NICE, 1998


Piano-organ with a picture of the "Casino de la Jetée-Promenade"

The automatic piano-organs
World War I and the interwar period
The drop...
... And the rebirth
Picture Credits



    The integration of Nice to France, in 1860, has been the beginning of its economic wealth. The government of Emperor Napoléon III made so much public works, that one could say that France had done more in ten years, than Savoy in five centuries! The arrival of railway to Nice, the building of the "Promenade des Anglais", the embellishing of the new city, were to attract a lot of rich tourists, and Nice became soon a favourite destination for Italian migrants, essentially from the neighbouring Piemont (1).
    It is in this context that Joseph Nallino (2) has created in Nice, in 1872, a factory of automatic piano-organs.

Joseph Nallino, the founder

    Joseph Nallino is born in Cuneo (Piemont, Italy), on the 14 September of 1848. Son of late married parents, both formerly widowed, he got two sisters, Anna and Lucia, and a brother, Florent. Joseph and his family went to Nice in 1860, at the time of integration of Nice to France. In 1866, at the occasion of his military census (3), his business was "calzificio" (shoemaker), like his father. In 1868, he left France to accomplish his military duty in Italy (4). At this time, he learnt the business of automatic piano-organs maker, probably in Beinette (Piemont), where his parents had married, and where was located, according to local tradition, a factory "related to music", in the 19th century.
    In 1872, back in France, he founded a factory of automatic piano-organs, at the 6 Bonaparte Street (5). It is probably from the Italian community in Nice that he borrowed the money that he needed to begin his activity: the ones that were already installed did not hesitate to lend to the newcomers (6).
    In 1873, he married Catherine Paolino, herself daughter of Italian migrants. He became naturalised French in 1894.
The premises located 6 Bonaparte Street, where up to twenty workers were employed, became soon too small. Joseph changed for the 36 Bonaparte Street, used as a selling centre, and founded a new factory, in Riquier suburb, located at the 4 Mont-Boron Boulevard (7).
    From this factory, fifty automatic piano-organs were built each month, made by an equal number of workers. The entire piano-organ was made there, driving mechanism, nailed cylinder, soundboard, ornamental panels; some parts were subcontracted to local suppliers (8).
    In 1909, Joseph was associated to E. Tadini (9). From this partnership remains the only known catalogue of the factory, with a drawing that gives an idea of the building, that was approximately 120 m large by 200 m long.

The factory, 4 Mont-Boron Boulevard, in 1909

The automatic piano-organs

    The automatic piano-organs have appeared in the mid of 19th century, in Piemont. The first models built by Joseph Nallino were similar to Piemont ones: small-sized, with a reduced number of hammers, they were street models, used by singers and itinerant musicians, like they did with barrel-organs.

Cuconato piano-organ, Torino, circa 1860

    However, Joseph brought very soon noticeable improvements to the original designs, that transformed the street piano in a true orchestra: the increase of the number of hammers, up to eighty, the adding of percussion instruments (cymbals, drums, bells, castanets, triangle, sleigh-bells) gave a great musical richness (10), and changed the street piano into a ball instrument, very appreciated in the "guinguettes".

One of the first automatic piano-organs made by Joseph Nallino, with its street pedestal, circa 1880; outside and inside views

    The principle of automatic piano-organs resembles a lot to the one of music boxes: a wooden nailed cylinder turns around its axis, driven by a spiral spring motor (11); the nails remove the hammers from the wires, and once that the nail has escaped, the hammer is called back and plays the note. A crank is used to wind up the spring; the rotation time of the cylinder is about one minute and ten seconds, a melody lasts three turns, that is to say three minutes and half. Ten different melodies are nailed on a cylinder; a melody can be selected using a small crank that induces a horizontal translation of the cylinder.

Inside view of an automatic piano-organ, showing the nailed cylinder, the hammers, the wires, and the percussion instruments

Spiral spring motor, with its balled speed regulator

    Alfred Hart has described (12) the nailing of the cylinder:

Yes, Irma was working for Joseph Nallino, the husband of her friend at the tobacco factory, who had founded a factory of automatic piano-organs, located at the beginning of Villefranche Street. Using a rolled paper guide, Irma had to nail a wooden cylinder, using a hammer, respecting a precise height for the steel nails. Those nails, turning with a mechanism that drove the cylinder, acted on hammers that knocked wires and produced the notes of a dance melody. One just needed to introduce a small coin in the instrument, after having selected the desired melody, to have the music played... She was using two kinds of nails: with a square head, they were intended to have the note last more; with a round head, they were producing shorter notes. There were a few thousands on each cylinder, nailed in that way, each one in its place, well identified by a marking worker, who reproduced, note after note, the dance melody, from a list of fashioned ones.

