Eating History: The Story Behind Soho’s Ear Inn

The New-York Historical Society has unearthed artifacts from the Manhattan watering hole that date more than a century.

Armbruster, Eugene L., Lower Manhattan: southwest corner of Greenwich Street and Spring Street, ca. 1894-1939. New-York Historical Society Library

Armbruster, Eugene L., Lower Manhattan: southwest corner of Greenwich Street and Spring Street, ca. 1894-1939. New-York Historical Society Library

Welcome to “Eating History,” a series in which Jaya Saxena of the New-York Historical Society mines the vast archives of the museum and library in search of vintage images and ephemera that offer a look into how New Yorkers used to dine. Follow the museum @NYHistory for more.

Have you ever gotten a drink at the Ear Inn in Soho? If you have, you may have gotten the feeling that the place is old, but perhaps you didn’t realize just quite how old—the building originated as the James Brown House all the way back in 1817.

James Brown was allegedly an African-American revolutionary and aide to George Washington, who settled in New York and worked in the tobacco trade. Over the years, the building changed hands, and by the 19th century Thomas Cooke began brewing beer and whiskey there to serve to sailors docked at the Hudson River. Prohibition came and went, but the building at 326 Spring Street remained, and in 1977 it was christened the Ear Inn (“the new name was chosen to avoid the Landmark Commission’s lengthy review of any new sign,” according to its website).

One aspect of the Inn that offers a lens into this history is the privy—essentially, the combination toilet/trash chute. In 2010, excavations in the basement uncovered the site of the original privy, which was used not just as a loo but also a means of disposing everything from pipes to plates to clothing. Thousands of artifacts were found that shed light on the daily life of previous owners and tenants, and they were gifted to the New-York Historical Society.

Ceramic pot fragments, striped bass vertebrae, and even guitar picks were unearthed, and the deeper we went, the farther back in time we got. Some of these artifacts are on view in the DiMenna Children’s History Museum and New-York Historical’s Smith Gallery. But just keep this in mind the next time you grab a beer at the Ear Inn—you might be sitting on some history.

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Artifact images: Courtesy New-York Historical Society Museum Collections

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