During the past few days, we here at Forgotten Stories have taken a dizzying array of subways to and from Manhattan as New York’s transportation system gradually puts itself back in order. Noticeably absent during these rather extended trips has been that typical habitué of the rails, the subway entertainer. Typically our commute is joined by someone who makes their daily bread singing, playing an instrument, or dancing within the confines of the subway car itself or in the station, but Hurricane Sandy seems to have driven them away, hopefully to someplace of safety.
Little do these subway performers know (and we do not trouble to tell them), that much of their modus vivendi is reminiscent of the organ grinder of over a century ago. In New York of the 1870s and 1880s, organ grinder was big business, and an 1889 newspaper report estimates some 500 worked in the City. To service them were two organ manufacturers, from whom the grinders rented the instruments at a rate of $4 to $5 per month. The organs themselves weighed some 60 pounds, and the grinders plied the streets of the metropolis, turning a hand crank, which rotated an interior cylinder, and the same tune repeated itself over and over again.
The grinders were typically Italians, and since organ grinding paid about $7 per week, typically poor after the rent for the organ and $8 per month for a room in a crowded tenement were subtracted. To these fixed costs, an organ grinder with an eye on upward mobility in grinder circles typically added a monkey, trained at one of New York’s four monkey trainers. The cost of a trained monkey could range from $150 to $200. This was quite an investment for the grinder, but well worth it considering that the monkey typically attracted children (and their pennies) to an organ grinders performance.
In November of 1889, under pressure and probably a bit of financial stimulation from the Musicians Union, in which the organ grinders were unrepresented, Mayor Hugh J. Grant banned organ grinders from the streets of Manhattan. Although the grinders argued their case to the Mayor in person, and had the full support of the newspapers, the Mayor refused to relent, and the grinder disappeared from the City.
Far from ending on that particularly sad note, let’s finish off with an organ grinder cartoon. We laughed out loud at the gag about four minutes in (keep an eye out for Harpo too!). Enjoy!