The History

We have a detailed history of Tin Pan Alley thanks to invaluable information from the Historic Districts Council in their “Brief-ish History of Tin Pan Alley” written in 2008, and Michael Minn in his piece “Tin Pan Alley”, part of his “New York City” photography collection project. As both accounts cover both overlapping and different information, we present them both below. Many thanks to them both for their thorough and dogged research and insightful presentation.

Brief-ish History of Tin Pan Alley

Courtesy of Historic Districts Council

Since the news story about the threat to Tin Pan Alley broke, the world's attention has been captured by the area. Unfortunately, there has been equal parts of myth as well as history in the coverage. In an attempt to set the record straight to the extent that we can do so, below is a very brief narrative history of what we definitely know about Tin Pan Alley. HDC is indebted to Leland Bobbe, Michael Martone, Anthony W. Robins, David Freeland and Tracy Messer for all their research and information. Everything that is correct is theirs, all errors are ours. Special thanks to Brooks of Sheffield from Lost City for getting this whole thing rolling.

Residential Origins

The buildings that still exist on the North Side of the Street, nos. 41-51, were built c. 1852-1853, a very early date for Italianate style rowhouses in New York (Litchfield Villa which helped popularize the Italianate style in New York was completed in 1854).

One early resident of the block is believed to be William Gardiner Jones (1784-1870) and his wife Cornelia (Herring) Jones (1785-1866). The Jones were from prominent 18th-century New York families (Jones Street in Greenwich Village is named after their immediate family). They are believed to have lived at 49-51 West 28th street with their son, William W. Jones, MD (1813-1891) until their deaths.

The Music and Entertainment Industry Takes Over

The first music publisher to move to the block was M. Witmark and Sons, who moved uptown from 14th Street to 49-51 West 28th Street in 1893, becoming the first publisher to set up shop in the block.

For a time during the 1890's, Thomas Edison's New York office for moving pictures was located at number 43. It has been reported that Edison shot early films on the roof. In addition to the American Mutoscope studio on 13th and Broadway, this would have been one of the first places in New York City used for the shooting of motion pictures.

By 1900, Twenty-eighth Street knew the largest concentration of popular music publishers any single street had known up to that time, 14th Street not excluded.

Music publishers occupied buildings on both sides of West 28th Street, and some could be found in offices around the corner on Broadway, or just west of Sixth Avenue. At one time or another, between 1893 and 1910, the following publishers were located on the Alley (note that several moved from one address to another). The source for these addresses is David A. Jasen's Tin Pan Alley: An Encyclopedia of the Golden Age of American Song (Taylor & Francis, 2003) as well as copies of covers of sheet music on file at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, in the "Brill Building" research file. A search through Manhattan phone books confirms most of these listings.

Southside
(demolished) No. 36: Leo Feist (of Feist & Frankenthaler)
(refaced in 1927 ) No. 42: Leo E. Berliner & Co.
Enterprise Music Supply Co.
Chas. B. Ward Music Publishing Co.
Harry Von Tilzer Music Publishing Company
(demolished) No. 46: Wandersloot Music Company
(demolished) No. 48:
Myll Bros.
Willis Woodward
(demolished) No. 50: York Music Company.
Northside
(demolished) No. 37: Harry Von Tilzer Music Publishing Company
(demolished) No. 39: Gotham Music Publishing Co.
Hugo V. Schlam
No. 41: P.J. Howley (of Howley, Haviland & Co.)
No. 45: Shapiro, Bernstein & Von Tilzer
Jerome H. Remick & Co.
Harry Von Tilzer (after leaving Maurice Shapiro)
No. 49-51: M. Witmark and Sons
William C. Dunn & Co.
No. 51: Paul Dresser Publishing Company
No. 53: Ed Rogers Music Publishing Co.

According to phone records and some facsimiles of sheet music covers, it would seem that most, if not all, of the music publishers left the block by 1909.

