the article by Rebecca Fried debunking Jensen, she did a quick search on the Brooklyn Eagle archive at the Brooklyn Public Library, and that one newspaper had scores of ads or articles using the term “No Irish Need Apply”. I guess Professor Jensen did not look through Walt Whitman’s old newspaper. You can go through some of her search results here. I looked through some other newspaper archives and came up with even more. I will post some of the ads I found along with some of Ms. Fried’s finds throughout this article.
Before we get to the debunking by Ms. Fried, we should first listen to Professor Jensen, a Yale PhD. and a retired professor from the University of Illinois, whose abridged article can be read here.
Jensen attracted a lot of attention because he did not just write that the NINA signs did not exist, he said the Irish were and are delusional, that in order to sustain a sense of victimhood they had manufactured a group-wide lie of discriminatory anti-Irish ads and signs. He said that believing that No Irish Need Apply Signs existed was the Irish equivalent of believing in leprechauns. Here is what Jensen wrote more than a decade ago:
The Irish American community harbors a deeply held belief that it was the victim of systematic job discrimination in America, and that the discrimination was done publicly in highly humiliating fashion through signs that announced “Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply.”
This “NINA” slogan could have been a metaphor for their troubles—akin to tales that America was a “golden mountain” or had “streets paved with gold.” But the Irish insist that the signs really existed and prove the existence of widespread discrimination and prejudice.
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.
Brooklyn Eagle May 1, 1863
According to Jensen, the historical record is virtually silent on NINA. He writes:
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?… The complete absence of evidence suggests that probably zero such signs were seen at commercial establishments, shops, factories, stores, hotels, railroads, union halls, hiring halls, personnel offices, labor recruiters etc. anywhere in America, at any time. NINA signs and newspaper ads for apartments to let did exist in England and Northern Ireland, but historians have not discovered reports of any in the United States, Canada or Australia. The myth focuses on public NINA signs which deliberately marginalized and humiliated Irish male job applicants. The overwhelming evidence is that such signs never existed.
Brooklyn Eagle March 29, 1860
Bizarrely, Jensen says that the Irish cooked up the story of having endured being discriminated against to protect themselves from the individualism of American society. Although violence against the Irish immigrants was initiated in the 1830s, Jensen claims that “The use of systematic violence to achieve Irish communal goals might be considered a “premodern” trait.” Since the violence was initiated by nativist Know Nothings, does that not make the native—born Anglo Saxon community similarly “premodern?”
Jensen detailed his research and its results:
An electronic search of all the text of the several hundred thousand pages of magazines and books online at Library of Congress, Cornell University Library and the University of Michigan Library, and complete runs of The New York Times and The Nation, turned up about a dozen uses of NINA.
The complete text of New York Times is searchable from 1851 through 1923. Although the optical character recognition is not perfect (some microfilmed pages are blurry), it captures most of the text. A search of seventy years of the daily paper revealed only two classified ads with NINA
Jensen argued that the American adaptation of an English song, No Irish Need Apply, helped foster the myth. He resorts to the stereotype of the drunken Irishman, writing that “After a few rounds of singing and drinking, you could easily read the sign.” So alcoholism helped create the Irish delusion of having been the victims of discrimination. Sort of an Irish historical delirium tremens
Jensen also denies that there was ever a major movement of nativistsdirected against Irish immigrants. He writes that “Political mobilization against the Irish was never successful. The most important effort was the Know Nothing movement, which swept the Northeast and South in 1854—56. It was a poorly led grass roots movement….” In fact, the Know Nothings came to control several state governments and secured the coveted office of Speaker of the House of Representatives. Its 1856 presidential candidate was not some obscure figure, but was the former President of the United States Millard Fillmore.
Jensen makes the absurd claim that far from being anti-immigrant bigots, “The Know-Nothings were primarily a purification movement,” a “good-government” party trying to clean up corrupt government. He says that “There was no known employment discrimination. Know-Nothing employers, for example, were never accused of firing their Irish employees.”
