Here is one I have only seen once and it was not at a Ren Faire or a Victorian Fair, it was at a craft fair in Gatlinburg, TN but it was amazingly cool. The grinder in question did not have a monkey, apparently they were verboten at the Gatlinburg Convention Center but either way, he was in victorian dress and he sat there entertaining the kids and selling CDs of organ grinder music while he played – he had the hat out too. Very cool and it certainly sparked my interest.
Through doing some digging, it appears that the first organ grinder made its debut around 300 years ago in the 1700s. This means that during the industrial revolution and throughout the Victorian period, the organ grinder would have been heard in the streets of the great cities of Europe and in the New World as well. The organ grinder provided music that sounded the same all the time, it did n’t require any talent to work the device and in a time before radio and way before MP3 Players the organ grinder was pop-music.
Until the late 19th century, the organs used wooden barrels with pins or nails to carry the notes. As the barrel turned, the pins opened valves allowing air into the pipes. The air was provided by a bellows pumped by the same crank that turned the barrel.
Simple. Elegant. Easy to use and they made a wonderful sound that could be duplicated. Large street organs would have 6-8 songs in them due to the sheer volume of pins that could be used. At the end of the late 19th century, the street organ changed to using a paper roll and the rolls could be changed to allow these organs to have even more diversity.
Now for the monkeys…
The monkey was one of many animals that were used to attract attention to the organ grinder so that they could make some extra money. The reason though, that the monkey is so tied to the organ grinder, is the fact that the monkey has a thumb and could be trained to carry a cup and collect the money from the passersby. Some cities outlawed the monkeys before they outlawed the grinders themselves. The monkeys were thought to carry disease. The grinder themselves would be outlawed later in part due to the copyright laws that were being passed but also because of distrust. People saw the organ grinder as a beggar. They saw the organ grinders a drifter that brought information from other places and could help incite crowds. Either way, the advent of easier ways to get music around to the people pushed the organ grinder out of his profession.
A garden where the grinders
And the monkeys on a string
Are pleased to wait serenely
For the coming of the spring.
-from The Organ Grinders’ Garden