Tin Pan Alley on the Mill’s Third Floor

Tenth in an occasional series of Schwamb Shares

As we write this in July 2020, the temperature is nearing 100 degrees outside and certainly is higher than that in the Mill. In the nineteenth century, the third floor must have been a hot place to put in a ten-hour day (typical summer hours in Arlington according to the Massachusetts industrial census). The third story was added to a previous addition in 1873, at a time when the Schwambs’ workforce was approximately 37 workers. We do not know the work done on the third floor, though we suspect it was frame finishing; there is no machinery there and the walls show signs of varnish, whiting, and pigments.

The walls also display graffiti, newspaper clippings, poetry and many sheets of lyrics to popular songs of the 1880s and 1890s. (At right, the lyrics to “He’s All Right When You Know Him — But You’ve Got To Know Him Fast.”) The paper ephemera was either glued or varnished to the wooden walls, and has since deteriorated and flaked off after a hundred and thirty summers and winters in the attic.

Most of the song lyrics appear as broadsheets with bold titles, though some were probably cut from the local newspapers. Publishing song lyrics with the address of the publisher encouraged respect for copyright, fired curiosity about the song, and helped people learn the words to sing along. Before radio, new songs written or published in New York, Boston, or Chicago could be heard on the stage (musical theatre or later Vaudeville), in public houses such as saloons, or in parlors where a family might play them on the piano (or from a player piano roll). Song pluggers sometimes prearranged the interruption of a theatrical production from the audience, only to have the instigator and stage actor end their argument by joining in a new song for the surprised onlookers. Singers and pianists, using a megaphone for amplification, might sing a new song to a captive audience at an event, repeating the performance enough times for the song to catch on.

Phonograph cylinders and flat records were already consumer items in the 1890s, and would be more widely available in the 1900s and 1910s. However, songs of the 1880s and 1890s were largely sold as sheet music. Any middle class home was expected to have a piano and someone who could play it.

Most of the lyrics on the walls of the Mill’s third floor are from comic songs, a popular type of composition in the late nineteenth century. A survivor from this time is “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay”, sung by a young girl (“not too timid, not too bold, just the kind for sport, I’m told”) who enjoys romantic adventures but plays coy as she explains herself in the verses.

Here are a few of the songs pasted to the third floor walls.

Where Did You Get That Hat?
Written & Composed by Jos. J. Sullivan. Arr. by Wm. Loraine.
New York: Harding’s Music Office, 1888

A simple enough story: the singer inherited a fortune from his deceased uncle, on the condition that he always wear the uncle’s dated hat. The humor comes from the sharp comments he meets with from fellow city dwellers.

If I go to the op’ra house, in the op’ra season
There’s someone sure to shout at me without the slightest reason
If I go to a “chowder club” to have a jolly spree
There’s someone at the party who is sure to shout at me:

Where did you get that hat?
Where did you get that tile?
Isn’t it a nobby one and just the proper style?
I should like to have one just the same as that
Where e’er I go they shout: “Hello, where did you get that hat?”

This song has had a second, third, and fourth life as a children’s song – “chowder house” and “spree” having long passed worrying about in mixed company. Here’s a spirited version of the song by Anne Hills and Cindy Mangsen.

Come Down, Mrs. Flynn
New York: Frank Harding.
Words and Music by J. W. Kelley. Sung by Maggie Cline.

This song presents a more recognizable urban situation: a boarding house with tenants who always seem to stay out too late.

There’s a boarding-house next door to mine not of the highest grade,
Where no one but a gentleman would stay;
And Mrs. Flynn keeps them in line, she has them all afraid,
And not a saucy word they have to say;
Sometimes there will be one come home with his skates on;
He falls six times before he finds the door;
He has lost his key as well, and has to pull the bell,
Then sings a song he often sung before:

Come down, Mrs. Flynn, are you going to let me in?
I’ll rouse up every neighbor in the block;
For it’s raining, don’t you see; so throw me down the key,
And I’ll promise to be home at ten o’clock.

