Eline Cover

Unseen Unsightliness: The history of street organs and disabled veterans


What preceded this research (March 2019)

The sign itself was inconspicuous, merely one of the many text blocks printed among the map of Europe at the organ courtyard of Museum Speelklok.[1] I had just visited a temporary exhibition, showcasing musical robots, and now wandered about the permanent exhibition. It read:



Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria (1717-1780) granted permits to play the hurdy-gurdy on the street to veterans who had become injured in one of the many wars. A similar type of permit was issued to former soldiers in Germany after the First World War (1914-1918) to play belly organs and street pianos. This gave them a way to earn money. As a result, the belly organ and street piano became widely associated with the disabled and vagabonds.


Despite its modest size, the sign nestled itself so quickly inside my identity as a disabled person that my heart skipped a beat. I never experienced exceptionally affectionate emotions regarding street organs and their music (quite the opposite, in fact) and I still do not. The reason I reacted so strongly to this sign was that I felt represented. Unexpectedly encountering this fundamental aspect of my identity in a museum was an experience I had not had before.

What is left unseen?

“In a museum, representation matters. Who is represented, why, and in what way? These are questions that lie at the heart of why a museum exists. It means that the museum is a place where notions of visibility and invisibility come into play. What examples of visibility and invisibility can we discern if the museum is taken as the materialization of collective memory? And what do we see if we look at these questions through an intersectional and decolonial lens?”[2]

Vocalized here by Nancy Jouwe, cultural historian and MOED researcher, these questions were at the core of the exhibition ‘MOED: What is Left Unseen’, on display from February 16 until June 30 2019 in the Centraal Museum in Utrecht. The exhibition aimed to de-center the white, male, European, heterosexual and Christian gaze, thereby creating space for intersectional and decolonial perspectives.

Projects such as these are urgent and long overdue, but rarely do they center a fundamental aspect of my own identity: disability. I will not go into the reasons why disability has been continuously marginalized in cultural representation; this question warrants its own analysis.[3] In this IN CONVERSATION WITH I will retrace the historical context of organ-playing disabled veterans to which the sign in Museum Speelklok alludes. Additionally, I will take some tentative first steps in reimagining a cultural landscape in which disability is centered from an intersectional and decolonial perspective.


(c) Museum Speelklok
Depot for rental barrel organs in Berlin around 1920; similar firms were established in Hamburg and Bremen. The organs are equipped with covers to protect them against the rain. The precise dating, location and identity of the people in the picture are unknown. © Museum Speelklok

The history of barrel organ men

The wars of the nineteenth century, in particular the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), had left many Prussian and Austrian veterans with permanent injuries. Poor houses, infirmaries and newly founded Invalidenhäuser were unable to accommodate their numbers, forcing them to the streets. Austrian empress Maria-Theresa (1717-1780) and later the Prussian kings decreed that so-called “Werkelmann” (male barrel organ player) permits for playing portable hand-cranked barrel organs were to be given out to the veterans as a way of thanking them for serving their country.[4] The permit offered disabled veterans an alternative to begging and allowed them to earn a meager income to support themselves and their families. Their organs were probably first produced in Germany and Austria; especially after the Napoleonic Wars they became a common sight in the streets.[5] Image 1 shows a depot for rental barrel organs in Berlin around 1920; in Germany similar firms were established in Hamburg and Bremen. The organs are equipped with covers to protect them against the rain. Licenses such as the Werkelmann permits were also given out in other countries. New York, for instance, instituted a hand-organ license for “the blind, the lame, the Grand Army men (disabled veterans) and the aged” in 1889.[6] Around 1900 the municipality of Amsterdam limited the dispensation of street music permits to 30 per year and decreed that only people who were unable to do other work due to illness or disability were eligible.[7]

In 1838 there were around 800 organ players in Vienna. They belonged to the lowest social class and were not considered as full musicians, although they were popular among the broader Viennese population because of their repertoire. Obtaining a permit to play a barrel organ was no small feat and the procedures were often restrictive and humiliating. Applicants had to be of impeccable moral character and they were forced to prove their flawless lifestyle every year for the duration of the concession. Disabled veterans were heavily favored over disabled civilians when permits were given out. Prussian princedoms taxed their organ players in order to keep track of them and other ‘travelling folk’. By the end of the nineteenth century the popularity of Werkelmänner waned; by 1914 their numbers had dropped to 100 and to 57 in 1920. The 1930 Vienna Theater Act led to a suspension of new licenses and Prussia instated a general ban on street music in 1938. Save a handful of organ players, the Werkelmann trade died out.[8]