A photo from this period (please note the caption is incorrect) shows "The New York Clipper" newspaper located at No. 47 West 28th Street. The Clipper (1853-1924) was the first American newspaper devoted entirely to entertainment. The paper was one of the earliest publications in the United States to regularly cover sports, and it played an important role in popularizing baseball in the country. In addition to more popular sporting events, the New York Clipperalso wrote about billiards, bowling, even chess. It began covering American football in 1880. In 1894, however, The Clipper dropped its sports coverage and devoted itself entirely to theater. It was absorbed into Variety in 1924.

The same photo shows an office of the William Morris (talent) Agency in #43 West 28th Street. The agency, founded in New York in 1898, is the largest and most diversified literary and talent agency in the world. This reinforces the context of Tin Pan Alley as part of a larger early 20th-century entertainment district, which included bars, cafes, theaters and the like.

After the Music Industry

mostelWhen the music business moved from the street, the buildings stayed in commercial use and in some instances, were eventually used as artists' studios. Zero Mostel painted and took painting classes in these buildings, and probably lived there in the 1960's as well (his son Toby Mostel lived in an apartment in 49-51 West 28th Street, and Zero may have kept a studio in 42 West 28th Street). Along with Mostel, members of his clique which included Hollywood screenwriters Waldo Salt and Ian Hunter also painted in that studio.

The area also still remained a center for music and art in other ways. Don Young's famous "Sixth Avenue Loft" around the corner at 821 Avenue of the Americas, was a gathering place for jazz greats, including Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie and an epicenter of the "loft jazz" movement. The all-night jam sessions (it was considered bad form to show up before 11pm) were often frequented by celebrities as Salvador Dali, Norman Mailer and Williem de Kooning and "there always seemed to be many pretty young women present, and ample bourbon and marijuana".

The Lasting Significance of Tin Pan Alley on Popular Culture

Without exaggeration, it can be asserted that this is the block where the popular music industry as we now know it began. The business practices initiated here are still in use, in modified form, today. This was where, for the first time, music companies learned to go out to the public, rather than let the public come to them. The whole concept of song promotion had its roots in the "plugging" methods devised by Tin Pan Alley publishers and writers. Plugging functioned much like today's marketing – the object was to get a song heard by as many people as possible. Songwriters on 28th Street made the rounds of dozens of cafes, music halls, saloons, and theaters nightly, pitching songs, getting them sung by performers, and devising creative methods to get the songs recognized (what we would today refer to as promotion). Singalongs, free sheet music distribution, staged events (whereby a songwriter pretended to be part of an onstage act) – these were a few of the plugging/marketing techniques initiated in the Alley. Irving Berlin went to work for Harry Von Tilzer when he was 16 as a plugger, around 1904.

There are a number of still-known songs which were published while Tin Pan Alley was located on 28th Street. Albert Von Tilzer's "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" is one of the most famous of them. It was published from 40 West 28th Street, in a building that today looks largely the same as it did in 1908, when "Ballgame" appeared. Other songs published from 28th Street include "In the Good Old Summer Time," "My Gal Sal" (by Paul Dresser, brother of Theodore Dreiser), and "Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie." There were also pioneering works of ragtime and African-American music published here, including what historians often consider to be one of the first ragtime compositions, Ben Harney's "You've Been a Good Old Wagon, But You've Done Broke Down" (1896). It was published by the Witmarks at number 49-51, and is now a blues standard.

Here are some other well-known classics of the era:

  • "The Sidewalks of New York" (Lawlor & Blake, 1894)
  • "The Band Played On" (Charles B. Ward & John F. Palmer, 1895)
  • "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" (Joe Hayden & Theodore Mertz, 1896)
  • "Hello! Ma Baby (Hello Ma Ragtime Gal)" (Emerson, Howard, & Sterling, 1899)
  • "Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage" (Harry Von Tilzer, 1900)
  • "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home" (Huey Cannon, 1902)
  • "In the Good Old Summertime" (Ren Shields & George Evans, 1902)
  • "Give My Regards To Broadway" (George M. Cohan, 1904)
  • "Shine Little Glow Worm" (Paul Lincke & Lilla Cayley Robinson, 1907)
  • "Shine on Harvest Moon" (Nora Bayes & Jack Norworth, 1908)
  • "By The Light of the Silvery Moon" (Gus Edwards & Edward Madden, 1909)

28th Street is where the whole idea of the song/sheet music as marketable product was created. Songs were divided into categories and styles, much like today's genre divisions of "country," "hip-hop," "soft rock," etc. Also, it is where publishers and writers really learned to advertise, via newspaper ads that made grandiose statements and claims. The offering of payment or other amenities in exchange for performances, also began here, decades before rock DJs like Alan Freed met their downfall as a result of this practice. As such, 28th Street represents the beginning of the pop music hit machine.

