A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of "Tin Pan Alley"?

December 10, 2002

Dear Straight Dope:

What is the origin of the term "Tin Pan Alley"?

While a "wash tub" bass may be familiar to aficionados of old time jug bands, you're probably wondering how you get music out of a tin pan. At least music that sounds better than your two-year-old sitting in the kitchen floor with a wooden spoon and your dutch oven.

Easy--you just "tickle its ivories." As far back as the early 1880's the term "tin pan" was slang for the old, out-of-tune upright piano that was banged on night and day in a gin joint by some guy wearing garters on his sleeves. So it's not surprising that someone coined the phrase "Tin Pan Alley" around 1900 to describe the area of music publishing houses in New York City that were then clustered around 28th St. between 5th Ave. and Broadway. 

The name is usually attributed to Monroe Rosenfeld and Harry von Tilzer, two colorful characters from the early days of the street. Supposedly Rosenfeld invented it while in von Tilzer's office. This story can be found in a 1930 book, Tin Pan Alley by Isaac Goldberg. Goldberg quotes von Tilzer, in a personal conversation, remembering that Rosenfeld decided to use the term in a newpaper piece he was writing, possibly for the New York Herald, to which Rosenfeld sometimes contributed music articles. But a check with Barry Popik, the indefatigable researcher/etymologist who sent Cecil cites on "Windy City" and "Big Apple," suggests Rosenfeld wasn't the first to use the term--Popik found the term in a 1902 article written by someone else.

You can see why the phrase suggested itself to whoever coined it. Imagine walking down 28th Street on a summer's day in 1895. You hear the din of scores of pianos, each trying out a different tune. The noise of those clanky "tin pans" would be reminiscent of your two-year-old on the kitchen floor.

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