The sudden demise of New York’s organ grinders

Organgrinder1873nyplNewspaper articles going back to the 1850s describe (and deride) them: Poor Italian immigrants who eked out a leaving cranking a hand organ on the street.

The organ grinder’s partner: a regally outfitted capuchin monkey who charmed crowds of onlookers, especially children, while tethered to a string soliciting coins.

“It is very poor music,” wrote Children’s Aid Society founder Charles Loring Brace in a sympathetic 1853 New York Times article about the “colony of Italians” living in Five Points at the time, “but it is the only music some of our neighbors can ever afford to hear.”


By 1880, with Italian immigration to Manhattan surging, nearly one in 20 Italian men in Five Points were organ grinders, wrote Tyler Anbinder in his book Five Points.

“An aspiring grinder could rent a hand organ for four dollars per month on Baxter Street, or buy one direct from the manufacturer a block away in Chatham Square,” stated Anbinder.


As for the monkeys, they were apparently purchased on Baxter Street as well.

The organ grinder-monkey team playing carnival-like music in warm weather was a popular street entertainment act for decades.

OrgangrindermayorlaGuardiaBut in 1936, they were outlawed. What happened? Blame the city’s recently elected Italian-American mayor, Fiorello La Guardia.

“He refused to renew the grinders’ licenses in 1936, saying that the radio and outdoor concerts had made them superfluous and that the city should discourage street begging,” wrote the New York Times‘ Michael Pollack in a 2006.

“By mayoral fiat he declared them public nuisances, ordered the police to roust them on sight and refused to relent, despite pleas from citizens.”

La Guardia may have had another reason for being so rankled by organ grinders: they became an Italian immigrant stereotype, which he personally resented.


“As an Army brat living near Prescott, Ariz., Fiorello suffered when an Italian organ grinder and his red-hatted monkey came to town,” explained Pollack. “‘Where’s your monkey?’ the children yelled, along with anti-Italian slurs, La Guardia recalled years later.”

[Top image: NYPL Digital Gallery, 1873; second image: LOC, 1910; third image: NYPL Digital Gallery, 1901; fifth image: one of New York’s last organ grinders, by Samuel Gottschow, 1935]

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10 Responses to “The sudden demise of New York’s organ grinders”

  1. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    that is so sad! The monkeys were well-taken care of; the Italians were kind; and there was some music in the neighborhood!

    Dreadful that they were outlawed! I can only hope they were kept as pets…..for their lifetimes.

    what horrific things “bias and racism” spread!!

    Shame on him!!

    ps monkeys are very smart animals….they wouldn’t perform without being treated kindly and given treats!
    (just my opinion!)

  2. 4 – The sudden demise of New York’s organ grinders – Official Blog Says:

    […] Startup article found at: […]

  3. Daniel M. Pliska Says:

    Just discovered your blog! Great historical notes, thanks for sharing.

  4. Bobby Costa Says:

    Let the “Little Flower” rid the city of slot machines. But Organ Grinders were the flavor of NYC. Just as the Hot Dog pushcarts are a symbol of our the present. Notwiithstanding the hansome cabs of Central Park.

  5. Sean Says:

    Robert L. Chapman in the New Dictionary of American Slang records that Bimbo was often the name of the monkey holding out the hat for organ grinders. Wasn’t Betty Boop’s little monkey friend called “Bimbo”?

  6. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Bimbo, I’d never heard that. Interesting!

  7. William Krause Says:

    The occasional appearance of an organ grinder always came to us children as a treat, never mind anyone’s ethnicity. And not to forget other street musicians, photographers with ponies in tow and, always nifty, the delivery of a piano thru the upper floor window of an apartment house. Cutlery sharpened, anyone? There’s much to savor in our history & I’m happy that ephemeral NY recalls it.

  8. Rich T Says:

    Betty Boops”s Bimbo was a dog-like creature. Do yourself a favor and Youtube “Bimbo’s Initiation”. One of the craziest cartoons ever made.

  9. Joly MacFie Says:

    The Organ Grinder s\Statute had a severely chilling effect in the lat50s/early 60s as it was used to crack down on folkies strumming in the streets and parks. Eventually this led to the Washington Square “Beatnik” riot in 1961

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