Jensen argued that other anti-immigrant groups were similarly unsuccessful. “Likewise there were few visible effects of the APA movement of the 1890s, or the KKK in the 1920s.” Of course, the KKK secured the passage of the most restrictive laws against immigration in our country’s history in 1924, but Jensen ignores that fact.
After attacking the Irish for using labor union solidarity and high levels of civic participation to achieve some degree of power, Jensen says the working class Irish wrongly libeled “Benign Protestant factory owners” by charging them with discrimination.
Brooklyn Eagle Feb. 16 1865
Jensen wrote that the Irish had a “chip on their shoulder” and that they used the “myth” of having been discriminated against to justify “bullying strangers” which he says “helped sour relations between Irish and everyone else.” The delusions of the Irish did not end as they entered the middle class after World War II, according to Jensen. The NINA story was resurrected by the Irish “in recent years as the Irish feel the political need to be bona-fide victims.”
In one of the most bigoted passages of his essay, Jensen asks; “If we conclude the Irish were systematically deluding themselves over a period of a century or more about their primary symbol of job discrimination the next question to ask is, was it all imaginary or was there a real basis for the grievances about the economic hostility of Protestants to Irish aspirations? Historians need to be critical. Because a group truly believes it was a victim, does not make it so.” Jensen, of course, believes that it was not so.
Brooklyn Eagle November 18, 1868
Jensen is also implicitly critical of Irish American strategies for getting ahead in America. Unlike native –born Protestant Americans who presumably advanced in the modern American way through individual gumption and smarts, the Irish “tended to work in equalitarian collective situations, such as labor gangs, longshoremen crews, construction crews, or with strong labor unions, usually in units dominated numerically and politically by Irishmen. Wage rates were often heavily influenced by collective activity, such as boycotts, strikes and union contracts, or by the political pressures that could be exerted on behalf of employees in government jobs, or working for contractors holding city contracts, or for regulated utilities such as street railways and subways.” The Irish maintained this egalitarian labor solidarity by allegedly lying to themselves about having been the victims of discrimination.
Boston Evening Transcript June 9, 1860
Jensen also depicted the Irish as a terrorist element in American society. Irish labor “Solidarity (with or without formal union organization) made for excellent bargaining power, augmented as needed by the use of intimidation, strikes, arson, terrorism and destructive violence to settle any grievances they may have had with their employers.” Mind you, the use of violence against workers by “benevolent Protestant factory owners” was quite common until the 1930s.
If you want a sense of how delusional Dr. Jensen is, he writes that apart from the Irish, “Discrimination against newer immigrant groups can be identified as late as 1941.” Apparently, the internment of the Japanese after Pearl Harbor was not discrimination. Mexicans have not been discriminated against since 1941, nor have Salvadorans. At least not in Jensen’s discrimination-free America.
Boston Evening Transcript July 27, 1865
Rebecca Fried summarizes Jensen’s conclusions at the start of her article:
The core of Jensen’s critique is a series of findings that there was no evidence, or virtually no evidence, supporting various components of the NINA narrative. He argues that “NINA ads for men were extremely rare,” and he reproduces an image of “the only NINA ad for men anyone has ever found.” He writes that “[t]here are no contemporary or retrospective accounts of a specific sign at a specific location,” and that “[n]o particular business enterprise is named as a culprit.” Finding that “[t]he newspapers and magazines are silent,” he concludes “that probably zero [NINA] signs were seen at commercial establishments, shops, factories stores, hotels, railroads, union halls, hiring halls, personnel offices, labor recruiters, etc. anywhere in America, at any time,” and that certainly “reports of sightings in the 1920s or 1930s” were impossible and demonstrative of the myth’s “impervious[ness] to evidence.”
