Richard Jensen, Journal of Social History 36.2 (2002) 405-429
Irish Catholics in America have a vibrant memory of humiliating job discrimination, which featured omnipresent signs proclaiming “Help Wanted — No Irish Need Apply!” No one has ever seen one of these NINA signs because they were extremely rare or nonexistent. The market for female household workers occasionally specified religion or nationality. Newspaper ads for women sometimes did include NINA, but Irish women nevertheless dominated the market for domestics because they provided a reliable supply of an essential service. Newspaper ads for men with NINA were exceedingly rare. The slogan was commonplace in upper class London by 1820; in 1862 in London there was a song, “No Irish Need Apply,” purportedly by a maid looking for work. The song reached America and was modified to depict a man recently arrived in America who sees a NINA ad and confronts and beats up the culprit. The song was an immediate hit, and is the source of the myth. Evidence from the job market shows no significant discrimination against the Irish — on the contrary, employers eagerly sought them out. Some Americans feared the Irish because of their religion, their use of violence, and their threat to democratic elections. By the Civil War these fears had subsided and there were no efforts to exclude Irish immigrants. The Irish worked in gangs in job sites they could control by force. The NINA slogan told them they had to stick together against the Protestant Enemy, in terms of jobs and politics. The NINA myth justified physical assaults, and persisted because it aided ethnic solidarity. After 1940 the solidarity faded away, yet NINA remained as a powerful memory.
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. 1
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, 2 archivist, or museum curator has ever located one 3 ; no photograph or drawing exists. 4 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?
The NINA slogan seems to have originated in England, probably after the 1798 Irish rebellion. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries it was used by English to indicate their distrust of the Irish, both Catholic and Protestant. For example the Anglican bishop of London used the phrase to say he did not want any Irish Anglican ministers iin his diocese. By the 1820s it was a cliché in upper and upper middle class London that some fussy housewives refused to hire Irish and had even posted NINA signs in their windows. It is possible that handwritten NINA signs regarding maids did appear in a few American windows, though no one ever reported one. We DO have actual newspaper want ads for women workers that specifies Irish are not wanted; they will be discussed below. In the entire file of the New York Times from 1851 to 1923, there are two NINA ads for men, one of which is for a teenager. Computer searches of classified help wanted ads in the daily editions of other online newspapers before 1923 such as the Booklyn Eagle, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune show that NINA ads for men were extremely rare — fewer than two per decade. 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.
Irish Americans all have heard about them — and remember elderly relatives insisting they existed. The myth had “legs”: people still believe it, even scholars. The late Tip O’Neill remembered the signs from his youth in Boston in 1920s; Senator Ted Kennedy reported the most recent sighting, telling the Senate during a civil rights debate that he saw them when growing up 5 Historically, physical NINA signs could have flourished only in intensely anti-Catholic or anti-Irish eras, especially the 1830 — 1870 period. Thus reports of sightings in the 1920s or 1930s suggest the myth had become so deeply rooted in Irish-American folk mythology that it was impervious to evidence. Perhaps the Irish had constructed an Evil Other out of stereotypes of outsiders — a demon that could frighten children like the young Ted Kennedy and adults as well. The challenge for the historian is to explain the origins and especially the durability of the myth. Did the demon exist outside the Irish imagination — and if not how did it get there? This paper will explain how the myth originated and will explore its long-lasting value to the Irish community as a protective device. It was an enhancement of political solidarity against a hostile Other; and a way to insulate a preindustrial non-individualistic group-oriented work culture from the individualism rampant in American culture.