Too unsightly to be seen in public

The barrel organ became an icon for the controversies surrounding disabled veterans. Could they be reintegrated into the nation and, if so, how? Were men with disabled bodies to be viewed as heroes, pitiful victims, or ordinary citizens?[9] Fearing the effect disabled veterans returning from World War One might have on the general public, government officials reverted back to law to keep them off the streets. In Berlin, for example, paragraph 57 of the Commercial Code was employed, which prohibited the issuing of commercial permits to applicants with “a repulsive or contagious illness,” to applicants “disfigured in a repulsive way,” “blind, deaf or dumb” applicants and those suffering “from mental weakness (Geistesschwäche)”.[10]

‘Ugly laws’ such as these were aimed at so-called “unsightly beggars”, criminalizing those who were perceived to threaten healthy and aesthetic city spaces by exposing themselves to the public view. The term ugly laws was coined by disability activists Marcia Pearce Burgdorf and Robert Burgdorf, Jr. It encompasses a wide variety of municipal laws and ordinances from the mid-1700s until the 1970s regulating begging and peddling in public spaces in Europe and the United States.[11] They are inextricably linked to poverty and the rise of charity organizations.[12] Determining who was unsightly was tricky business and there were widespread suspicions regarding fakers and frauds, fed by sham narratives in media outlets.

Ugly laws regulated not only what could be seen, but also what could be heard. Municipal codes also targeted the songs, cries and music inhabiting cities’ streets.[13] Disabled veterans and their barrel organs often formed a significant exception to ugly laws, however. In many cities they were permitted to continue peddling, making music and street-selling. Somehow their missing limbs and other visible impairments did not render them unsightly the same way as disabled civilians. Honorably discharged disabled soldiers and sailors were considered ‘unnaturally abnormal’ and received both the municipalities’ and the public’s sympathy, while civilians who had been born with their impairments or had been rendered disabled later in life were considered ‘naturally abnormal’ and received little to no support.[14] Both the organ licenses for disabled veterans and the emergence of ugly laws can be understood in relation to hierarchical attitudes towards disability. How was this hierarchy constructed?


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Armless men and boys learning to write and paint with their toes at the ‘Heritage School of Arts and Crafts for raid-shocked and crippled children’ (Chailey, England). Note the sign in the background saying “MEN MADE HERE”. © Imperial War Museum Q30554

Going beyond the surface

Civilian disability was no rare phenomenon in the nineteenth century. It was a result of (childhood) disease, increasingly industrialized employment and other facets of urban life such as road accidents and sports. New forms of warfare and lethal weapon technologies created a new category of disability, especially during World War One. The severity and visibility of impairments increased and the demographic of the disabled population as a whole shifted to young and fit men (70% of World War I amputees were younger than 30).[15] One crucial difference between civilian and military disability is the extraordinary symbolic significance that states attached to the bodies of disabled veterans. They were seen as instruments for evoking loyalty, sacrifice and the legitimization of that monopoly. In turn, states and the general public felt an obligation to express their gratitude for the sacrifices disabled veterans made, creating a gap between them and disabled civilians. In other words, the boundaries of the stigmas usually attached to disabled civilians were eroded by disabled veterans.[16] These two groups were forced to compete against each other for limited financial and emotional resources. In particular during and after World War One, the obligation states and civilians sensed towards disabled veterans greatly varied.[17]

Another factor which set apart disabled veterans from disabled civilians was a hyperfocus on masculinity. Before World War One, the language around disability generally centered childlikeness, passivity, blame and helplessness. Once disabled soldiers started coming home from the war front a clear shift towards more positive and active language towards disabled veterans can be observed, centering collective responsibility.[18] Prior to the war disability was feminized, fetishized and denied; by contrast, rehabilitation of disabled veterans often focused on making them into men again. Image 2 shows two children and a young men learning how to write and paint with their feet at the ‘Heritage School of Arts and Crafts for raid-shocked and crippled children’ (Chailey, England), after their arms had been amputated. The sign in the background reads MEN MADE HERE, leaving no doubt about the school’s mission. Another striking example of this phenomenon is the success of the high-profile charity organization Disabled Soldier’s Embroidery Industry, which temporarily synonymized traditionally feminizing and subjugatory needlework with patriotism and masculinity.[19] Image 3 shows a sampler from the Disabled Soldier’s Embroidery Industry with floral and animal motives. The struggle of integrating a new disability into one’s masculine identity is also reflected in personal archives, correspondences and autobiographies.[20] Despite all efforts, however, the privileged status of disabled veterans turned out to be short-lived. By the mid-1920s their disabilities were normalized and the state and the public reverted to pre-war attitudes towards disability, largely closing the gap between the hierarchical status of disabled veterans and civilians.[21]


