The Banjo Machine: Musical Crimes of the 1890s-1900s Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Banjo Machine: Musical Crimes of the 1890s-1900s

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People in the 1890s thought they were modern, and they were – the future (including us) hadn't happened yet. It was a mechanical age: they loved new machines like the automobile. They also loved combining new mechanical devices and entertainment. There was the moving picture, a thrilling though scary device – sometimes that train came right at you and made you want to run away. There was Edison's 'talking machine' and even a talking doll.

When it came to musical instruments, there was the transposing piano. Composer Irving Berlin had one. Non-players could avail themselves of the player piano, a piano that could play by itself if you inserted rolls of hole-punched music and pushed the pedals. Player pianos were not only high-tech, but left the future a wonderful legacy: piano rolls cut by legendary pianists, such as Paderewski playing Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody. Grand stuff.

Unfortunately for culture and society, the automated music industry did not stop at player pianos. They had to go and invent the banjo machine. The banjo machine collected a lot of nickels in the decade between 1897 and 1907. It also caused a small music-related crime wave.

A Money-Maker

The wonder of the century! If you wish to see and hear the most wonderful invention of the age stop at La Shelle's cigar store tonight and hear the automatic banjo. This machine is the first and only one of its kind ever brought to Marshalltown. There will be no others. We extend an invitation to every one to stop and hear this wonderful machine. La Shelle, the up-to-date tobacconist.
- Evening Times-Republican, Marshalltown, Iowa, 4 August, 1900, p6.

The 'automatic banjo', commonly known as the banjo machine, became a popular drawing card for cigar stores, barber shops, restaurants, and saloons. A 'tune' – the machines' manufacturers claimed they were tunes, anyway – cost five cents, a nickel coin. A money-maker for local establishments, and a money-waster for cash-strapped households. The banjo machine could also contribute to domestic disputes, as this somewhat satirical newspaper story illustrates:

And about what happened is that O'Hoolihan stopped in at Jerry's and had one or two with the boys working on his trick and fed a nickle[sic] or so into the slot of the automatic banjo and heard it say plink-plunk, plink-plunk, plinkty-plinkty-plunk, in a way that reminded him of his boyhood days and he was happy. When he got home, where he ought to expect peace and comfort, he met a towselled up woman who barked at him. He had spent $2.60 of his own money, but he did not feel like a criminal.
- 'His Radical Views', St. Tammany Farmer, Covington, Louisiana, 17 November, 1906, p3.

This unserious article rests on known practice: working couples quarrelled over the family income, and the banjo machine was an attractive nuisance.

Those nickels added up. How do we know? The tax man wanted a cut and was willing to go to court over it.

George Burghart was present, and explained that the slot machine banjo on which he had not paid a license, was not subject to public use, and was not a coin collector as charged. It was operated by the manager of his cigar store for the pleasure of the customers, who were not required to spend any money to hear the music. According to this it is not more subject to a license than would be a musician hired by the hour to maltreat the instrument with his own hand. As License Collector PH Forbes was not present, the case was continued to the 14th.

- The Topeka State Journal, Topeka, Kansas, 7 December, 1901, p3.

This news item tells us two things: banjo machines made money, and not everybody was thrilled with the sound. You'd like to know what they sounded like? Be our guest, but don't say the Topeka State Journal didn't warn you.

Practical Jokes

Recorded or mechanically-reproduced music was such a novelty in the 1890s and early 1900s that the machine could fool people. In 1901, a society host in Omaha, Nebraska concealed his new banjo machine behind some indoor greenery. Guests enjoyed the 'concert' but wanted the musicians to come out of hiding. They were afraid the musicians were eavesdropping. The host said he'd be glad to bring out the orchestra, but needed the help of a couple of muscular guests. They showed off the new machine, which played a song called 'Tell Me Your Secret: Tell Me True'. The Omaha Daily Bee wouldn't make this up, would they?

Jack Gray, a well-borer, was invited by a friend to stay at the Arcade in Reno in 1905. The establishment had a bar downstairs and rooms upstairs. It also had a banjo machine. The prankster friend tipped the management to give Jack the room directly above the machine. As people played it all night, Jack got no sleep at all.

He complained to his friend the next morning. 'Oh, that was Mr Shane the landlord,' the friend replied. 'He is learning the banjo and is regarded as the best amateur in Reno.'

'How does he manage to keep his lodgers if he plunks away all night at that banjo?'

Well, there are lots of people who like it.'

The friend kept this up, even introducing Jack to Mr Shane, who blithely pretended he'd been playing. Jack, being polite, pretended he liked banjo music. It wasn't until someone put a nickel in the banjo machine that the penny dropped, so to speak. Jack got a hearty laugh out of the joke and paid for a round of drinks.

We know this is true, because we read it in the Carson City, Nevada, Morning Appeal.

So far, the banjo machine has caused pranks, family quarrels, and headaches for music lovers. But worse than that happened.

Banjo Machine Violence

Ed O'Connor, a popular young gentleman of El Paso, Texas, died Wednesday. Last Sunday evening after supper he took a friend, visiting the city, to Phil Young's Cafe to show him the banjo machine...
- Las Vegas Daily Optic, 7 October, 1899, p3.

Ed O'Connor wanted to put a nickel in the banjo machine. A young Mexican named Hernandez didn't want him to. O'Connor knocked Hernandez down. Hernandez's friend Edelberto Garcia shot O'Connor. Now O'Connor was dead, and Hernandez and Garcia were in jail awaiting trial. One wonders if anyone wrote a border ballad about it.

And then there was Silas Hueston of Chicago. Silas was fairly advanced in years – too advanced to join the Rough Riders as they charged up San Juan Hill in 18981. But he was still outspokenly patriotic, ready to salute the flag at any and all opportunities. He was also extremely hostile to all things Spanish. The banjo machine just happened to get in the way of Silas's patriotic ire.

According to the arresting officer, Silas was a 'terror.' He did $300-worth of damage to a buffet restaurant's mirror. And that was before he got to the banjo machine. 'The only reason he offered for his conduct was that the banjo played a Spanish air,' concluded the policeman.

'That's true,' said old Silas, 'and I consider it enough provocation for any true-hearted American to smash things generally. We have plenty of good tunes of our own without having them durned pieces of a hostile nation being played right here in our country. I couldn't control myself and I let fly at the machine. I would rather one of them garlic-eating rats had been there, though...'
- Waterbury Evening Democrat, Waterbury, Connecticut, 24 March, 1898, p6.

Silas paid a fine of $10 plus the cost to repair the damage. No word on whether the restaurant proprietor changed the tune on the banjo machine to play patriotic music.

I Really Want One of These, You Say

You want to own one of these wonders? De gustibus non disputandum2. You can buy one, but it will set you back about $50,000. Or you can have a replica made by an expert. At time of writing (2022) the DC Ramey Piano Company will build you one at the low price of $27,000, including installation and a five-tune roll. They're asking an upfront deposit of $7,000.

Or you could learn how to play the banjo. It's good exercise for the fingers, and you can pick your own tunes. Spanish or not.

1This was during the Spanish American War. Largely fomented by the newspapers, the war resulted in the acquisition by the United States of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.2There's no accounting for taste.

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