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Street organ facts for kids

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Karlsplatz Christmas Market Vienna (11)
Organ-grinder in Vienna

A street organ played by an organ grinder is an automatic mechanical pneumatic organ designed to be mobile enough to play its music in the street. The two most commonly seen types are the smaller German and the larger Dutch street organ.


Organ grinder with monkey
An organ grinder with a monkey, 1892.

The first descriptions of the street organ, at that time always a barrel organ owing to its use of a pinned cylinder (barrel) to operate levers and play notes, can be found in literature as early as the late 18th century. Many were built by Italian organ builders who had settled in France and Germany, creating companies such as Frati, Gavioli, Gasparini and Fassano. These early organs had more pipes than the serinette, could play more than one tune, and were considerably larger, in sizes up to 75 cm (29 in) long and 40 cm (16 in) deep. Wooden bass pipes were placed underneath the organ and on the front were often mounted a set of pan-flutes or piccolo pipes, with decorative finishes.

In many towns in Europe the barrel street organ was not just a solo performer, but used by a group of musicians as part of a story-telling street act, together with brightly coloured posters and sing-along sessions. In New York City, the massive influx of Italian immigrants led to a situation where by 1880 nearly one in 20 Italian men in certain areas were organ grinders.

The barrels used were heavy, held only a limited number of tunes, and could not easily be upgraded to play the latest hits, which greatly limited the musical and practical ability of these instruments.

In New York, where monkeys were commonly used by organ grinders, mayor Fiorello La Guardia banned the instruments from the streets in 1935, citing traffic congestion, the "begging" inherent in the profession, and organized crime's role in renting out the machines. An unfortunate consequence was the destruction of hundreds of organs, the barrels of which contained a record of the popular music of the day. Before the invention of the cylinder record player, this was the only permanent recording of these tunes. The law that banned barrel organs in New York was repealed in 1975 but that mode of musical performance had become obsolete by then.

Many cities in the United Kingdom also had ordinances prohibiting organ grinders. The authorities often encouraged policemen to treat the grinders as beggars or public nuisances.

In the Netherlands the street organ was no more popular initially, but thanks to several organ hire companies who took particular pride in the condition, sound and repertoire of their instruments, the public there became more accepting of the orgelman (organ man) and as a result the tradition of playing an organ on the street entered Dutch culture where they remained a common sight until the beginning of the 21st century; they have all but vanished, since.

In Paris there were a limited number of permits for organ grinders, and entry in that reserved circle was based on a waiting list or seniority system.

According to Ord-Hume the disappearance of organ grinders from European streets was in large part due to the early application of national and international copyright laws. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century European publishers of sheet music and the holders of copyrights to the most popular operatic tunes of the day often banded together in order to enforce collection of performance duties from any musician playing their property in any venue. When faced with notaries and the hounding of other legal representatives of the music industry of the time, in addition to the other sources of hostility mentioned above organ grinders soon disappeared.

Organ grinders

An organ grinder in Mexico City

The organ grinder was a musical novelty street performer of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, and refers to the operator of a street or barrel organ.

Period literature often represents the grinder as a gentleman of ill repute or as an unfortunate representative of the lower classes. Newspaper reporters would sometimes describe them cynically or jocularly as minor extortionists who were paid to keep silent, given the repetitious nature of the music. Later depictions would stress the romantic or picturesque aspects of the activity. Whereas some organ grinders were very likely itinerants or vagabonds, many, certainly in New York, were Italian immigrants who chose to be street performers in order to support their families.

The stereotypical organ grinder was a man, bearing a medium-sized barrel organ held in front of him and supported by a hinged or removable wooden stick or leg that was strapped to the back of the organ. The strap around his neck would balance the organ, leaving one hand free to turn the crank and the other to steady the organ. A tin cup on top of the organ or in the hand of a companion, was used to solicit payments for his performance.

Moving away from the stereotype, in reality the size of the street organ varied from a tiny barrel organ with only 20 or fewer pipes, weighing only a few pounds, through medium-sized instruments containing forty or more pipes, mounted on a hand-pushed trolley, up to large ornately decorated book-operated organs, with hundreds of pipes weighing several hundred pounds. The largest organs were usually mounted on a cart, and required a team of operators to move, particularly in the Netherlands when crossing the steep canal bridges of Amsterdam streets. The most elaborate organs would have mechanical figures or automata mounted on top of or in the front of the case, along with percussion instruments.

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Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Organito para niños

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