(c) Imperial War Museum EPH 6022
Sampler from the Disabled Soldier’s Embroidery Industry with floral and animal motives. © Imperial War Museum EPH 6022


Deconstructing the hierarchy of disability on a more fundamental level requires a move away from conventional historiographical approaches. We have seen that views regarding societal obligation and masculinity set apart disabled veterans from disabled civilians, providing important contextual information for understanding why disabled veterans were often exempted from ugly laws. But if disabled veterans were condoned in public spaces, then who was targeted by these laws and ordinances? Ugly laws materialized norms regarding class, gender, race, poverty, age, sexuality, criminality, religion and national identity. Those who were unable or unwilling to commit to these norms, often because one or more of their identities intersected with illness and disability, were lumped together in the unsightly beggar category. Female beggars with a disability, for example, were not only defined in terms of their “deformities, handicaps and injuries”, but also by their “lack of attraction” and other aesthetic judgements.[22] Especially in the United States ugly laws were closely related to integration laws and race-segregation laws. A disproportionate number of black people in American cities with ugly laws fell in the unsightly beggar category because the health of many black citizens plummeted due to the African American health crisis in the late nineteenth century.[23] In an attempt to sanitize public spaces ugly laws targeted individuals and groups who were not perceived to fit the norm; exponentially so when multiple identities of these individuals and groups were minoritized. Intersectional lenses are indispensable in this regard.

In addition to a multitude of intersectional perspectives, the hierarchy of disability must primarily be understood in relation to disability history.[24] However, even the category of disability itself is contested. In the context of disability rights, disability is often used as a frame that privileges some disabilities at the expense of others. The disability rights discourse tends to favor disabilities adhering to white, male, middle-class and physical (rather than ‘invisible’) norms. As a result, disabilities caused by global injustice, ecocide, war, colonialism, disparity of resources, occupation and imperialism (mostly affecting those living in the global South) often remain invisible. The so-called “debility” framework aims to disrupt this bias in the application of the category of disability by calling for intersectional analyses, postcolonial theories and critical race theories.[25] In other words, not only the subjects of our research warrant intersectional and decolonial perspectives, but also our tools and theories.


This research started from my shock of unexpected representation and curiosity to learn more about the historical connection between barrel organs and disabled veterans. Permits for begging, peddling and making street music were given out by European and American cities in the nineteenth and early twentieth century so disabled veterans could make a living. These permits were closely related to the emergence of ugly laws regulating the presence of unsightly beggars in public spaces. Disabled veterans were placed at the top of the disability hierarchy as a result of feelings of obligation and attitudes regarding masculinity. Those who were affected more severely by ugly laws were people with one or more non-normative identities intersecting with disability.

The premise of the exhibition ‘MOED: What is Left Unseen’ urged me to look beyond the surface and encouraged me to keep questioning who remains invisible and why. Focusing on disabled veterans from a singular perspective would have eclipsed the existence of the disability hierarchy and the effects it had on other groups. If these perspectives in turn had been left unseen, I would not have been able to reconstruct the broader context of this particular part of disability history. Seemingly straightforward historical research brought to light competing agencies, interests and power relations not only within the subject itself, but also within the analytical tools applied.

Intersectional and decolonial lenses help us ask different questions, uncovering realities which would otherwise remain invisible. If we are to see museums as a materialization of collective memory, as the exhibition ‘MOED: What is Left Unseen’ proposed, the ongoing lack of representation of disability is disturbing. Disability is an integral part of the human experience; the World Health Organization’s 2011 World report on disability estimates that around 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability.[26] Leaving over one billion people unseen denies their existence and discards their contributions to communities all over the world. In this respect it is significant that the sign in Museum Speelklok only consists of text; the disabled veterans in question are not represented through pictures or photographs. When the museum’s staff provided me with image 1 they were able to retrieve little information about the dating, location and identity of the people in the photograph. If museums are indeed to be seen as a materialization of collective memory and their knowledge of this particular historical phenomenon is lacking, what does this say about the perceived importance of disability in general? Fortunately, representation can take many forms: centering disability in research and exhibitions, including the perspectives of disabled artists, curators and visitors, using non-stigmatizing language and providing universal access.[27] The importance of centering a wide variety of disabled perspectives, including non-white, queer, migrant, age diverse and other voices, cannot be overstated . This way, museums have the opportunity to create spaces in which we can ask ourselves who is represented, why, and in what way.

