The A to Z Challenge – O for Organ Grinder

The A to Z Challenge is on! Hello and welcome to my Main blog. My name is Rose Anderson and I’m a romance novelist. Join me and more than 2279 bloggers and authors as we blog the alphabet throughout the month of April. My daily posts will be mostly history with some science topics here and there. I’ve chosen subjects that tickle my fancy, I hope you will find them interesting too.

Keep the topic rolling! If you have comments or questions, add them at the end of the post. I may not know the answer off the top of my head but I love research and would enjoy discussing my topics further. Comments can be made just below my bio in the tag section.

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Today’s Calliope’s Writing Tablet post is brought to you by the letter O ~
O for Organ Grinder

I grew up with a set of old Childcraft books. Mostly, they seemed to be how-to books for parents but there were four books in the set that were all stories, poems, crafts, and activities for kids. I loved those books and read them inside and out. In fact, I still have the main four packed away somewhere. I remember a poem from back then called The Organ Grinders’ Garden by Mildred Plew Meigs. I liked it because the wording was fun and the artwork was detailed. I love detail. But most of all I liked the poem because it had monkeys! My favorite bit was how the baby monkeys practiced picking pennies up off the ground. Funny how I pulled that out of thin air today. It’s only been 50+ years. It took some searching this morning because I couldn’t recall the authors name, but I found the poem:

In the winter, in the winter,
When the clouds shake snow,
I know a little garden
Where the organ grinders go;

A cozy little garden
Where the fountain makes a fizz
And round about the lattices
The sunbeams sizz;

Where underneath the bushes
In the nodding afternoons,
The frisky little organs sit
And spill their tinky tunes;

While tingle, tingle, tangle,
Go the pennies in the cup,
As all the baby monkeys
Practice picking pennies up.

In the winter, in the winter,
When the sharp winds blow,
I know a little garden
Where the organ grinders go;

A giddy little garden
Where the fruit is always ripe,
And every grinning grinder
Sits and pulls upon a pipe;

While all the father monkeys
Hang their fezzes on the twigs,
And teach the baby monkeys
How to master little jigs;

Until at last the mothers come,
As day begins to fade,
And tuck the baby monkeys up
To snoozle in the shade.

In the winter, in the winter,
When the clouds shake snow,
I know a little garden
Where the organ grinders go;

A garden where the grinders
And the monkeys on a string
Are pleased to wait serenely
For the coming of the spring.

Cute huh?

So, waking up as I did with Organ Grinders on my mind, I poured my coffee and went hunting for information for today’s post.

O for Organ
Organs themselves have a very long history and can be traced back to Ancient Greek inventor Ctesibius of Alexandria who wrote the first treatise on the science of compressed air a.k.a. pneumatics. From there he devised a  hydraulos — an instrument that used the power of water to force air through pipes which were then played. Curiously, they were not used to make music as we know it. The hydraulos was used to mimic bird song.

This hydraulos mechanism and the thought behind it would later become the serinette of the 1700’s — a small barrel organ that employed a crank, drop-in pins, and bellows to force air from the barrel and its small strategically placed holes through pipes. And like the hydraulos, the purpose of the serinette was to teach canaries to sing simple and particular tunes. Somewhere along the way an enterprising individual determined more pipes and pins could be added to the mechanism and actual melodies played beyond the canary tunes. This was the origin of the barrel organ the organ grinders would be known for playing it.

By the end of the 1800’s the barrels had been replaced by punched cardboard rolls similar to those used in mechanized weaving (Jacquard loom– also the origin of the computer punch-card). The cheap punched cardboard meant variety and variety drew larger crowds.

“Never hold discussions with the monkey when the organ grinder is in the room.”
~Winston Churchill

Before I continue, it’s important to note that people often confuse the organ grinder’s instrument with the hurdy gurdy. The latter is actually a string instrument played with keys whereas the organ is a wind instrument that is run rather than played.

thWhen one pictures the organ grinder of the Victorian streets, more often that not we see a mustachioed foreigner, perhaps right off the boat that just arrived from some Italian port. It took no particular skill to turn the crank and entertain for pennies. With jobs for immigrants hard to come by, getting yourself one of these gadgets so you could go busk for coin could at least put some food in your belly.

As far as the opinion of upper society went, organ grinders were little better than tinkers and gypsies. They fell in the same class as peddlers, ragmen, and circus performers. In general, how society felt about them was a mixed bag. Their itinerant nature brought news from place to place which was desired, and certainly their cheap entertainment was enjoyed by the working class. However, they were often treated with suspicion, as illustrated by Winston Churchill’s quote, and often for good reason. There are stories from the Victorian era about the organ grinders traveling with pickpocketing children who worked the crowds while the music played. And then there were the animals acts such as the monkey with the little fez who was taught to take off his hat to say thank you for the penny. Sometimes those monkeys, dogs, bears, parrots, etc attacked people.

Though not as easy to come by as it was in its heyday, this street theater hasn’t died out as you might imagine. It turns up at fairs and historical events.

Here’s an article about the aging organ grinders in Mexico City.

An image of a Parisian organ grinder and a very happy child doing her song and dance act. She could also be a shill to be sent out to pick pockets.

The person who posted that video has a youtube channel devoted to organ grinders if you’d like to see and hear more. 

😀 They make me think of summer which is good. We had snow here just the other day.

Tomorrow ~ letter P


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About ~RoseAnderson

Rose Anderson is an award-winning author and dilettante who loves great conversation and delights in discovering interesting things to weave into stories. Rose also writes under the pen name Madeline Archer.
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10 Responses to The A to Z Challenge – O for Organ Grinder

  1. Randi says:

    I love the poem! My family had those child craft books too. I have sweet memories of reading them and doing the crafts every summer and long winter afternoons.

  2. Weren’t those books wonderful? Those volumes and the My Book House books contributed to my sense of wonder as well as my writing today. I loved the Childcraft craft volume too. My husband built the squirrel-sided bookshelves featured in it. Remember that craft?

  3. What a delightful poem, Rose. Hadn’t heard of the Childcraft books or My Book House books. Will look out for them in used bookstores to entertain my grandson as he grows.

  4. rosgemmell says:

    Love that cute poem! We visited the most wonderful old music museum in Germany last year where all sorts of instruments (including organs) form the very earliest were on display. The lady guide allowed us to hear and see some of them and what a sound and sight it was!

  5. skmarshall2014 says:

    What a sweet poem, Rose. I’m not familiar with those books though.

  6. Sadonna says:

    Wonderful post 🙂 My mother had a preschool so we had the Childcraft books. I’m going to see if she saved any of them. When she finally retired after 40 years she donated or sold most of the things from her preschool but she did save quite a lot of books so hopefully we still have them. Fantastic memories.

  7. Ray G says:

    Modern technology has ruined it all. At least some of the simpler entertainment of the past like the organ grinder, the player piano and the steam calliope without which no circus parade is worth its salt.

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