Tin Pan Alley

By Michael Minn

This section of West 28th Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway was the home of American Music at the start of the 20th century. At that time, publishers hired piano players to demo songs for performers and other potential buyers. The commingled sound of the pianos coming from the open windows on this block earned it the nickname "Tin Pan Alley." Aside from launching the writing careers of Scott Joplin, George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin and (possibly) George Gershwin (among many others), Tin Pan Alley also was the birthplace of the modern music industry, with music developed, categorized and marketed as a commodity for mass distribution - which then meant sheet music for the increasing number of home pianos.

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Left to right: 8/3/2006 06:58 p.m. Tin Pan Alley, 11/17/2008 03:45 p.m. Vintage doorway to 49 West 28th St., 11/17/2008 03:42 PM 47-53 West 28th St.
©Michael Minn

After music activity on the block peaked around 1906 or so, music publishers continued the march to the midtown theatre district and were all gone by 1911. Proposals during the building boom of the 1920s to demolish 49-55 and build a loft building never came to fruition. The depression (and associated dearth of private redevelopment activity) helped preserve the buildings and the block was spared during the urban renewal craze of the 1950s and 1960s. The upper floors of the buildings ultimately became residential with a variety of different businesses inhabiting the first floor retail spaces.

The exact origin of the name "Tin Pan Alley" is lost in time. Although commonly attributed to songwriter and New York Herald reporter Monroe Rosenfeld, the earliest citation for the name seems to be an article in the New York World from May 3, 1903 written by Roy L. McCardell (who almost certainly did not invent the term himself):

A Visit to "Tin Pan Alley," Where the Popular Songs Come From
"Tin Pan Alley?" - it's twenty-eighth street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, the centre of the song publishing business in this country, and it gets its name from the jangling of pianos that are banged and rattled there day and night as new songs are being "tried on." Every day you'll see noted people in the musical comedy world hunting in the "Alley" for sonts that will add to their fame - Paula Edwardes, Marie Cahill, Blanche Ring, Dan Daly, Marie Dressler and Lew Dockstader active in the hunt.

The row houses on the block themselves date from the 1850s through the 1870s. The beginning of music publishing on this block is commonly dated as 1893, when music publisher M. Witmark & Sons moved in to 49 West 28th Street. The 1894 NYC City Directory lists his business at 51 West 28th Street, but by 1898, Witmark had moved one block uptown to 8 West 29th Street. By 1905 Witmark had moved to 144 West 37th, where they seem to have remained for quite awhile. In 1925, the Arthur W. Tams Music Library and the Witmark Music Library merged to create Tams-Witmark, an organization that became very well known in amateur theatre circles as the licensing agency for many classic American musical theatre works. In 1929, Witmark was bought out by Warner Brothers following the death of Julius Witmark.

Left: 1894 M. Witmark and Sons listing in the 1894 NYC City Directory
Right: 1898 M. Witmark and Sons listing in the 1898 NYC City Directory
©Michael Minn

However, even as the Witmarks were moving uptown, other musical businesses were moving into the block. Although the 1902 NYC Business Directory does not have a separate category for "Music Publishers", there are a number of "Dramatic Agents" and "Music Printers" on the block:

  • 36 West 28th: Leo Feist Inc.
  • 43 West 28th: Brooks and Co.
  • 45 West 28th: Shapiro, Bernstein and VonTilzer
  • 46 West 28th: Fostell and Norcross
  • 57 West 28th: American Song Co.

