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ITALIAN STREET MUSICIANS - 1872

by James D. Mccabe, Jr - It would be interesting to know the number of street musicians to be found in New York.  Judging from outward appearances, it must be their most profitable field, for one cannot walk two blocks in any part of the city without hearing one or more musical instruments in full blast. 

A few are good and in perfect tone, but the majority emit only the most horrible discords. Prominent among the street musicians are the organ grinders, who in former days monopolized the business.  They are mostly Italians, though one sees among them Germans, Frenchmen, Swiss, and even Englishmen and Irishmen.  Against these people there seems to be an especial, and a not very reasonable prejudice. 

A lady, eminent for her good deeds among the poor of the Five Points, once said, “There is no reason why an organ grinder should be regarded as an altogether discreditable member of the community; his vocation is better than that of begging, and he certainly works hard enough for the pennies thrown to him, lugging his big box around the city from morning until night.”  To this good word for the organ grinder it may be added that he is generally an inoffensive person, who attends closely to his business during the day, and rarely ever falls into the hands of the police.  Furthermore, however much grown people with musical tastes may be annoyed, the organ grinders furnish an immense amount of amusement and pleasure to the children; and in some of the more wretched sections provide all the music that the little ones ever hear.

Very few of them own their organs.  There are several firms in the city who manufacture or import hand organs, and p. 325from these the majority of the grinders rent their instruments.  The rent varies from two to twenty dollars per month, the last sum being paid for the French flute organs, which are the best.  The owners of the instruments generally manage to inspire the grinders with a profound terror of them, so that few instruments are carried off unlawfully, and, after all, the organ grinders are more unfortunate than dishonest.

Organ grinding in New York was once a very profitable business, and even now pays well in some instances.  Some of the grinding fraternity have made money.  One of these was Francisco Ferrari, who came to this city ten years ago.  He invested the money he brought with him in a hand organ and a monkey, and in about five years made money enough to return to Italy and purchase a small farm.  He was not content in his native land, however, and soon returned to New York with his family and resumed his old trade.  He is said to be worth about twenty thousand dollars.

At present, in fair weather, a man with a good flute organ can generally make from two to five dollars a day.  Those who have the best and sweetest toned instruments seek the better neighborhoods, where they are always sure of an audience of children whose parents pay well.  Some of these musicians earn as much as ten and fifteen dollars in a single day.  In bad weather, however, they are forced to be idle, as a good organ cannot be exposed to the weather at such times without being injured.

A monkey is a great advantage to the grinder, as the animal, if clever, is sure to draw out a host of pennies from the crowd which never fails to gather around it.  The monkey is generally the property of the grinder.  It is his pet, and it is interesting to see the amount of affection which exists between the two.  If the grinder is a married man, or has a daughter or sister, she generally accompanies him in his rounds.  Sometimes girls and women make regular business engagements of this kind with the grinders, and receive for their services in beating the tambourine, or soliciting money from the bystanders, a certain fixed proportion of the earnings of the day.

If the organ grinder be successful in his business, he has every opportunity for saving his money.  Apart from the rent of his organ, his expenses are slight.  Few, however, save very much, as but few are able to earn the large sums we have mentioned.  The grinders pay from five to eight dollars per month for their rooms, and they and their families live principally upon macaroni.  They use but a single room for all purposes, and, no matter how many are to be provided with sleeping accommodations, manage to get along in some way.  As a general rule, they are better off here than they were in their own country, for poverty has been their lot in both.  Their wants are simple, and they can live comfortably on an amazingly small sum.  The better class of Italians keep their apartments as neat as possible.  Children of a genial clime, they are fond of warmth, and the temperature of their rooms stands at a stage which would suffocate an American.  They are very exclusive, and herd by themselves in a section of the Five Points.  Baxter and Park and the adjoining streets are taken up to a great extent with Italians.

This is the life of the fortunate members of the class.  There are many, however, who are not so lucky.  These are the owners or renters of the majority of the street organs, the vile, discordant instruments which set all of one’s nerves a tingling.  They earn comparatively little, and are not tolerated by the irate householders whose tastes they offend.  The police treat them with but small consideration.  The poor wretches are nearly always in want, and soon full into vagrancy, and some into vice and crime.  Some of them are worthless vagabonds, and nearly all the Italians accused of crime in the city are included in their number.  One of these men is to be seen on the Bowery at almost any time.  He seats himself on the pavement, with his legs tucked under him, and turns the crank of an instrument which seems to be a doleful compromise between a music box and an accordion.  In front of this machine is a tin box for pennies, and by the side of it is a card on which is printed an appeal to the charitable.  At night a flickering tallow dip sheds a dismal glare around.  The man’s head is tied up in a piece of white muslin, his eyes are closed, and his face and posture are p. 327expressive of the most intense misery.  He turns the crank slowly, and the organ groans and moans in the most ludicrously mournful manner.  At one side of the queer instrument sits a woman with a babe at her breast, on the other side sits a little boy, and a second boy squats on the ground in front.  Not a sound is uttered by any of the group, who are arranged with genuine skill.  Their whole attitude is expressive of the most fearful misery.  The groans of the organ cannot fail to attract attention, and there are few kind-hearted persons who can resist the sight.  Their pennies and ten-cent stamps are showered into the tin box, which is never allowed to contain more than two or three pennies.  The man is an Italian, and is said by the police to be a worthless vagabond.  Yet he is one of the most successful musicians of his class in the city.

From: “Lights and Shadows of New York life; or, the sights and sensations of a great city.” by James D. Mccabe, Jr