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.
“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]