Left to right: 1902 Dramatic agents pp 1, 1902 Dramatic agents pp 2, 1902 Music printers ©Michael Minn

By 1905 there was a separate NYC Business Directory category for Music Publishers, perhaps indicating the increasing sophistication of the business. Of the 152 companies listed, 24 were on West 28th Street.

  • 17 West 28th: Armstrong Music Pub Co.
  • 17 West 28th: Continental Music Co.
  • 37 West 28th: Harry VonTilzer Music Pub Co.
  • 40 West 28th: York Music Co.
  • 41 West 28th: P.J. Howley (inc)
  • 41 West 28th: National Music Co.
  • 41 West 28th: Windsor Music Co.
  • 42 West 28th: Gotham Music Pub Co.
  • 43 West 28th: Edwin S. Brill
  • 44 West 28th: Enterprise Music Supply Co.
  • 44 West 28th: Theatrical Music Supply Co.
  • 45 West 28th: Jerome H. Remick and Co. (inc)
  • 46 West 28th: E.T. Paull Music Co.
  • 47 West 28th: Falter Brothers
  • 48 West 28th: W.H. Anstead
  • 48 West 28th: Woodward Willis and Co.
  • 48 West 28th: Helf and Hager Co.
  • 51 West 28th: Joseph J. Kaiser Music Pub Co.
  • 51 West 28th: Paul Dresser Pub Co.
  • 53 West 28th: Cosmopolitan Music Co.
  • 53 West 28th: Entre Nous Pub Co.
  • 55 West 28th: Golding Music Co.
  • 109 West 28th: A.W. Tams Music Library
  • 114 West 28th: American Music Co.

Left to right: 1905 Music publishers pp 1, 1905 Music publishers pp 2 ©Michael Minn

The party continued in 1906 with 36 publishers listed on the block. There were still a few "agents" there as well, although they seemed to be congregating on 42nd Street and in a handful of buildings further uptown on Broadway (1133, 1358, 1402, 1440, 1441, 1520, etc.).

  • 6 West 28th: Vincent Bryan Music Co.
  • 17 West 28th: Armstrong Music Pub Co.
  • 17 West 28th: Continental Music Co.
  • 17 West 28th: Deluxe Music Co.
  • 36 West 28th: Bernstein and Onken (agents)
  • 37 West 28th: Harry VonTilzer Music Publishing Co.
  • 39 West 28th: Thomas D. Hames
  • 39 West 28th: Henry B. Ingram
  • 39 West 28th: Charles F. Lietz and Co.
  • 39 West 28th: Plunkett and Co.
  • 40 West 28th: York Music Co.
  • 41 West 28th: P.J. Howley (inc)
  • 41 West 28th: Windsor Music Co.
  • 42 West 28th: Gotham-Attucks Music Co.
  • 43 West 28th: Edwin S. Brill
  • 43 West 28th: Gerard Music Co.
  • 45 West 28th: Jerome H. Remick and Co.
  • 46 West 28th: Bell Music Co.
  • 46 West 28th: Enterprise Music Supply Co.
  • 46 West 28th: E.T. Paull Music Co.
  • 48 West 28th: Helf and Hager Co.
  • 48 West 28th: Woodward Willis and Co.
  • 51 West 28th: J. Henry Allen (agent)
  • 51 West 28th: Paul Dresser Pub Co.
  • 51 West 28th: Harry Ennis Music Co.
  • 51 West 28th: Joseph J. Kaiser
  • 51 West 28th: Leveen Music Pub Co.
  • 51 West 28th: Manhattan Music Co.
  • 51 West 28th: Old Dominion Music Co.
  • 51 West 28th: Seveen Music Publishing Co.
  • 53 West 28th: Entre Nous Pub Co.
  • 53 West 28th: Edward Rogers Music Publishing Co.
  • 55 West 28th: Shepard N. Edmonds
  • 55 West 28th: Melville Music Pub Co.
  • 57 West 28th: North American Music Co.
  • 109 West 29th: Arthur W. Tams Music Library
  • 114 West 28th: American Music Pub Co.
  • 114 West 28th: Sterling Music Publishing Co.

