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© 2010 Jan Bender

Bender Melodies

A Short History of Organ Grinders

Performers seeking to earn a living by entertaining “on the street” have been around since streets were invented. Men playing mechanical organs turned by a crank first appeared about 300 years ago. The early organs were very small with only a few notes. They had been invented to teach canaries to sing, but enterprising individuals realized that they could take these organs outside and play them to earn money. Organs improved over the decades. They became bigger, and as more and more pipes were added, they became capable of playing complex melodies.

Until the late 19th century, the organs used wooden barrels with pins or nails to carry the notes. As the barrel turned, the pins opened valves allowing air into the pipes. The air was provided by a bellows pumped by the same crank that turned the barrel.

Barrel Organ

With a great deal of ingenuity in placing the pins, the creator of a large barrel could put 6 to 8 songs on the barrel. Since the barrels were not easily changed, the organ grinder walked the streets playing those same songs over and over again all day long. In the early days, the “popular” music often consisted of opera themes. From roughly 1890 to 1920, the Tin Pan Alley music publishers in New York utilized singing song pluggers and organ grinders to help market their songs.

...“ publishers worked closely with the manufacturers of the barrels that produced music in barrel organs, piano-organs, and street pianos, and with the instruments' owners, to ensure that these mechanical devices were furnished with the latest songs. Pluggers, in turn, paid the operators of the street instruments to play outside a theater after a performance featuring the song the plugger was pushing. In effect, street musicians commercialized the space outside the theater as plants and paid performers were commercializing it inside.”
[From Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music, by David Suisman, Harvard University Press, 2009. pg. 73.]

Organ with folding book

In the late 19th century, pneumatic organs using punched paper rolls or punched cardboard folding books began to replace the barrels. Punched paper was cheaper to produce than pinned barrels and offered a chance to play a much greater variety of music. All the organ grinder had to do was to put on a new roll or book.

The idea to use punched cards began in 1801 when Joseph Jacquard invented a loom that used a series of punched cards to weave a complex pattern of threads into cloth. The 1890 census was tabulated with punched cards. Punched card tabulation eventually led to the computers of today.

Punched paper rolls are still being produced today for the organs that are made in Britain and Germany. And, in this electronic age, it is even possible to get a small street organ that plays music using a changeable electronic packet. MIDI files accomplish digitally and electronically what piano rolls do mechanically.

Old organ grinder illustration

The organ grinder himself has been the subject of adoration as well as contempt. Until the invention of the phonograph and radio, the organ grinder brought the only music that many people, especially the poorer folks in cities, heard. That is why illustrations of organ grinders often show children or adults dancing around him. It might not have been great music, by today's audio standards, but it was a rare and desired commodity for many in those days. People gave the organ grinder coins to show their appreciation.

Although the use of any animal would help attract attention, the monkey was often used because he had a thumb and could carry a cup to collect coins. Training the monkey to do this often involved what we would today consider to be cruel methods. However, it was possible for a man to support his family with enough hours on the street. Old organ grinder illustration
Old organ grinder illustration Organ grinders were also despised or even feared. The authorities in 17th and 18th century Europe were often afraid of itinerant musicians because they carried information and news from place to place, and they sometimes stirred up trouble. That is why organ grinders often had to obtain licenses to play. Sometimes the licenses were granted to disabled soldiers in lieu of pensions or medical care. Organ grinders were also disliked because they were typically foreigners or because they used small children in their acts. Often times, it must be admitted, the organ was not kept in tune and the music was just not very musical.

There are very few organ grinders today who try to make a living at this activity anywhere in the world. Thus, the organ grinder you might see at a fair or band organ rally is there to entertain you with a bit a happy music and to keep alive interest in these old instruments and the music that they can produce.

Drawing of Terry by Charles Ott This drawing of Terry with his Raffin Street Organ and mechanical friends was done in graphite by the late art professor and artist Charles Ott who lived in Woodbridge, Virginia when he made this drawing.









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Postcards with Organ Grinders

Back in the heyday of postcards, the image of an organ grinder was sometimes used as an illustration. Some were actual photo cards. Many were humerous cartoons and drawings. There were light hearted valentines, and Easter cards with bunnies or chickens as organ grinders.

Photo Postcard A handcolored photograph was used to make this postcard.

Postcard CoupleThis postcard illustration reflects the not uncommon practice of the organ grinder's wife or companion playing tambourine as part of the street act.

Postcard Valentine "A famous musician you will be! With pleasure I'll cast my lot with thee".


The Organ Grinders' Garden

    by Mildred Plew Meigs

In the winter, in the winter,
When the clouds shake    snow,
I know a little garden
Where the organ grinders    go;

A cozy little garden
Where the fountain makes a    fizz
And round about the lattices
The sunbeams sizz;

Where underneath the    bushes
In the nodding afternoons,
The frisky little organs sit
And spill their tinky tunes;

While tingle, tingle, tangle,
Go the pennies in the cup,
As all the baby monkeys
Practice picking pennies up.

In the winter, in the winter,
When the sharp winds blow,
I know a little garden
Where the organ grinders    go;

A giddy little garden
Where the fruit is always    ripe,
And every grinning grinder
Sits and pulls upon a pipe;

While all the father monkeys
Hang their fezzes on the    twigs,
And teach the baby    monkeys
How to master little jigs;

Until at last the mothers    come,
As day begins to fade,
And tuck the baby monkeys    up
To snoozle in the shade.

In the winter, in the winter,
When the clouds shake    snow,
I know a little garden
Where the organ grinders    go;

A garden where the    grinders
And the monkeys on a    string
Are pleased to wait    serenely
For the coming of the    spring.

From: The Organ Grinders' Garden-Poems Younger Children Love, Compiled by Marjorie Barrows, Rand McNally, 1938.

Thanks goes to Mildred Hardman for giving us the book with this poem.