Tuesday, April 28, 2020: Tin Pan Alley Edition

by ag

One might reasonably wonder what these photos have to do with Tin Pan Alley. Would it help to know that they are close-ups of an aluminum pie pan? And that the titles were chosen from some of that era’s biggest hits? This is what happens when a photographer’s imagination comes up short :) (Click on images to enlarge.)

For those who are as curious as I was about the origin of Tin Pan Alley’s name, this is what Wikipedia has to say: 

Various explanations have been advanced to account for the origins of the term “Tin Pan Alley”. The most popular account holds that it was originally a derogatory reference by Monroe H. Rosenfeld in the New York Herald to the collective sound made by many “cheap upright pianos” all playing different tunes being reminiscent of the banging of tin pans in an alleyway. However, no article by Rosenfeld that uses the term has been found.

Simon Napier-Bell quotes an account of the origin of the name published in a 1930 book about the music business. In this version, popular songwriter Harry von Tilzer was being interviewed about the area around 28th Street and Fifth Avenue, where many music publishers had offices. Von Tilzer had modified his expensive Kindler & Collins piano by placing strips of paper down the strings to give the instrument a more percussive sound. The journalist told von Tilzer, “Your Kindler & Collins sounds exactly like a tin can. I’ll call the article ‘Tin Pan Alley’.” In any case, the name was firmly attached by the fall of 1908, when The Hampton Magazine published an article titled “Tin Pan Alley” about 28th Street.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “tin pan” was slang for “a decrepit piano” (1882), and the term came to mean a “hit song writing business” by 1907.

With time, the nickname came to describe the American music publishing industry in general. The term then spread to the United Kingdom, where “Tin Pan Alley” is also used to describe Denmark Street in London’s West End. In the 1920s the street became known as “Britain’s Tin Pan Alley” because of its large number of music shops.

The accompanying photos are fascinating to see: Hard to believe in this age of mega-corporate buildings that such magnificent music emanated from these modest 5-story structures on Manhattan’s West 28th Street.