Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Street Organs, Hurdy Gurdies, and Dominic Ianetta of Boston 1900


The Boston Globe, September 9, 1900

My son-in-law's 2nd great grandfather, Dominic Ianetta (1865 - 1952) was a well known musician in Boston's Italian North End.  He lived on Hanover Street, and was listed in various census records and city directories as a piano tuner, musician, and "hurdy gurdy man".  He must have been one of the more talented and famous organ grinders in Boston because the city set up a semi-annual inspection process for street performers, including street organs, and Dominis Ianetta was part of the team.  

Several Boston police officers along with some city musicians were part of the inspections for street organs.  This process must have been intriguing to the public because I was able to find newspaper stories about the inspections every year in the early 1900s.  This one digitized below is one of the earliest.  WARNING:  this article contains language that would not be considered politically correct today, but absolutely racist and offensive. 


They Play for Prof. Patterson and Mr. Yannetta With Their

Organs and Pianos and Receive Certificates

Prof. Patterson, Mus. D. (doctor of music), left police headquarters in Pemberton square yesterday morning and went down to the North end.  He was neatly clad in a suit of blue, shirt with broad pink stripes and brown derby hat.  His path was strewn with the solemn salutes of the piccolo soloist, the aged violinist, and the picker of a harp who had not yet joined the angel, all of the school Italian.

The professor had advertised a musicale by his pupils, to be held at 213A Hanover st, up over a cigar store, and the inhabitants of the neighborhood were anxiously waiting for the first strains of a fuge to strike their listening ears.

The writer, with a lithograph ticket for the show, arrived at the opera house on time, but failed momentarily in locating the entrance to the auditorium.  The alley was chock full of hurdy gurdies, but not an artist in the whole lot was able to direct the inquirer either to the family circle or the office of the manager.  At station 1, next door, the man behind the rail could give no information concerning the concert, notwithstanding that it was to given under the auspices of the city of Boston.  He referred the reporter to the tobacconist.

The trail finally led to the upper floor at 213A, where Mr. Patterson was found sitting at a small table, a pen in hand and a bottle of red ink within reach.  He was engaged in filling out official blanks with figures which made them look like this:




Approved 9 -7.       Approved __________________

When Mr. Patterson is not busy with instrumental music as a teacher and critic, his duties as a special policeman attached to headquarters cause him to ........ pality on the lookout for gentlemen and ladies who beg for a living.  He is equally successful in both lines of his profession, detecting an unworthy solicitor for alms, even more quickly than a false note emanating from a barrel organ.

Inspection Semiannually

Twice a year the street musicians are compelled by the police department to line up for an inspection of the instruments of melody that grind out classics and ragtime from door to door.  June and September are the months in which their machines are put to the strenuous test, and this is September.

"We do not expect symphonic strains," remarked the professor, "but we do insist that the tunes that are played shall not cause distress to the public because of lack of real harmony.  Technique is not necessary.  But monkeys are barred."

Mr. Patterson was joined by Mr. Yanetta, a musical inspector, who has an expert knowledge of the vitals of a hurdy-gurdy, and together they descended to the alley where itinerant musicians and their decorated boxes on wheels were gathered for the first grand musicale of the fall of 1900. 

"Numero!" shouted the professor to one of the Italian artists. Or perhaps he exclaimed "Numera!".  The pronunciation either was not quite distinct, or else the writer, being unacquainted with foreign languages, did not catch the sound correctly as uttered.

Absolute silence - and a wide opening of eyes.

Mr. Patterson, so it seems, is a linguist in addition to his other qualifications as a valuable servant of the municipality.  But he had to admit that he couldn't just follow all the dialects that are in vogue around station 1.

At last Antonio Somebody got it into his head that the doctor of music from headquarters desired to know the number of his old license, and furnished the information that it was 206.

"Play away", ordered the professor.

The French organ, worked by an Italian, threw out into the air a concerto in F that would have sent a thrill of exquisite delight through every fiber of Philip Hale.  In the windows of the station house, facing the alley, just as the bejeweled ladies sit in the boxes at the grand opera, sat the gold-laced officers of the force, drinking in every note as it rose toward the roof and fell back with a thud on the pavement.  It was all free to them.  What the night patrolmen, who were trying to sleep upstairs, thought of the musicale, would probably not be fit to print.

"That will do," said the professor.

Mr. Yannetta repeated the phrase in a foreign tongue.

"Get out of the alley," added the professor, and out went the man and machine without any translation of those words.

"You're Flat"

An Italian with a street piano took off the cover which hid the works, being extremely careful not to mar the picture of a fight between the Chinks and allies which adorned its surface. 

"Play away," said Mr. Patterson, as he dropped on one knee beside an empty fruit box, and with his pen and red ink proceeded to fill out the certificate for the French organ that had passed muster and was licensed to make music for another six months in Boston.

Sousa's march was rattling around in the alley.

"Out of tune," exclaimed Mr. Yanetta.

"You're flat!" broke in Mr. Patterson with energy.

The artist at the handle of the crank simply stared in amazement.

"Tell him he wants to get some new wires," added Mr. Patterson.

Mr. Yannetta explained in Italian to the man, who temporarily failed to secure his card, that the piano would be all right when tuned a bit.

"Get out of the alley," said the professor.

Thus a dozen or more pianos and organs were critically examined, and the new certificates numbered, were pasted on the instruments, where they can be seen day or night, on the streets, for purpose of identification.

Mr. Patterson, special office, M. D. hunter of hoboes and linguist of no mean ability, declared that he must hurry up and get to court, and the musicale in the alley came to an abrupt close with his sudden departure.

There are some 500 hurdy gurdies in the city which are inspected semi-annually.  The inspection of street bands, fiddlers, harpists, and piccolo players, takes place in the office of the professor, up at headquarters, in Pemberton sq." 

Photograph of a street organ by Andrzej Barabasz (Chepry) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80060  

For more information on Dominic Ianetta and his family, see this blog post from earlier this month:



To Cite/Link to this blog post: Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Street Organs, Hurdy Gurdies, and Dominic Ianetta of Boston 1900", Nutfield Genealogy, posted March 29, 2022, ( https://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2022/03/street-organs-hurdy-gurdies-and-dominic.html: accessed [access date]).  

1 comment:

  1. I never knew that these folks had to be inspected! TY for sharing.