Many thanks to Museum Speelklok, Head of Marketing & Communication Lisette Biere in particular, and historian Henning Ballmann for their research, enthusiasm and overall helpfulness.


Eline Pollaert (she/her) has a background in Religious Studies and Ancient History. She graduated from Leiden University in 2016. Currently she works as a project assistant for the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force of Utrecht University. Additionally, she is one of the hosts of the Dutch podcast Ziek, which centers the narratives of chronically ill and disabled people from an intersectional perspective.


[1] Museum Speelklok is a Dutch museum located in Utrecht which displays self-playing musical instruments, such as musical clocks and boxes, orchestrions and traditional Dutch street organs. See also https://www.museumspeelklok.nl/ lang/en/.

[2] Rosemarie Buikema, Layal Ftouni, Nancy Jouwe, Bart Rutten, Rolando Vázquez and Rosa Wevers, What is Left Unseen (Boxtel: Drukkerij Tielen, 2019), 31.

[3] A good place to start exploring this question in the context of modern western art history is Ann Millett-Gallant’s The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). It places the work of disabled and non-disabled artists in critical dialogue from the perspective of disability studies.

[4] Metzger Wolfram, Drehorgeln: schaurig-schön (Karlsruhe: Info Verlag, 1994), 42-44.

[5] Claes O. Friberg, “The portable hand-cranked barrel organ: Its history and makers,” Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments, ed. Q. David Bowers (Vestal, N.Y.: Vestal Press, 1972), 805.

[6] Susan M. Schweik, The ugly laws: disability in public (New York : New York University, 2009), 211.

[7] Suzanne Rietmeijer, “Herrie of Vertier?” Ons Amsterdam (2017), accessed August 21, 2019, https://onsamsterdam.nl/herrie-of- vertier.

[8] Ernst Weber, “Werkelmann (Werkelfrau),” Oesterreichisches Musiklexikon Online (2001), accessed August 19, 2019, https://www.musiklexikon.ac.at/ml/musik_W/Werkelmann.xml.

[9] Carol Poore, Disability in Twentieth-Century German Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), 7.

[10] Molly Loberg, “Berlin streets: politics, commerce and crowds, 1918-1938” (PhD diss., Princeton University, 2006), 75.

[11] Gary L. Albrecht general ed., Encyclopedia of disability (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2006), 1575–1576.

[12] Schweik, The ugly laws, 40-62.

[13] Derek Vaillaint, “Peddling Noise: Contesting the Civic Soundscape of Chicago, 1890-1913”, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 96:3 (Autumn 2003): 259-260.

[14] Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War (cago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 44.

[15] Bourke, Dismembering the Male, 37.

[16] David A. Gerber, “Disabled Veterans and the Wounds of War”, The Oxford Handbook of Disability History, edited by Michael Rembis et al. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018), 478-488.

[17] In post-World War One Britain, the state felt that its obligations were limited and public charity organisations provided most of the support. This led to a good integration of disabled veterans in civilian society. In post-World War One Germany, on the contrary, the government heavily invested in state-secured employment for disabled veterans and the best social services in Europe. Paradoxically, the German state’s monopoly on charity prevented social reintegration and left both disabled veterans and civilian society estranged and hostile. See also Maria Kett and Leo van Bergen, “Disability and socioeconomic inclusion after World War 1”, The Lancet Vol 384, Issue 9955, 8–14 (November 2014): 1646-1647 and Deborah Cohen, The war come home: disabled veterans in Britain and German 1914-1939 (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2001).

[18] Bourke, Dismembering the Male, 37-41.

[19] Joseph Mcbrinn, “‘The work of masculine fingers’: the Disabled Soldiers’ Embroidery Industry, 1918–1955”, Journal of Design History, Vol. 31:1 (2018): 1-23.