    The catalogue of 1909 gives information on the various available models: from the "type A", 46 hammers, 1.85 x 0.65 x 1.06 m (height x depth x width), with a price of 1300 FF (13), up to the "type J", 80 hammers, 2.30 x 0.65 x 1.70 m, that costs 2400 FF, and is recommended for rooms of large dimensions.
    The production is sold essentially in the north of France and in Germany, and locally for only a small part. Some piano-organs are kept for rental in the ballrooms and "guinguettes" of Nice and its surroundings.
    The catalogue gives also the price of the spare parts (the spiral spring is sold in a proportion of its weight). A standardisation effort allowed having the same spares for all the models.

Spare parts with their prices, in 1909

    The automatic piano-organs are entirely adapted to customers'taste: choice of the melodies (polka, waltz, fox-trot, tango, one-step, charleston...), which will change according to fashion (14); style and decoration of furniture, with carved fronton, poker-works, gildings, painted panels (casino of the "Jetée-promenade", country or sea landscapes, groups of black jazzmen...). The best decoration occurred when the "Art Nouveau" style, made popular by Nancy School of artists, was adopted, at a moment of high fashion in France for the "Style Nouille". They are sold, from 1911, under the trademark "PIANO NICÆA", registered by Nallino family.

Program written by Joseph Nallino

"Art Nouveau" style decorated piano-organ

    In 1925 and during the following year, the choice of square shapes, easier to manufacture, with poorer decoration, affected painted panels, reveals a decadence of style, reflecting the change of taste of the customers.

Advertisement, circa 1914

Late style, circa 1925

Special building, with automat,  "Le Moulin de la Gaieté"

World War I and the interwar period

    Once finished the association with Tadini, the factory changes its name for "Société Niçoise de Pianos Automatiques". Its activity stops at the beginning of World War I. During the War, the factory premises are used for the quartering of troops (15). After the war, Joseph arises to a very sad conclusion: with broken machines and toolings, burnt precious woods and no financial indemnity, the factory will not open again.  All the activity is transferred to the 36, Bonaparte Street, where Joseph is associated with five of his sons (16), Charles, Etienne, Joseph, Jean and Armand.

The Nallino in front of their store, 36 Bonaparte Street, in 1921

    The manufacturing of piano-organs stops. Only some tens will be assembled, with parts stored before the war. Repairs, transforms (changes of melodies on cylinders, of furniture, replace of spring motors by electric one since 1930), the maintenance of rental piano-organs are the main activities. Charles brings in a patent, on the 6 June of 1923, concerning a command of hammers used in automatic piano-organs (17).
    Joseph dies in 1923. His five sons create, in 1924, a new company, "Nallino Frères" (Nallino Bros.). One of the latest inventions will be to build, in 1925, a piano-organ with a frontal soundboard, in order to increase sound volume.

piano-organ with a frontal soundboard

    In 1927, Etienne and Jean (18) leave the company and sell their shares to their brothers. The company will continue its activity up to 1937, when Armand buys the shares of Charles and Joseph, and remains the only manager. His son, Gaspard, works with him.
    During the thirties, Armand adds the rental of "Accordeo-Jazz" and "Accordeo-Boy", both manufactured in Nice by Gastaud with the trademark "Veuve Amelotti", to the traditional rental of automatic piano-organs. Accordeo-Jazz are pneumatic instruments: a punched roll of paper defiles in front of a tracker-bar. When a punch passes in front of a channel of the tracker-bar, the air is sent to a true accordion, or to percussion instruments (drum, cymbals...). To change the played melody  is so easy as to change the punched roll. Accordeo-Jazz have the shape of square furniture, Accordeo-Boy are equipped with one or two automatons, figuring music players.

the store, 36 Bonaparte Street in January 1937; Armand and Gaspard, at left;
an Oreste's pneumatic orchestrion, with a decoration of "Pierrot", at right

    The clown Grock (19) orders an Accordeo-Boy with his figure. The head of the automaton and the assembly of the Accordeo-Boy are made at the 36 Bonaparte Street (Gaspard has been looking after this single piece for long! The track is lost somewhere in the Eastern Europe, after World War II).