In the next verse, a servant girl comes home at two in the morning.

Like many of the songs on the third-floor walls, the subjects of the humor are Irish city-dwellers, often with accents. The fellow who comes home “with his skates on” has been drinking: the euphemism can be taken as witty, but it is also discreet. A direct mention of saloon life might be off-putting in respectable temperance households. In the next verse, the servant girl “comes strolling home with Paddy Joyce.” But Mrs. Flynn, also Irish, keeps her tenants in line.

Lampoons of ethnic immigrants were a staple of popular music and comedy in Vaudeville days. The humor ran the gamut from gentle to dehumanizing. One quality of many Irish-focused comic songs is that the singer, often an Irish acquaintance of the subject, has a hand in pointing out the laughable behavior of his fellow Irishman. If an Irish rogue takes things too far, the Irish cop sets him straight.

Some similar numbers:

Since Casey Runs The Flat
New York: T. B, Harms & Co., 1890.
Words and Music by B. H. Janssen.

We’ve got a brand new janitor, and Casey is his name.
The way he runs McNally’s flat I think an awful shame;
He walks around just like a lord, you’d think he owned the place,
he has a frightful, rasping voice, and “scups” around his face.

Casey checks all the boxes for “comical” Irishman: shiftless (hosing down the hallways); officious (fining tenants for coughing, having visitors, and rushing a growler, i.e., bringing in a pint of beer); and in charge because of his connections (whether running a fire drill on a whim or demanding that all the shades be Irish green).

There Goes McManus
New York: T. R. Harms & Co., 1889
Words and Music by B. H. Janssen.

McManus gets himself a too-large coat and too-tight pants, new patent shoes, etc., etc., all to take the powdered, emerald-gowned Miss Gilhooley to the ball. The neighbors cheer him – in derision. And inevitably…

He felt his own importance when he walked across the hall;
They told him Miss Gilhooley was the belle of all the ball;
He danced the “polka “and the “waltz.” and did it very nice,
But for a better fitting pants he’d given any price.
The next dance was a “lancers” and everything went well
“Salute your pards.” McManus did. And then there was a yell;
No pants could stand a bow like that, and so Mc’s gave away.
And when they rolled him in a cloth, he heard some people say:

There goes McManus with a rip right up his back…

The modern listener might find the song amusing enough until the third verse, where McManus roughs up Levi Cohn, who sold him the outfit. The policeman arrives on the scene and McManus is nearly jailed as he stands before the judge. Italians, Jews, Greeks, Dutchmen, Japanese, Chinese, and African-Americans had entire bodies of derisive songs to themselves in Tin Pan Alley, but made occasional appearances in the each other’s stories as well.

Irish Jubilee
New York: 1890, M. Witmark & Sons.
Words by J. Thornton. Music by Chas. Lawlor.

Songwriters and vaudeville performers had a “Jubilee” for every ethnicity, each playing on accents and stereotypes. In this “Irish Jubilee,” electoral success and the rewards for the voters could be celebrated by self-assured Irish immigrants and simultaneously laughed off by native born Americans of traditional stock. We don’t know who posted this lyric sheet or why, but we do find graffiti in the same work room recording the arrival in Boston from Ireland of one man James [last name illegible] on February 13, 1886. Scribbled comments about Tammany Hall, symbol of Irish Democrat control of New York city politics, appear nearby.

Oh, a short time ago, boys, an Irishman named Doherty
Was elected to the Senate by a very large majority,
He felt so elated that he went to Dennis Cassidy,
Who owned a bar-room of a very large capacity.
He said to Cassidy, “Go over to the brewer
For a thousand kegs of lager beer and give it to the poor,
Then go over to the butcher-shop and order up a ton of meat,
Be sure and see the boys and girls have all they want to drink and eat.

