Survey of the “No Irish Need Apply” qualification in classified ads in U.S. newspapers (1827–1919)

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In the wake of the renewed controversy about the prevalence and impact of NINA in classified ads in U.S. newspapers in 2015, I set about surveying all the available newspaper databases to collect further evidence. After a few months of research I found a total of 268 unique examples of “No Irish Need Apply” adverts. Many of these adverts were published in multiple editions of the same paper and I have not included the duplications in my final number. The range of newspaper databases I searched included Chronicling America (801 newspaper titles, 5.2 million pages), the California Digital Newspaper Collection (600,000 pages) and (3,700 newspaper titles, 113 million pages). There are undoubtedly many more NINA ads out there that I missed due to; OCR errors, human error (my bleary eyes), those that appear in newspapers only available in hard copy or microfilm (that I do not have access to) or my narrow range of search terms. I found some anti-Irish qualifiers were simply stated as “No Irish.” or “No Irish wanted” and there are probably other variations out there that a future researcher will identify.

Before moving on it should also be advised that an immense amount of ahistorical nonsense was published in the wake of Rebecca Fried’s paper in 2015, including the false claims made by Irish Central that there were thousands of NINA ads out there. Likewise The Irish Times claimed that Fried found an “innumerable” amount. In reality she published a dataset of 69 different examples. This poor reporting distracted from her excellent work while simultaneously misrepresenting Jensen’s position.

Despite how it was misleadingly presented by some of the media in 2015, Richard Jensen never claimed the “non-existence” of NINA adverts in the U.S., instead he questioned their prevalence and impact on the economic and social success of the Irish-American community. He claimed that his 2002 paper was a rebuttal to Kerby Miller’s assertion that these anti-Irish qualifiers in classified adverts were “ubiquitous”. Jensen queried if it amounted to “systematic” or “significant discrimination” and the answer, based on this evidence, seems to be in the negative. But then again that depends on what we mean by “significant”. If we mean it as a ratio of all classified adverts then 268 appearances over a period of over a century is not significant, whereas if we compare the frequency of such discrimination to other immigrant groups then this amount is quite significant indeed. I’m open to correction, but based on the cursory searches I carried out, no other “white” immigrant group in the U.S. was singled out as much as the Irish in this way, for this long in the 19th century. This is why Fried’s revision was very necessary.

As for NINA signs or placards that were apparently hung outside shops and businesses, I found no contemporary evidence or references. Jensen posited that NINA signs either did not exist in the U.S. or else they were extremely rare. Fried’s paper and my own research has seemingly confirmed the latter case. Fried found a couple. I found none. The lack of evidence with regard to NINA signs or placards confirms Jensen’s thesis with regard to their mythical status. It seems that it entered the Irish American discourse in the U.S. in the early 20th century when the NINA phenomenon was recalled. Much of this, however, can be accounted for as a genuine mistake in the use of terms, people referring to “notices” when specifically meaning “adverts” and then these “notices” were later relayed as “signs”. Thus the 1960s discussion of ‘NINA signs’ during John F. Kennedy’s election campaign was mostly ahistorical. Indeed during the 2015 debate many sources (including mainstream media outlets, broadsheets) continued to confuse them. But the discrimination existed, the debate about whether it appeared on physical signs or on newspaper ads is a minor issue.

That “No Irish Need Apply” quickly became a metaphor for all forms of anti-Irish bias (real or perceived), rather than literal examples in newspapers or on signs is much more noteworthy. A business or office that was accused of not hiring Irish people was said to have “hung NINA on their door” in a metaphorical sense. This explains why a large number of NINA search results that appear in the newspaper databases refer to Democratic or Republican party nominations, policies, and so on. This is where Jensen’s thesis falters significantly and where I agree with Fried’s persuasive counter-argument that “the historical reality of NINA advertising presents a much simpler and more direct explanation” for the communal memory of NINA. Jensen’s theory about a popular song implanting the narrative in the Irish American is just not convincing. If you saw just one of those adverts, you would naturally share it with others and you would certainly remember it more vividly than any other classified ad on the page as this was the one where you were publicly discriminated against because of your country of origin. Word about such a qualification for employment would have, rightly, spread like wildfire in a close-knit Irish American community.

There is an instructive example of this which I’d like to highlight.

Anti-Irish Discrimination in Chicago goes “viral” (1867)

See the below excerpt from The Chicago Tribune (13 December 1867) which included NINA qualifications appended to four positions within the first ten classified ads listed for ‘House Servants’. This was far from ignored as being insignificant and it quickly drew the ire of the wider Irish American community.

Striking section of the Chicago Tribune (13 Dec 1867) 10 adverts in total and 4 included the NINA qualification.

Within a week it was noticed by an outraged Irish American and forwarded to an Irish American newspaper in Chicago, in this case The Irish Republic. The author, the pseudonymous “Irish Republican” asked the editors of the newspaper to

Please give us an editorial on “No Irish need apply.” I can never support a paper or party that insults us every day with the above slang. Are the Irish of Chicago blind, that they can’t see the hand that is cutting their throat? I hope you will fling it back in their teeth, and vindicate the cause of Irish womanhood.

The editor responded by publishing the letter in the paper on the 4 January 1868 and called on its readers to boycott (or worse)the businesses in question.

“I hope you will fling it back in their teeth, and vindicate the cause of Irish womanhood” — Irish Republic, 4 January 1868)

The following week the published the rest of the addresses of the NINA businesses and put out a nationwide call to organise and “crush this nuisance”.

The Irish Republic newspaper in Chicago published the names of those who advocated “No Irish Need Apply” — 11 January 1868

Significant anti-Irish discrimination

By far the most significant and sweeping piece of anti-Irish employment discrimination that I’ve found was an advert for one hundred labourer jobs in Washington D.C. that openly specified that “No Irish need apply”.

(Evening Star, 24 June 1871)



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Liam Hogan

Liam Hogan

Librarian & Historian. Researching and writing about slavery, memory and power. Ko-Fi