The Five Points, the Bowery, and the Phonograph

A typical coin-operated phonograph of 1898.

Between the 1820s and the early 1890s, the Five Points slum was the most feared neighborhood in New York. It was, however, the most diverse and culturally significant area in the city during the 19th century. The center of the Five Points was razed between 1891 and 1892, but even after its partial disappearance, the legacy of it remained in the earliest days of recording. When the city and activists tore it down, the heart of the place was then gone, but its people remained, and they moved in the area directly surrounding the Bowery. The Bowery plays a very important role in the first two decades of recording. There were many songs that spoke of what life was like there, and many of these were recorded. Some of the best recordings that describe life on the Bowery and around the Five Points were those by Russell Hunting.

Back in 1890, the New York phonograph company was established, but what was unusual about this company was that it was nowhere near the center of recording buyers and distributors. The New York company was located at 257 5th Avenue, which is nearly at the intersection of 28th Street, or the now landmarked Tin Pan Alley block. While this makes sense for the exchange between publishers and recorders, that sort of connection wouldn’t be made officially for another few years. The majority of record buyers and listeners were scattered around the Bowery. This would become even more so in the coming few years.

Red Wood Coast

It was for this company however that many recording stars started, Frank P. Banta, Charles Prince, Dan W. Quinn, Frank Mazziotta, just to name a few. It seems that many artists who were not actively living and working in NJ (home of Edison’s recording labs) made it to 5th Avenue first. Finding any information on this company is very frustrating however, as so little from them survives. While this major company was producing records uptown, there was a bit of a different market below union square.

The most information on them survives from the New York based magazine The Phonogram. This publication had their headquarters on Park Row downtown, which by the start of the magazine (1890) was indeed still part of the original Five Points. In 1893 there was even a small advertisement that stated:

There is no dealer or publisher who has so many of the popular songs used on the phonograph as H. J. Wehman, publisher, 130 Park Row, New York.

Hot Jazz Jubile

The Bowery was the entertainment district. It was where all the major theaters, publishers, and saloons were. The latter became one of the most profitable customers for recordists into the mid 1890s. Newspaper articles of the day were taking note of how many people flocked to these saloons and dime museums just to hear the recordings. But what was it that made these particular recordings so addicting?

A phonograph arcade, circa 1891. Anthony Comstock saw these places as Dens of Iniquity.

Well they had Russell Hunting and Charlie Carson to thank. The two of them seemed to corner the entire market of recordings for at least a few years in the 1890s and it was because of the unusual content they were producing. In keeping with the nature of depraved entertainment on the Bowery, Hunting and Carson produced thousands of recordings of smut and naughty stories. Most of his recordings were a little off color, but these others were special to the many saloon owners along the Bowery (who could afford a coin phonograph). Many children spent their hard earned nickels sneaking into these places to get an earful of those forbidden sounds. They also fit in very well in the arcades of Coney Island, as it was mentioned in papers of the time that many of these records could be found there. Hunting and Carson set up their operation on Clinton street on the Lower East side, just a few blocks from the river. While this was where they were caught in 1896, they moved around periodically to confuse the authorities.

While the smut recordings earned Hunting and Carson their infamy, Hunting also perfectly encapsulated what the lower east side was like at that time. He was known for his “Michael Casey” recordings, a series of recordings that described scenes from life from the perspective of a bumbling Irishman. Many of these recordings describe street life there better than some writing could at the time. Some of his sketches had very basic titles like “Casey on the Bowery,” “Casey on a Streetcar,” “Casey at the Telephone,” but they could get more interesting and specific.

A few of the more interesting ones are “Casey’s fight with Owney Geoghan” and “Casey listening to an Italian play hand organ in the street.” The latter two present tantalizing examples of everyday life in and around the former Five Points neighborhood. The first survives in many forms, Owney Geoghan was an Irishman who operated one of the most unique saloons along the Bowery, called the “Boxing Saloon,” and it’s just what it sounds like. It’s a saloon with a boxing ring in the back.

Anthony Comstock, head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, made it his mission to prosecute those making the “indecent” recordings that circulated in saloons and phonograph parlors in the 1890s.

The place had long since (1883) closed by the time that Hunting had first recorded the monologue, but like many people who went to the place before it closed, fondly remembered how absurd the establishment was. The place became known for not just drunk people fighting, but also for women fighting. “Casey listening to an Italian play hand organ in the street,” however is a different story. It would be an incredible document of the beginning of Little Italy in New York, but no copies of it are known to exist. Nonetheless, there are countless other recordings that do illustrate scenes similar to this, by Hunting’s colleagues, such as the “Side Show Shouter” by Harry Spencer. While this doesn’t describe Little Italy, it does include some fantastic reed organ accompaniment by Fred Hylands, imitating the Italian organ grinders.


Hunting also unknowingly documented what it was like to attend brothels around the Five Points through many of his smut recordings. Though only a few survive today, they are unusual and important accounts, even if they were at the time played for laughs. All of Hunting’s pre-1896 recordings are more significant just for the fact that they were made before his arrest. In 1896, the city cracked down on the smut that was being so easily bought and sold around the Bowery and Lower East side. It took the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, led by Anthony Comstock, two years to find Hunting and Carson.

There are dozens of other recordings that could be mentioned here, but I want to reference a recording by Banta’s Orchestra. Frank P. Banta not only worked as an accompanist and gigging musician, but he also had his own small orchestra in the 1890s (it is suspected that some of his musicians were in Issler’s Orchestra). Around 1893, Banta recorded “Scene at an Irish Ball” that, based on the clear dialects of the characters, undoubtedly takes place on the Bowery or around the Five Points. It’s a very funny little sketch, with a German bandleader playing for a group of unruly Irish folks who get into a big fight and chaos ensues as the orchestra plays another quick jig. All of this fits in very well with where Banta was in his life at the time, and around the same time he started courting a young Irish girl who grew up near the Five Points on the Bowery.

There is so much more that could be said on this topic, but this is only a small cross-section of the fascinating connection between the infamous Five Points and how the earliest days of recording, that used to exist within it, interpreted it.


 | Website

R. S. Baker has appeared at several Ragtime festivals as a pianist and lecturer. Her particular interest lies in the brown wax cylinder era of the recording industry, and in the study of the earliest studio pianists, such as Fred Hylands, Frank P. Banta, and Frederick W. Hager.

Or look at our Subscription Options.