Street Organs are the devices played by organ grinders. They were generally considered more of a nuisance than a pleasure by many people, not only due to their abundance in major cities, but also due to the repetitive nature of their repertoire. Many manufacturers required that the instruments be returned to the factory for new barrels to be installed to prevent these complaints, but grinders rarely bother to do this, so the songs were the same day after day. One British journalist explained that grinders were often “paid for their silence, not their sound.” They were fairly prolific by 1810. The ability to easily change the music of a hand-cranked street organ came as result of the application of weaving technology to the organ. Jacquard looms, designed for the weaving industry, 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 is the same technology used for 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 became antiquated. By the early 1900's, their reputation definitely suffered.
A Harper’s Weekly article published in 1867 called “The Music of the Street” read: “The able-bodied organ-grinders of New York are nearly all Italians, who have left their native hillsides with strange ideas of this blessed land of liberty, and reaching here are very much astonished to hear the first official authority in the land declare that "freedom means the liberty to work", and that men actually have to work for their daily bread. Naturally they seize upon pursuits that require no previous preparation or acquaintance with the language, and become either fruit-dealers, image-peddlers, or organ-grinders - generally the latter. It has long been a custom both here and in Europe for speculative Italians to induce their countrymen to emigrate by paying their passage and loaning them organs for street music. The conditions are that a certain sum shall be brought home nightly, the over-plus being retained by the employee. This business has been conducted in past years with great success, and has in many instances realized moderate fortunes. In this city there are establishments also where organs are loaned for about twenty-five cents a day, to itinerants, who often realize from two to three dollars daily by their use.”
Later, the Harrisburg Patriot printed “Monkey Tricks: How They Are Trained For Monkey Tricks,” on July 11, 1889: "There has not been so large a demand for the little hand organ monkeys," said Mr. Reiche, "since the Common Council of New York refused to issue licenses to the Italians two years ago. Previous to that time we used to sell as many as two hundred and fifty ring-tailed monkeys each year to the organ grinders. This kind of monkey comes from South America, principally from Brazil. They are shipped in lots of twenty-five. They are classed by the trade as the Crown or Capuchin variety. Why the Italians prefer this species is a matter of conjecture, as there are many other kinds which would answer the purpose equally as well. The ring-tail, however, is very quick of perception, and learns rapidly. As the interdiction of monkeys has not extended beyond the corporate limits of New York, the organ grinder who has a tamed monkey is obliged to exhibit it in the country towns in the vicinity, although he sometimes makes long journeys with his little companion perched upon his organ.”
Charles Dickens, in London, complained to friends about how the music would drive him to distraction while he tried to write in his street-front studio.
These barrel organs were extremely popular prior to 1900, but produced up to the 1930s in some regions. They are operated by pinned wooden cylinders. Hand cranking limited their size, but made them extremely rugged since they do not rely on fragile pneumatic elements to work. They were played in New York City pretty much until 1935, when Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia banned them from the streets. His arguments for doing so including traffic congestion, the involvement of organized crime in renting the machines to the grinders, and the 'begging' element of them. After that, hundreds of machines were destroyed, their music lost forever. The law was repealed in 1975, but the damage was done. The street organ was a thing of the past.