Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Dominic Ianetta "The Hurdy Gurdy Czar" of Boston, 1900

 In March I started a series of blog posts on my son-in-law's musical ancestors, including Dominic Ianetta (1865 - 1952), his great-great grandfather.  Dominic and his wife, Maria Carmella Grosse, were musicians and performers at the turn of the 20th century.  Maria was especially famous as a dancer - but I'll be blogging more about her in the future.

In the past few blog posts I transcribed some interesting news articles about the semi-annual inspection of street musicians in Boston.  Anyone who played an instrument on the street (violins, hurdy-gurdies, street pianos, tambourines, etc.) needed a license.  These inspections were regularly featured by reporters in the Boston newspapers.  Dominic was hired by the city to assist the police inspectors. 

This article below tells an interesting history of Dominic Ianetta's immigration to Boston from Italy, and how he met his future wife.  It also describes how he acquired his position as an inspector of street musicians. 


Domenic Yanetta

Keeps Hand Organs in Tune

Husband of Marie Grosse,  Whose Playing

is a Jolly Boston Feature


His Compensation is the Fee Received

For Repairing Wheezy Machines


Do you know Domenic Yanetta?

Domenick is the English of his name, and, though a great deal depends upon his word, his name as a city official of Boston is now published for the first time.

Probably when you were a child you met Domenick and had the one wish of your babyhood days granted by him, to turn the crank of a hand organ.  But, as is well known, children forget names, even though they never forget their first attempt at hand organ playing.

If you do not know Domenick you ought to, for if your hand organ man, and most everybody has some favorite in this line, has not had his machine inspected within three months, it is to Domenick that you must look to for redress.

There are hand organs without number, but there is only one to whom you can complain with any degree of satisfaction, and he is Domenick, and his headquarters is not at city hall, but 213 Hanover st.

When a lad of about 16 years Domenick came to Boston from sunny Italy.  Soon after his arrival in this city another Italian family by the name of Grosse came here, and the elder Grosse, seeing that money could be made by introducing the hand organ into this country, became the first importer of that instrument.  

In this way Domenick, with a male partner, was the first to launch in to hand-organ playing on the streets of America, and since then he has traveled all over the United States and Europe.

When the "hurdy-gurdy" was first introduced it was the talk of the town.  Money was made as fast as could be expected, and the result was that the elder Grosse, whose place of business was on Battery st., North end, increased the number of machines in use.  At that time all machines had to be imported, and this fact led Domenick to learn the art of tuning, which might be called a business in itself.

After enjoying a year of prosperity in the hand-organ business people began to tire of its then few tunes.  It was hard to get new music, and to make the business a success for any length of time, Domenick says, a person had to keep moving from one city to another.  This ate up a great deal of the profit, and soon the business was abandoned.

A few months after he had given up hand-organ playing, Domenick was being consulted by the elder Grosse as to the best means of disposing of the organs he had in stock.  As it were, they were deadwood on his hands, and as the young player had much experience in traveling, Mr. Grosse was willing to allow him a stated sum for the disposal of the organs.

Among those interested in the consultation was one of the younger daughters of Mr. Grosse, then attending school in the North end.  In a joking way she suggested to her father that now that the men had given up the business as a nonpaying one, why not hire girls to play.

This was a startling suggestion to her father, but it was just what was running in Domenick's mind, for since his becoming a player he learned to look with favor on Marie.  In reply to her father's remark that none could be found who would be willing to undertake the job she offered herself as the first volunteer.

Of course Domenick overcame whatever opposition the father offered, and later, to show his appreciation, "he married the girl", and today is the father of a large American family, while he himself is taking care that those who pay for the music that comes from the hand organ will get what is coming to them without a discordant not.

The appearance of "Happy Marie," as Marie Grosse was styled, was a success, both "financially and socially" and today both man and wife can be seen at parties just as they were seen when they were boy and girl.

About one year ago, when it was legislated that hand organs must be licensed, officer Patterson of station 1 was assigned to look after those desiring to let people hear them play on the streets.  the selection was a good one, but what is an every-day policeman to do when it comes to deciding upon what is what in a hand organ.

If he did not like the way the pipes responded to the popular air he said so, but it is very hard to make a member of the hand-organ fraternity understand anything but complimentary remarks upon the ability of his or her machine.

His advice "to get it tuned" was met with a statement that it had been tuned that morning, and if he happed to contradict this, where was his proof?

Then again a man with any degree of sympathy in his makeup and who is unfamiliar with every fiber of hand organ and language of the player, has no need of passing judgement upon a hand organ.  This Mr. Patterson soon found out, and in order that everybody concerned would be given all that belonged to them, a side partner for himself was looked for.

Domenick all this time was grinding out the latest music, which by the way, had improved considerably since his joining hands with his "Sweet Marie," and his long residence in the North end made him known to everybody in station 1.

One fact well known to all is that there is not a more honest man in the North end than is Domenick.

Church fairs, benefits for disabled persons, and concerts for other charitable purposes have time and again received the use of his instruments free of charge, and only the fact that he realized that the new position would place him where he could be of benefit to many of his poorer but honest countrymen and women, was the reason why he accepted the position, which is not a paying one, when it was offered him.

According to the agreement made he must inspect all machines when required to do so by the music commissioner.

When a machine is found defective and its box is considered sound, he is authorized to charge not more than $1.50 for repairing it.

This is the only compensation coming to him.

What does this mean?  It means that every hand organ and street piano must be inspected by him at least four times a year. It also means that every applicant for a license must have his or her instrument examined and passed upon before the papers are granted.

Besides this it means that the inspector must be a man always ready to assist a person in distress, while at the same time doing his duty, for those under whom he is serving.  he can repair machines free of charge if he so desires, and it is needless to state that often he does so without a murmur.

Then there are those who wish to impose on the public.  There are persons who can afford to hire better instruments.  But in Mr. Patterson Domenick has a man who needs no second word as to the condition of a machine. 

People may try to give pointers to the inspector, but "Come now" from Mr. Patterson is sufficient.  The officer has confidence in Domenick, an so has everybody with honest intentions.  Of late it was found necessary to hire the building at 213 Hanover st., near station 1, to accommodate the large number of applicants seeking permission to play on the streets.

Here everybody desiring to do so can see the transformation of old played-out music boxes into machines whose music would make a shovel dance."

The Boston Globe
12 August 1900
page 25

For the truly curious:

Links to past IANETTA family blog posts:

"Little Musical Performers in Boston 1905"    


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


"Boston Police Give a Hurdy Gurdy Party 14 September 1900"



To Cite/Link to this blog post: Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Dominic Ianetta "The Hurdy Gurdy Czar" of Boston, 1900", Nutfield Genealogy, posted April 12, 2022, ( https://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2022/04/dominic-ianetta-hurdy-gurdy-czar-of.html: accessed [access date]). 

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoying your music series. "Wheezy machines" is an interesting phrase in that newspaper subhead!