organ grinder monkey barrel organs street strasse orgel history mechanical music punched rolls

Please note that these notes are of no value whatsoever for any kind of educational purpose, especially if you want to pass a test or speak intelligently on the subject!

The hand-cranked street organ began life in the eighteenth century as a little tiny hand-cranked table organ that was designed to teach song birds how to sing pretty little songs. These bird organs were called serinettes in French, but then they have a different word for everything.

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Here a gentle lady is cranking her serinette, proof positive that folks in the 1700's had way too much time on their hands.

Serinettes contained all the basic elements of the modern street organ - bellows, pipes, and a way of making the pipes sound at the right time, which in this case was a barrel with little pins sticking out of it. These pins would hit keys which in turn would open valves which let air go to the pipes.
The serinette was soon adopted by wandering troubadours and other ne'er-do-wells.The only problem with serinettes was that they produced a very small, bird-like sound. As performers demanded a fuller sound, organs were built with larger pipes and bellows, and interchangeable barrels. Thus the instruments we would recognize as barrel organs were developed.

organ grinder monkey barrel organs street strasse orgel history mechanical music punched rolls

This scruffy looking character is shown playing a serinette in about 1772. Wandering troubadours did this for a living, seldom passing the hat for local charities. Note the cool boots.

Barrel organs were very popular, at least with organ grinders. They were considered a nuisance by many people, not only due to their abundance in major cities, but due to the repetitive nature of their repertoire. Many makers required that their instruments be returned to the factory for a new barrel to be installed, so most grinders simply didn't bother. They were content to grind out the same old few songs day after day after day after day - you get the picture.
One British journalist of the day noted that an itinerant organ grinder was paid "for his silence and not his sounds".

To read an incredibly depressing story about an organ grinder's life in the 1800's, click here.

To read an 1871 account of thievishness on the part of wandering crank musicians, click here.

To read a romanticized view of an organ grinder, with images from an 1894 magazine article and other images, click here.

To read how monkeys were trained by immigrant organ grinders in the 1800's, click here.

organ grinder monkey barrel organs street strasse orgel history mechanical music punched rolls

Here is a rare old photograph of a grinder and his cart-mounted organ on the Isle of Wight, from the early part of this century. From the author's collection.

The ability to easily change the music of a hand-cranked street organ was the result of the application of weaving technology to the organ. Jacquard looms were controlled by cards in which holes were punched. These holes were read by a mechanism on the loom, and the pattern was reproduced exactly every time. (This same technology was used as punch cards in the early days of electronic computers.)
Taking a page from the weaver's book, this method of controlling musical instruments, and specifically an organ, was first used in 1861. However, just as things got rolling with this new technology, so did the reproducing phonograph, and the hand-cranked street organ was relegated to museums and memories.
Of course, the mechanical organ continued to develop into dance organs and the magnificent street organs you can still hear in the streets of Amsterdam, but small, hand-cranked street organs are a rare treat today!

organ grinder monkey barrel organs street strasse orgel history mechanical music punched rolls

This is neither the author nor one of his instruments, but rather a figure used in the Mexican Dio de los Muertes celebrations. Handsome organist, huge organ, and ugly dog/monkey!
From the author's collection.

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