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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

Music for the Poor

The organ grinder and his monkey were an integral part of the late nineteenth-century street life.

We may envision a scene with a mischievous monkey dancing to the circus-type music of an organ grinder.

Not only was it a primary source of income for the street musicians themselves, but the business of renting the instruments and selling monkeys was lucrative as well.

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.

“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.”


As long as I remembered the narrow canvas cots, the cellar was not so bad. And, it was much better than any other place at Five Points, where we were overcrowded with wretched drunks, degraded women, Italian rag pickers, and even the organ player’s monkey—the vilest of all—crammed together so tightly that we often couldn’t move freely when we slept. Many people were sick, as we were surrounded by death.

~August Wood, February 15, 1873 - Fall River, MA ~

© The Angels' Lament

Etched in Granite Historical Fiction Series: Book Two


Anbinder, Tyler, "Five Points." Free Press. New York, 2010

New York Times, 1853, Archives

Image: LOC, 1910; Bain Collection


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