Philadelphia Inquirer Nov. 10, 1906
Fried writes that “Jensen’s belief that there is “only [one] NINA ad for men [that] anyone has ever found” is incorrect.” In fact, she found numerous ads with the words No Irish Need Apply stretching over eight decades. The earliest example…appearing on January 15, 1842 in the [New York] Sun, solicited “[m]en and boys to carry pies” in New York City. It specified a preference for “[t]hose who are accustomed to it,” and instructed interested parties to “[a]pply 139½ Mott st., near Grand.” It concluded with a NINA restriction: “No Irish need apply. Best of references required.””
Jersey Journal Nov. 25, 1914
NINA ads were published at many different times and places in America and across occupational categories. Fried writes that:
the broad temporal, geographic, and subject-matter dispersion of the NINA-restricted advertisements suggests that they were not limited to particular, narrowly defined circumstances. We have more NINA advertisements from the 1840s than from any other decade, but from the 1850s through the first decade of the twentieth century, the frequency of NINA-restricted advertisements remains generally similar. Moreover, many cities are represented, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, the District of Columbia, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Wheeling, Virginia, Emporia, Kansas, Warren, Pennsylvania, Alpine, Texas, and Monmouth, Illinois. And the occupations advertised in the appendix are widely representative of those occurring in the newspaper want ads of their time, including clerks at stores and hotels, bartenders, farm workers, house painters, hog butchers, coachmen, bookkeepers, blackers, workers at lumber yards, upholsterers, bakers, gilders, tailors, and papier mache workers, among others. The evidence thus suggests that NINA-restricted advertisements were not likely to have been cabined to narrow periods of time, small geographical areas, or particular occupations.
Contrary to Jensen, Rebecca Fried found that people reported seeing NINA ads and signs. Fried writes “One nineteenth century writer remarked, on arriving in the United States, that “It is common in advertisements for servants in New York, as in London, to append, ‘No Irish need apply.’” Another asserted of Milwaukee, without apparent fear of contradiction, that “[t]he sign, ‘No Irish need apply’ has frequently been seen, and is yet seen in newspaper advertisements.””
The high school student writes that at least one employer was forced to post a NINA sign by an armed nativist mob:
John Frederick Brennan, writing in 1892, recounts the posting of a NINA placard on a mill that solicited workers to repair “roadways and embankments” during a period of high unemployment: “In addition to a hundred Irishmen who rushed for the proffered fifty cents a day, four hundred skilled American workmen appeared upon the ground solicitous for employment upon any terms. Bill Percival, the gambler and Democratic wheel-horse, appeared at their head, and many of them were armed with bludgeons, and not a few with knives and pistols. At the demand of Mr. Percival, Mr. Cheney, of the mills, was compelled to hang a sign at the gate of the institution, reading “NO IRISH NEED APPLY.” The Irish, without weapons and in such inferior numbers, discretely retired.”
Note that while Jensen talks about the Irish as labor terrorists, this was just one of many examples of Irish workers being terrorized by nativists.
NINA signs were not restricted to small businesses. The Chicago Railway Company engaged in NINA postings, prompting a union to be organized by its workers.
Fried finds a number of newspaper references to Irish Americans actively campaigning against NINA postings. This contradicts Jensen’s claim that there were no indications of resistance to NINA, and therefore no NINA signs. She found announced boycotts of employers, as well as other labor actions, to end the posting of NINA ads and signs.
The student historian also finds disapproving mention of the signs in newspapers. For example, in 1883 this appeared in an Ohio newspaper; “We saw a notice the other day, to wit: A good and reliable man wanted to clean Bridge Lamps. ‘No Irish need apply.’ Call on or address Police Headquarters, Port Washington, Ohio.”
Fried demolishes Jensen’s contention that there were no court cases involving NINAs. She found two. One was brought in 1853 claiming that in printing a NINA ad the New York Herald had libeled the Irish people. In an 1881 lawsuit, the plaintiff proved that a prominent politician had written in a letter that “No Irish Need Apply.”
