The Right Chemistry: How did New York’s Tin Pan Alley get its name?

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The connection to tin and tin pans is somewhat ambiguous, but there are some interesting theories.

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I don’t know exactly what sound a tin pan makes when it is banged. That’s because finding a tin pan is very difficult. It is easy to find an iron or copper pan coated with tin to protect it from corrosion, but cookware made from pure tin is rare, because the metal is very soft. Back in the 1800s, though, cups and plates made from tin were around, including some frypans called “cowboy frypans” that were popular for outdoor cooking. Tin pans were also favoured by prospectors. They were light, easy to carry around, very handy when panning for gold!

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Why am I interested in banging a tin pan? Because I’m fascinated by Tin Pan Alley and how it got its name. Starting in the 1890s, a number of music publishing firms settled on a small stretch of 28th St. between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in New York. Although Thomas Edison had invented the phonograph in 1877, recorded music in the 1890s remained more or less a curiosity. Edison’s cylinders produced about two minutes of scratchy music, a virtual miracle at the time, but the cylinders were certainly no replacement for live music.

Pianos in homes were very popular, which also meant that the marketing of sheet music became a lucrative business. Composers flooded publishers with their music, who then worked at boosting sales by hiring pianists to play new pieces to potential customers. New York’s 28th St. was filled with the sounds of music being pounded out on worn-out pianos. Apparently, composer and journalist Monroe Rosenfeld likened the clatter to the sound of tin pans being banged in an alley. Another account suggests that the pianists tried to make sound produced by improperly tuned pianos less “tinny” by hanging paper strips from the strings. Both of these stories may be apocryphal, but there is no doubt that the strip of 28th St. where the publishing industry was centred came to be known as Tin Pan Alley.

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Where would Rosenfeld have gotten his analogy? Perhaps he was familiar with the antics of French protesters in the 1830s who opposed the regime of Louis Philippe I by parading through the streets and demonstrating their disapproval of the government by beating saucepans to make noise. Such saucepans were commonly referred to as tin pans, even though they were likely made of another metal lined with tin. More recently, in 2012 in Montreal, students and supporters banged pots and pans as they paraded to oppose a hike in tuition. When the government passed a law to limit the scope of student protests, the response was more parades with even more banging of cookware!

How about the alternate explanation of “tinny” sound for the origin of Tin Pan Alley? Since tin, being very soft, was never a good substitute for other metals in most applications, its name became associated with something that was not quite up to par. Such as the sound from a rickety piano. The pianos may have been wobbly, but not so the music churned out by Tin Pan Alley. Songs like Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band and George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue became all-time classics.

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The best-selling song in Tin Pan Alley history, however, was not written by a composer whose name rolls off the tongue of music lovers, but by Tin Pan Alley pioneer Charles K. Harris, who became known as the “king of the tear-jerkers.” That song was After the Ball, in which a man tells his niece that he never married because he saw his sweetheart kissing another man at a ball, and he refused to listen to her explanation. Many years later, after she had died, he discovered that the man was her brother. The sheet music for that song which eventually became incorporated into the musical A Trip to Chinatown sold more than 5 million copies! The show ran for two years on Broadway, becoming the longest running Broadway musical in history up to that time. The plot is reminiscent of Hello Dolly, with a widow arranging some hookups in a humorous fashion.

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Tin Pan Alley withered away after record players, radio and then television delivered music to the population in an easy fashion. However, five buildings on 28th St. have been landmarked and preserved as Tin Pan Alley Historic District, with a plaque on the sidewalk declaring it to be “the legendary Tin Pan Alley where the business of the American popular song flourished during the first decades of the 20th century.”

The role that tin played is still somewhat ambiguous, but since I couldn’t find a Tin Pan to sound out, I did kick a tin can around. It did make a tinny sound. But these days “tin cans” are actually made of aluminum. So is “tinfoil.” As a finale, let’s note that when Edison uttered “Mary had a little lamb” into his phonograph, to be reproduced later, the recording was on tinfoil wrapped around a hand-cranked cylinder into which indentations had been etched with a needle attached to a diaphragm. You can listen to it online. A real piece of history. But it does sound tinny.

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Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

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