Posts Tagged ‘Italian immigrants in New York City’

The sudden demise of New York’s organ grinders

January 5, 2015

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]

A rag-picker’s harsh life on Mulberry Street

September 29, 2011

Rag-picker: It’s a job title that ceased to exist in New York after the turn of the 20th century.

But it used to be a career choice of sort for poor residents, who eked out a living sorting through refuse on city streets.

Cloth, paper, glass—they’d resell whatever they found to recyclers.

So many (typically Italian) rag-pickers lived in Lower Manhattan that one Mulberry Street nook was called Rag-Picker’s Court.

It’s unclear exactly where the court was, but this 1881 New York Times article mentions several Mulberry Street addresses.

“A cellar in the front house opens to the street, and peering down one sees a score of men and women half buried in piles of dirty rags and paper which they are sorting and packing for the mill,” explains America Revisited, published in 1882, about Rag-Picker’s Court.

“Lines in the yard are strung with them. . . . Some have been drawn through the wash-tub to get rid of the worst of the dirt, but for the most part they are hung up just as they are taken from the bags, and left for the rain to cleanse and the sun to bleach them.”

[Above illustration of Rag-Picker’s Court from 1871; photo by Alice Austen, rag-pickers in 1896]

From Plaza Hotel cook to Chef Boyardee

November 15, 2010

Born Hector Boiardi in northern Italy, the future inventor of Beefaroni immigrated to New York as a teenager around 1917.

His brother Paul worked as a waiter at one of the restaurants of the Plaza Hotel. He helped Hector get a job there as a cook.

In the 1920s Hector moved to Cleveland, where he opened his own Italian restaurant and also sold take-home versions of his pasta and sauces. Paul became a maitre d’hotel at the Plaza.

One night, A&P head John Hartford came to the Plaza for spaghetti. Paul Boiardi prepared him some based on Hector’s recipe, telling Hartford that his brother was trying to get a national line of Italian foods produced.

Hartford offered to help—and soon, the Chef Boyardee brand introduced Italian food to millions in the 1940s.

The saint entombed in Washington Heights

January 23, 2010

Born in Italy in 1850, Frances Xavier Cabrini arrived in New York City in 1889, along with thousands of other European immigrants.

But instead of seeking a more prosperous life for herself in America, she came to New York to launch schools, orphanages, and hospitals for the poor—particularly in the impoverished Italian neighborhoods springing up all over the city.

By 1896, she had opened a school on the Lower East Side, an orphanage upstate, and Columbus Hospital in the East 20s. (It eventually morphed into Cabrini Medical Center, which closed in 2008.)

She even became a U.S. citizen in 1909 and lived for a time in Washington Heights.

Her death in 1917 was followed by beatification in 1938. Pope Pius XII then canonized her in 1946 and made her the patron saint of immigrants. 

Now, she’s back in Upper Manhattan.

Her body—well, actually a wax replica of it, according to The New York Times—has been on display in a glass box at a shrine at Mother Cabrini High School on Fort Washington Avenue for decades.

Tenement life in turn of the century New York

May 9, 2009

An Italian immigrant family in the kitchen of their East Side apartment, date unknown, photographed by Jessie Tarbox Beals. That gas stove to the right looks awfully dangerous.


This must be an old-law tenement; the apartments in these buildings weren’t required to have ventilation in each room. The window facing the kitchen appears to look into a smaller room or closet.