Anaconda Standard (Montana) April 17, 1909
Jensen claimed that if NINA advertising had really existed, it would have been used in Confederate propaganda during the Civil War to alienate the Irish from the Northern war effort. Fried writes that “NINA was indeed used as a propaganda point against the North. In July 1861, the Fayetteville Observer published an article entitled “No Irish Need Apply,” exclusively devoted to lampooning”;
the frequent advertisement in New York” of solicitations bearing that restriction. The Observer cited this as an example of the hypocrisy of “these beautiful doublevoiced instruments of Abolition!” And it concluded by paraphrasing the northern sentiment as “exclaim[ing]”: ““Return to us, beloved Seventh, our sons and brothers of Fifth Avenue, and other fine places; we need you here, to support the police and keep the d—d Dutch and Irish down.”
In short, she writes that while Jensen believes that Confederate propagandists “did not mention job discrimination or NINA…such propaganda did indeed exist as Jensen opines it should have if NINA was a real and pervasive phenomenon. By Jensen’s own reasoning, then, this strongly supports the widespread reality of NINA restrictions in Northern States during the Civil War era.
The Charleston Mercury of June 15, 1861 is an example of Confederate propaganda using No Irish Need Apply to influence immigrants not to enlist in the Union Army.
In her damningly understated conclusion Fried writes:
These discrepancies require substantial modification to Jensen’s thesis that the NINA phenomenon is an ahistorical memory to be explained by “delu[sional]” group psychology and “the political need to be bona-fide victims” rather than by the fact of historic discrimination. The documentary record better supports the earlier view that Irish-Americans have a communal recollection of NINA advertising because NINA advertising did, in fact, exist over a substantial period of United States history, sometimes on a fairly widespread basis.
Professor Jensen decided to challenge Rebecca Fried in the comments section of Irish Central which published a detailed article on the teenager’s research. Dr. Jensen wrote:
I’m the PhD who wrote the original article. I’m delighted a high school student worked so hard and wrote so well. No, she did not claim to find a single window sign anywhere in the USA—the signs DID exist in Britain & Canada. Yes there were NINA newspaper ads—I was the one who found the first one—but I argued they were very rare. If a man read every job want-ad in his newspaper every week for 40 years, he would have a 50-50 chance of coming across one NINA ad in his lifetime. That’s what I called very rare—& the student called very common. Richard Jensen
Rebecca Fried replied quickly:
Professor, thanks so much for the reply. I really appreciate it. I do have to say that the article does in fact list a number of posted physical NINA signs, not just newspaper ads. Pages 6-7 catalogue a number of the signs. I also have to respectfully disagree with your numerical calculation. I explain why at page 25 of the article, which is a brief response to your points. Briefly, if the man in your example read the Sun newspaper, he would have read at least 15 male-directed NINA ads in a single year, plus any female-directed ones, plus any from other sources. Thanks again for this. I respect you and your work.
Jensen would have done well to edit his response to Fried’s reply:
Rebecca—you did a terrific job: congratulations. It’s a matter of whether the class is half full or half empty. I think you have a very big glass, with a couple of drops of water at the bottom, and you call it half-full. I have two points:
a) I counted one maybe 2 possible window signs in your essay. You have 1) an undated story that an armed anti-Irish mob forced an owner to put up such a sign after he had hired many Irishmen; that tells me he was in fact pro-Irish. 2) a 1932 episode with mentions a sign—it’s inside a place on 6th Avenue in Glens Falls NY—a little village that does not have a 6th avenue. So maybe it’s from somewhere else? 3) a recollection with no date no place that matches lots of mythical memories; 4) an 1882 story that mentions a newspaper ad not a sign; 5) A St Louis story that is garbled—there was no job ad; 6) the closest you get is a Port Washington, Ohio story from 1883 about a sign at a police station; 7) 1897 Chicago, no mention of a sign; 8) undated 1870s Boston—some outsider briefly hung a sign to ridicule a club; 9) 1879 St Louis story—no job involved; 10) 1884 story with no job involved. So maybe n=1 or 2. For dozens of cities over 100+ years N=2 = pretty invisible signage—a few drops of water at the bottom of the glass.