Send out invitations in twenty different languages,
And don’t forget to tell them to bring their own sandwiches;
They’ve made me their Senator, and so, to show my gratitude,
They’ll have the finest supper ever given in this latitude-
Tell them the music will be furnished by O’Rafferty,
Assisted on the bag-pipes by Felix McCafferty;
Whatever the expenses are, remember I’ll put up the tin.
And any one who doesn’t come, be sure and do not let him in.

This song is still a favorite in some folk circles, sometimes sung a cappela, but here is a cylinder recording from 1913 by Steve Porter and Co. (with spoken introduction for about one minute).

I Believe It, for My Mother Told Me So
Chicago: Lyon & Healy, 1887

Not every set of lyrics on the third-floor walls is a comic song. Sentimental ballads are here as well.

There’s a little maxim that was told to me by mother dear,
When in childhood I was seated on her knee;
She told me that a rolling stone would gather little moss,
Many lessons of advice she gave to me.

Lessons follow: Honor the Father above, give to the poor, be honest in all dealings, etc. If today we listen with dismay at what passed for humor in the 1890s, we are often at a loss to understand how popular these sentimental ballads were.

Seizing upon this very song for an example, The Illustrated American offered its own smart take in 1891: “Songs with a mother in them can be counted upon with tolerable certainty by writer, singer, and manager. Of course, it is understood that this is true only when the public is given mother in reasonable doses. There can be a surfeit of mother as well as of anything else.” (“Songs of the People.” The Illustrated American, vol 6, p 40)

These sentimental ballads, sometimes derided as “country corn,” survived in country and old-time music circles. Here are the Delmore Brothers covering the song in 1935, near 50 years after it was published.

A similar song on the Mill’s walls that would have counted as an “oldie” even in the 1880s was “The Old Oaken Bucket.”

These are just a few of the songs saved on the Mill’s attic walls. There are many others, some so worn away that we may never know their titles. Poems are also on the walls, and it seems fitting, as this hot summer gives way to fall, to close with this poem by English writer Sarah Doudney. The poem was modified and reprinted, without credit, in many newspapers of the day. This poem was also set to music.

The Water Mill

Listen to the water mill,
Through the livelong day;
How the clicking of the wheel
Wears the hours away.
Languidly the autumn wind
Stirs the withered leaves;
On the field the reapers sing,
Binding up the sheaves;
And a proverb haunts my mind,
And as a spell is cast,
“The mill will never grind
With the water that has passed.”

Bonus Track: The song shown at top, “He’s All Right When You Know Him,” has American lyrics. There is often a British music hall version of many of these songs. Here’s a British version of the song by music hall performer Charles Coburn in 1936.

Dermot Whittaker, Director, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc.


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Old Schwamb Mill
17 Mill Lane
Arlington, MA 01730

We look forward to opening soon.

One thought on “Tin Pan Alley on the Mill’s Third Floor

  1. edhg says:

    Thanks for these!

    Lancer’s was a favorite in both the dance halls and the more sedate ballrooms.

    (It starts at 2:18)

    DLa Rue

    Donna La Rue, Independent Scholar, writing on “Dance and Sens Cathedral, Did They or Didn’t They?” and “The Place of the Arts in the Life of Faith” / http://independent.academia.edu/DonnaLaRue

    a.k.a Mistress Elizabeth de la Rue ocbground.wordpress.com (@dwyndlelee)

    82 Cleveland St Arlington MA 02474 Skype: ihsdlrue Email: ihsdlrue @ gmail.com

    *pax in terra choragibus ballo non bello parare *

    On Thu, Jul 30, 2020 at 9:57 PM Old Schwamb Mill wrote:

    > Old Schwamb Mill posted: ” Tenth in an occasional series of Schwamb Shares > As we write this in July 2020, the temperature is nearing 100 degrees > outside and certainly is higher than that in the Mill. In the nineteenth > century, the third floor must have been a hot place to put i” >


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