[20] Wendy Jane Gagen, “Remastering the Body, Renegotiating Gender: Physical Disability and Masculinity during the First World War, the Case of J. B. Middlebrook”, European Review of History: Revue europeenne d’histoire Vol.14:4 (01 December 2007): 525-541.

[21] Bourke, Dismembering the Male, 75.

[22] Ben Reitman, Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha (Oakland, California: Nabat/AK Press, first published in 1937, 2002), 281-283.

[23] Due to the Civil War, the health subsystem of the enslaved population of the United States collapsed. Combined with preexisting health deficits due to slavery, abandonment by the mainstream health system and continuing discriminatory health policies and treatments this led to a health crisis. These race-based health disparities persist until today. See also W. Michael Byrd and Linda A. Clayton, “Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Healthcare: A Background and History.” Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Healthcare, edited by Ed. Brian D. Smedley et al. (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2002), 471.

[24] Schweik, The ugly laws, 141-204.

[25] Jasbir K. Puar, The right to maim: debility, capacity, disability (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 1-31.

[26] Read the full report on https://www.who.int/disabilities/world_report/2011/en/ (accessed August 23, 2019).

[27] The Van Abbemuseum, for example, offers tours and programs for visitors with a variety of disabilities. Note that these provisions are nevertheless framed as “special needs”, which is perceived to be an ineffective and stigmatizing euphemism problematizing disabled people’s access requirements. See also https://vanabbemuseum.nl/en/mediation/inclusion/.



Albrecht, Gary L., general editor. Encyclopedia of disability. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2006.

Bourke, Joanna. Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Buikema, Rosemarie, Layal Ftouni, Nancy Jouwe, Bart Rutten, Rolando Vázquez and Rosa Wevers. What is Left Unseen (Catalogue of the exhibition ‘MOED: What is Left Unseen’ at Centraal Museum in Utrecht from February 16 until June 30, 2019). Boxtel: Drukkerij Tielen, 2019.

Cohen, Deborah. The war come home: disabled veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914-1939. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2001.

Friberg, Claes O., “The portable hand-cranked barrel organ: Its history and makers”. Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments, edited by Q. David Bowers, 805. Vestal, N.Y.: Vestal Press, 1972.

Gagen, Wendy Jane. “Remastering the Body, Renegotiating Gender: Physical Disability and Masculinity during the First World War, the Case of J. B. Middlebrook”. In European Review of History: Revue europeenne d’histoire, Vol 14:4 (1 December 2007): 525-541.

Gerber, David A., “Disabled Veterans and the Wounds of War”, The Oxford Handbook of Disability History, edited by Michael Rembis, Catherine Kudlick, and Kim E. Nielsen. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Kett, Maria and Bergen, Leo van, “Disability and socioeconomic inclusion after World War 1.” In The Lancet, Vol 384:9955 (8–14 November 2014): 1646-1647.

Loberg, Molly. “Berlin streets: politics, commerce and crowds, 1918-1938”. PhD diss., Princeton University, 2006.

Mcbrinn, Joseph, “‘The work of masculine fingers’: the Disabled Soldiers’ Embroidery Industry, 1918–1955”, Journal of Design History, Vol 31:1 (2018): 1-23.

Poore, Carol. Disability in Twentieth-Century German Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007.

Puar, Jasbir K., The right to maim: debility, capacity, disability. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

Reitman, Ben. Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha (1937). Oakland, California: Nabat/AK Press, 2002.

Rietmeijer, Suzanne. “Herrie of Vertier?” In Ons Amsterdam, 2017. Accessed August 21, 2019. https://onsamsterdam.nl/herrie-of-vertier.

Schweik, Susan M., The ugly laws: disability in public. New York : New York University, 2009.

Vaillaint, Derek, “Peddling Noise: Contesting the Civic Soundscape of Chicago, 1890-1913”, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol 96:3 (Autumn 2003): 259-260.

Weber, Ernst. “Werkelmann (Werkelfrau)” in Oesterreichisches Musiklexikon Online, 2001. Accessed August 19, 2019. https://www.musiklexikon.ac.at/ml/musik_W/Werkelmann.xml.

Wolfram, Metzger. Drehorgeln: schaurig-schön (Katalog zur Ausstellung des Badischen Landesmuseums im Schloss Bruchsal vom 28. Mai bis 11. September 1994). Karlsruhe: Info Verlag, 1994.