b) you list 69 newspaper items from 22 cities over a 90 year period. That’s many millions of newspaper pages in which there are 69 little ads. In any one city it would take decades of reading all the ads every day to find the one. That’s what I call very rare. Only in one year (1842) in one paper (the Sun) in one city (NY) was there even one ad per month, The next year 1843 the NY Sun had six ads all year, In 1844 just one ad then never again. All the daily newspapers combined in New York City published 6 ads in the next 60 years. That’s very rare. In Chicago, only 3 ads in over 50 years. How rare can you get? Richard Jensen
Fried quickly demolished Jensen’s ill-considered comment:
Thanks again for the response. This discussion is really fun for me, and I appreciate the opportunity to have it. I’ll keep this really brief. You discount most of the documented NINA signs because they didn’t advertise jobs. But these involved other significant acts of discrimination. For instance, you dismiss one of the Saint Louis signs because no job was listed; but in fact it advertised an apartment for let, and elsewhere you make a point of claiming that there were few examples of NINA restrictions in apartment solicitations. Rejecting this sign because it is for an apartment rather than a job and simultaneously complaining about the paucity of apartment ads seems like a bit of a “heads I win, tails you lose” situation. Your dismissals of others seem to rest on minsunderstandings, or scant grounds. The club sign was not in Boston but New York, and it was not hung to ridicule the club; it was hung by the club itself to announce the exclusion of Irish-American applicants. The Glens Falls piece doesn’t mention which 6th Avenue the sign appeared on, but is that a ground for disregarding the incident? That one is reported not once, but twice, further confirming that it was no reporting error. Still others are not addressed at all—for instance, I don’t think you discuss the 1892 report of a mill posting, which was for jobs, and which lists named individuals who were present. In short, I think you are too quick to dismiss these examples. And the reason they are significant is that the vast majority of such signs would not be documented by newspapers at all for reasons discussed in the article. The surprise is that there are so many surviving examples of ephemeral postings rather than so few. You haven’t defended your numerical calculation, nor addressed the multiple grounds discussed in the article why the extant database records are no more likely to be near complete today than they were when you found only one example several years ago. To the contrary the evidence suggests that the ads available today are a small minority of those actually posted. Thanks again for this.
Let me make one last point and then I promise I will shut up and give you the last word if you want it. You began this conversation by stating that the article “did not claim to find a single window sign anywhere in the USA.” I think we now agree at least that this is not correct. Many are specifically listed. And of course the ultimate question here is simply whether NINA signs were sufficiently prevalent to account for the strong historical memory of them in the Irish-American community. A NINA sign would be just as offensive and memorable to Irish-American and other viewers whether it was for a job, an apartment, a social club, a “freedom pole,” or anything else. I think the ordinary inference finding lots of signs and lots more newspaper advertisements drawn from sources that are demonstrably far from complete is that they look more or less as one would expect if the NINA phenomenon was real and sometimes pervasive. After such a showing, I do think that the burden should fall on you to show that mass delusion rather than ordinary memory should be invoked to account for this memory. I think the evidence, which includes many advertisements and signs, many more female-directed ones not even collected, and strong, concrete reasons showing that the existing digitized databases are vastly under-inclusive, strongly supports the ordinary, simple explanation rather than the unusual psychological explanation. I’ll conclude by sincerely thanking you again for interacting with me on this. It is a real honor and I appreciate it.
I encourage those with academic journal access to read Rebecca Fried’s entire article. It is compact, elegant, and well-researched. We can expect great things from this teenaged historian. She has already made a great contribution.
Source: No Irish Need Deny: Evidence for the Historicity of NINA Restrictions in Advertisements and Signs by Rebecca Fried in Oxford Journal of Social History.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.