1906 Dramatic agents ©Michael Minn

Left to right: 1906 Music publishers pp 1, 1906 Music publishers pp 2 ©Michael Minn

Things were still going strong in 1907 with 38 publishers listed on West 28th St. Although when "Cut Rate Music Co." moves to your block, you can figure your best days are in the past.

  • 17 West 28th: Century Music Pub Co
  • 17 West 28th: Cut Rate Music Co
  • 17 West 28th: DeLuxe Music Co
  • 17 West 28th: Globe Music Co.
  • 17 West 28th: Home Music Co
  • 36 West 28th: Franklin-Barrett Co
  • 37 West 28th: Harry VonTilzer Music Pub Co
  • 39 West 28th: Thomas Brady
  • 39 West 28th: Charles F. Lietz and Co
  • 39 West 28th: Robert J. Moore
  • 39 West 28th: Plunkett and Co
  • 40 West 28th: York Music Co
  • 41 West 28th: P.J. Howley (inc)
  • 42 West 28th: Gotham-Attucks Music Co
  • 43 West 28th: Helf and Hager Co
  • 44 West 28th: Barron and Thompson Co
  • 45 West 28th: Jerome H. Remick and Co
  • 46 West 28th: Clover Leaf Music Pub Co
  • 46 West 28th: Enterprise Music Supply Co
  • 46 West 28th: E.T. Paull Music Co
  • 48 West 28th: Teschner Music Co
  • 48 West 28th: H.J. Wood Co
  • 48 West 28th: Woodward Willis and Co
  • 51 West 28th: Archer and Lemonier
  • 51 West 28th: Paul Dresser Pub Co
  • 51 West 28th: James H. Elliott
  • 51 West 28th: Leveen Music Pub Co
  • 51 West 28th: Mozart Music Co
  • 51 West 28th: Old Dominion Music Co
  • 53 West 28th: Entre Nous Pub Co
  • 53 West 28th: Charles Kohlman Co
  • 53 West 28th: Wm H Nelson
  • 53 West 28th: Selig Music Pub Co
  • 55 West 28th: Nathan Bivens
  • 55 West 28th: Shepard N. Edmonds Music Pub Co
  • 55 West 28th: Melville Music Pub Co
  • 57 West 28th: North American Music Co
  • 109 West 28th: A.W. Tams Music Library

Left to right: 1907 Music Publishers pp 1, 1907 Music Publishers pp 2 ©Michael Minn

Sometime between 1907 and 1911 most of the publishers on 28th Street went out of business or moved uptown. Unfortunately, the NYPL microfilms are missing pages from the NYC Business Directory during this period, but by 1911 and 1912 there only appear to be a handful of stragglers on West 28th St in an office building that was on the east side of Broadway. By 1916, there were no music publishers listed on West 28th Street at all. It was Tin Pan Alley no more.

  • 17 West 28th: Century Music Pub
  • 17 West 28th: Conservatory Pub So
  • 17 West 28th: DeLuxe Music Co
  • West 28th: Will Wood

1906 Dramatic agents ©Michael Minn

Left to right: 1912 Music publishers pp 1, 1912 Music publishers pp 2 ©Michael Minn

Left to right: 1916 Music publishers pp 1, 1916 Music publishers pp 2 ©Michael Minn

Jim Naureckas' New York Songlines site details some additional history of individual buildings, including the names of songs published in these buildings that are still remembered by some today.

On an prurient side note, 34 West 28th St was originally a church, but became a the Everard Baths in 1888. By 1918 it was serving a primarily gay clientele and survived with the nickname "Ever-Hard Baths" until AIDS shut it down in 1985.

Interestingly, I remembered photographing this block in 2006 while on a completely different quest. I had the sense that there was something special and majestic about these buildings, boldly representing a low-rise New York that had long been vanquished on surrounding blocks. Perhaps it was the ghost of one of the Whitmarks or Remicks, asking me to remember.

All contents of this article ©1997–2012 by Michael Minn except where otherwise specifically noted. All rights reserved.