Accordeo-Boy with the figure of Grock

    The Nallino work also with Jules Piano (20), another automatic piano-organ maker, installed in Nice; they buy him piano-organs, for rental. Just before World War II, Armand begins a new activity of games rental (Aero-Golf, slot machines), once more manufactured by Gastaud. World War II will put an end to this attempt of reconversion.

The drop...

    World War II puts an end to all rental activities: all the balls, public feasts are soon forbidden. All the rented piano-organs stay in their ballrooms, since Armand has no room where to put them. The store Bonaparte Street remains unopened during all the war. To survive, Armand does an association with a cabinet-maker, and they manufacture wooden shoe soles, made in poplar. A piano wire added to the sole, acting as a spring, allows a good walk.
    After war, a lot of rented piano-organs are found damaged or destroyed by military actions. Gaspard helps Armand to get indemnities for his losses. The activity begins again, very slowly; in 1948, Gaspard has to face the reality: the store, Bonaparte Street, no longer allows having two families depending on it. Gaspard leaves his father.
    Automatic piano-organs rental is less and less profitable: ballrooms and coffee shops prefer to rent American jukeboxes! Their tenants give them back to Armand. Therefore, for years, Armand heats his home with automatic piano-organs. He disassembles them at Bonaparte Street, keeps the spare parts, some cylinders and frontons, and burns approximately 400 (21) of them! At this time, many people have tiny houses, "cabanons", at the seaside. When a friend asks for a piano-organ, Armand gives him. The piano-organ remains all the summer outside, playing dance melodies, and his completely out of order, broken cylinder, broken soundboard, after the first rains of September.
    The store at Bonaparte Street changes its aim: Armand will sell classic pianos, grand or upright ones, second hand or new, and will make repairs and tunings. Automatic piano-organs are well forgotten.

... And the rebirth

    In 1965, Armand retires (he is 67 old). Gaspard succeeds him. From the beginning of the seventies, mechanical music instruments become the centres of collections. Some great collectors build large collections, true private museums: Marc Fournier, in Vienne, specialises himself in the limonaires (barrel-organs, merry-go-round organs), Accordeo-Jazz and Accordeo-Boy; Anezzo Bros., in Aix-en-Provence, gather music boxes, automatic piano-organs, pianolas (22).
    The store, 36 Bonaparte Street, becomes a necessary location for people who want to have their piano-organs repaired, and to give life again to their instruments. Armand has a stock of spare parts, the necessary toolings, and the experience of all a life. Though officially retired, he makes true rebuilds, to the great astonishment of the happy owners, who discover the true sound of their instrument.
    His last work, when he was 80 years old, has been to remove a melody of one of Mrs Barale's piano-organs (23), and to replace it by a folkloric song, "Nissa la Bella".
    In 1987, Gaspard decided to retire, and to close the last page of a story, begun 115 years earlier. At this time, the "Savoisien" museum of Chambéry, that had bought the Champlong Farm and its collection of mechanical music instruments, sent one of its curators to Nice. The story of the factory was recorded, and all the spare parts, toolings, archives, pictures, were sold to the museum. The history of the automatic piano-organs of Nice joined so the one of automatic piano-organs of Savoy and its factories (Buisson-Rond, Désiré Jorio...).
    An exhibition was organised in 1988, and its catalogue was dedicated to Armand Nallino, who was at that time, the only living automatic piano-organ maker, the last witness of a completed time.

The piano of Vincent Nallino, during its repair; from left to right: Gaspard, Jean-Louis Sacco, Vincent

