Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The organ grinder was a street musician of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. 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 him cynically or jocularly as a minor extortionist, being paid to keep silent, given the repetitious nature of his music. Later depictions would stress the romantic or picturesque aspects of this activity. Nearly all grinders were itinerants or vagabonds.
Exceptionally, the grinder could be a woman, or some small children, cranking away on a smaller organ or on a large organ mounted on a donkey. More often than not the grinder was a man, bearing a medium sized barrel organ held in front of him and supported by a strap around his neck, leaving one hand free to crank and the other to solicit payements for his performance. The organ would sometimes have a single hinged or removable leg. There was also a minority of endless variations, from the tiny monkey-cranked box, to the huge barrel organ placed on a cart, with mechanical automatons mounted on top of it.
The grinder would crank the barrel organ in a public place, walking around more or less briskly in order not to be arrested for loitering or be chased by persons who would not appreciate hearing his single tune over and over again. The grinder would often have as a companion a White-headed Capuchin monkey who would collect the money from the audience and sometimes do tricks. Many cities in the United Kingdom had ordinances prohibiting organ grinders. The authorities often encouraged policemen to treat the grinders as beggars or public nuisances. In Paris there was a limited number of permits for organ grinders, and entry in that reserved circle was based on a waiting list or seniority system.
Music lovers usually hated the organ grinders, since most grinders seemed to be tone deaf and lacking any sense of rhythm: They apparently were not interested in keeping their instrument in tune or cranking at a rate suited to the music which was "programmed" in their barrel organ. City dwellers who needed some measure of quiet for their writings or their scientific reflections could absolutely loathe organ grinders. Charles Dickens wrote to a friend that he could not write for more than half an hour without being disturbed by the most excruciating sounds imaginable, coming in from barrel organs on the street. Charles Babbage was a particularly virulent enemy of the organ grinders. He would chase them around town, complain to authorities about their noisy presence, and forever ask the police to arrest them.
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.
There are still persons, at the beginning of the 2nd millennium, who own and sometimes operate a barrel organ on a street. They have very little in common with the calling of the organ grinder of yore. For instance, it is considered lucky for a couple in Denmark to have a barrel organ playing outside on the morning of their 25th wedding anniversary, thus creating a small niche for professional musicians or musicologists capable of tuning one of the few surviving barrel organs, and interested in maintaining an old tradition, on their spare time.
- Ord-Hume, Arthur W.J G. Barrel Organ: The Story of the Mechanical Organ and Its Repair. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978.
- Reblitz, Arthur A., Q. David Bowers. Treasures of Mechanical Music. New York: The Vestal Press, 1981.
- Smithsonian Institution. History of Music Machines. New York: Drake Publishers, 1975.
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