We must first ask if the 19th century American environment contained enough fear or hatred of the Irish community to support the existence of the NINA sentiment? Did the Irish-American community constitute an “Other” that was reviled and discriminated against? Did more modern Americans recoil in disgust at the premodern Irish immigrants? The evidence suggests that all the criticism of the Irish was connected to one of three factors, their “premodern” behavior, their Catholicism, and their political relationship to the ideals of republicanism. If the Irish had enemies they never tried to restrict the flow of Irish immigration. 6 Much louder was the complaint that the Irish were responsible for public disorder and poverty, and above all the fears that the Irish were undermining republicanism. These fears indeed stimulated efforts to insert long delays into the citizenship process, as attempted by the Federalists in 1798 and the Know Nothings in the 1850s. Those efforts failed. As proof of their citizenship the Irish largely supported the Civil War in its critical first year. 7 Furthermore they took the lead in the 1860s in bringing into citizenship thousands of new immigrants even before the technicalities of residence requirements had been met. 8 The Irish claimed to be better republicans than the Yankees because they had fled into exile from aristocratic oppression and because they hated the British so much. 9
The use of systematic violence to achieve Irish communal goals might be considered a “premodern” trait; it angered many people and three bloody episodes proved it would not work in conflict with American republicanism. In 1863 the Irish rioted against the draft in New York City; Lincoln moved in combat troops who used cannon to regain control of the streets and resume the draft. In 1871 the Irish Catholics demanded the Protestant Irish not be allowed an Orange parade in New York City, but the Democratic governor sent five armed regiments of state militia to support the 700 city police protecting the one hundred marchers. The Catholics attacked anyway, and were shot down by the hundreds. In the 1860s and 1870s the Molly Maguires used midnight assassination squads to terrorize the anthracite mining camps in Pennsylvania. The railroad brought in Pinkertons to infiltrate the Mollys, twenty of whom were hung. In every instance Irish Catholics law enforcement officials played a major role in upholding the modern forms of republicanism that emphasized constitutional political processes rather than clandestine courts or mob action. In each instance the Irish leaders of the Catholic Church supported modern republicanism. 10 After the [End Page 406] 1870s the Irish achieved a modern voice through legitimate means, especially through politics and law enforcement. Further enhancing their status as full citizens making a valuable contribution to the community, the Catholics built monumental churches (which were immediately and widely praised), as well as a massive network of schools, colleges, hospitals, orphanages and other charitable institutions. 11
Regardless of their growing status, something intensely real was stimulating the Irish Catholics and only them. The NINA myth fostered among the Irish a misperception or gross exaggeration that other Americans were prejudiced against them, and were deliberately holding back their economic progress. Hence the “chip on the shoulder” mentality that many observers and historians have noted. 12 As for the question of anti-Irish prejudice: it existed but it was basically anti-Catholic or anti-anti-republican. There have been no documented instances of job discrimination against Irish men. 13 Was there any systematic job discrimination against the Catholic Irish in the US: possibly, but direct evidence is very hard to come by. On the other hand Protestant businessmen vigorously raised money for mills, factories and construction projects they knew would mostly employ Irishmen, 14 while the great majority of middle class Protestant households in the major cities employed Irish maids. The earliest unquestioned usage found comes from the English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, using the phrase in Pendennis, a novel of growing up in London in the 1820s. The context suggests that the NINA slogan was a slightly ridiculous and old-fashioned bit of prejudice 15 Other ethnic groups also had a strong recollection of discrimination but never reported such signs. The Protestant (Orange) Irish do not recall “NINA signs. 16 Were the signs used only against Irish targets?
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. 17 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 — one posted by a Brooklyn harness shop that wanted a boy who could write, and a request for a couple to take charge of a cottage upstate. 18 Unlike the employment market for men, the market for female servants included a small submarket in which religion or ethnicity was specified. Thus newspaper ads for nannies, cooks, maids, nurses and companions sometimes specified “Protestant Only.” “I can’t imagine, Carrie, why you object so strongly to a Roman Catholic,” protests the husband in an 1854 short story. “Why, Edward, they are so ignorant, filthy, and superstitious. It would never do to trust the children alone with one, for there is no telling what they might learn.” 19 Intimate household relationships were delicate matters for some families, but the great majority of maids in large cities were Irish women, so the submarket that refused to hire them could not have been more than ten percent. 20