Jazz-Band decorated piano


(1) This Italian migration has been described by a lot of writers, such as Max Gallo (La Baie des Anges) and Alfred Hart (La Porte Fausse).
(2) My great grand father.
(3) State Archives, Cuneo.
(4) In the Bersaglieri, Alps' troop.
(5) It is the first automatic piano-organs factory that has been created in France. Its first address was the 20 Villefranche Road, the name of the street has then been changed in Bonaparte Street, and the numbers reorganised.
(6) Joseph has done the same, by lending money to Nicoletti, founder of a famous public works company.
(7) One could read "Manufacture de pianos automatiques Nallino", up to the seventies, in front of the 263 Mont-Boron Boulevard (the numbers had been reorganised), before the demolition of the building and its replacement by a new one.
(8) As an example, the spiral spring motor was manufactured by the "Forges Péron", Gendarmerie Street. Some parts were melted in the foundery created by Joseph Giordan, brother in law of Joseph Nallino, at the bottom of the Grande-Corniche.
(9) Tadini was an excellent musician, composer and adapter. He was the best in adapting written music to the automatic piano-organs. He was very inconstant in business: he worked for six different factories, from Nice to Marseilles, in less than ten years. He was not a foreigner for Nallino family: after war, he married a daughter of Florent Nallino, widow of a captain. The exact circumstances of his association with Joseph are not known: Armand, the younger son of Joseph, never wanted to say what he knew; he reproached Tadini to have been associated without bringing money, and more, to have got his name before Nallino on the catalogue cover. He tore most of the first pages of the (rare) catalogues that he got!
(10) The musical richness of Joseph's pianos was so great that it induced a proverb in "nissart" (the language of Nice): when a man is very malicious and has "plus d'un tour dans son sac", one says "A mai de nota que lou piano de Nallino!".
(11) In 1910, Jules Piano patented the use of spiral spring motor for automatic piano-organs. Though this invention had been in use for more than a half century, the French office for patents, INPI, attributed the patent without hesitation.
(12) "La Porte Fausse", Maren Sell editor, 1986.
(13) One should increase the 1909 prices by a factor of 19 to have an idea of today prices: with the same buying power, in 1998 the prices would go from 25000 FF to 46000 FF.
(14) Those melodies were written by famous composers such as Strauss, for his waltzes, or Vincent Scotto, Maurice Yvain, José Padilla. Other ones were well known in their time: Ferdinand L. Benech, E. Chevalier. One can also find melodies from known adapters: Demartini, Pierre-Pierre, G. Akiba, Grandino, Francy, Senti, Loup, Janvry, Boutayre... Finally some melodies were only nailed on cylinders and never written, such as the ones by Tadini or Armand Nallino (Valse du Midi, 1922).
(15) Armand began the war in the foot soldiers, but, after a while, he became mechanic in the newborn Air-Army, due to his knowledge in working wood and iron.
(16) Joseph was the father of 23 children!
(17) INPI, Lyon, # 567.128
(18) Etienne and Jean did not accept any longer the authority of the elder, Charles, and went to work with Jules Piano.
(19) Famous clown of the interwar, who owned his circus. His famoust performance was the chair jump.
(20) His name was actually Jules Piana; his factory was located Beaumont Street, where are found today the offices of Town Hall.
(21) Armand is consequently highly responsible of the today great price of automatic piano-organs.
(22) Upright pianos, equipped with a pneumatic mechanism, similar to the one of Accordeo-Jazz, that allows them to play alone.
(23) Mrs Barale keeps, in her museum-restaurant Beaumont Street, four Nallino's automatic piano-organs, in a good order of functionment. At the end of the meals, she distributes the words of "Nissa La Bella", and asks them to sing, with the melody played by the only automatic piano-organ in the world which is able to do it!


"La manufacture de pianos automatiques Nallino", par Michel Nallino, Musiques Mécaniques Vivantes (AAIMM review), # 27, 1998.
"Patrimoine, le dernier piano mécanique des Nallino", by Jean-Marie Fiorucci, Nice-Matin, 02/08/96.
"Musique: renaissance", by Jean Maguet, Nice-Matin, 02/18/91.
"Musiques mécaniques", Musée Savoisien, Chambéry, catalogue of the exhibition from 12/01/88 to 03/01/89.
"Lu piano de Nallino", by Jorgi Tasso, Le Sourgentin, September - October 1987.
"Le piano mécanique lance ses airs comme un pont sur le passé: c'était la gambille de grand-papa", L'Espoir, 03/24/82.
"A propos de Joseph Nallino", by G. Decoret, Musiques Mécaniques Vivantes, (AAIMM review), 1982.
"Un siècle à l'autre, Joseph Nallino", Nice-Matin 04/04/1980 and Musiques Mécaniques Vivantes, (AAIMM review) # 12, 2nd half of 1981.
"Panne pour le piano mécanique du peintre", Nice-Matin, 07/28/79.
"Deux artisans perpétuent à Nice la tradition des pianos mécaniques", Le Provençal, 06/10/66.

Picture Credits

Figure 3: Musée Savoisien, Chambéry.
Other pictures: Gaspard Nallino's collection.


Copyright Michel NALLINO 1999-2019.
All rights reserved.
Diffusion and printing authorized for non-profit, research purposes only.

Updated on 10/10/2019