Prehistory of Term "Tin Pan Alley"

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Thu Jul 28 11:29:13 UTC 2011

Barry Popik has antedated the OED's first use of "Tin Pan Alley" (the district of New York housing many song writers and song publishers) by five years, back to 1903.  In  searching America's Historical Newspapers, I find that "Tin Pan Alley" was used to refer to a raucous street in New Haven, with no musical connotation, in five articles in the New Haven Evening Register in 1890 (also in an 1892 article and an 1894 article in the same newspaper).  The earliest citation is as follows:

1890 _New Haven Evening Register_ 8 Aug. 4 (America's Historical Newspapers)  There was a rumpus among a number of women in Tin Pan alley on Wednesday and the result was that Mrs. Eleanor Church and Mrs. Mamie Arthur were before the city court this morning charged with a breach of the peace on each other.  Tin Pan alley branches off from Wallace Street and is, so a witness told Judge Pickett this morning, the worst place in town.

I hypothesize that "Tin Pan Alley" was used originally to refer to any noisy street (from the sound of beating a tin pan) and the usage eventually morphed into a specific reference to the noisy piano-clanging district of New York.

Fred Shapiro
YALE BOOK OF QUOTATIONS (Yale University Press)

The American Dialect Society -

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