In 1911, Wurlitzer became the top supplier of automatic harps to brothels in the Barbary Coast, San Francisco's red-light district.
But first, what is an automatic harp? Why would anyone, let alone a brothel, want one?
In the late 1890s, Wurlitzer released the Tonophone, a coin-operated player piano that it marketed to restaurants. The Tonophone was so successful that Wurlitzer followed it with other, increasingly elaborate automatic instruments.
By adding organ-style pipes and varying the materials and striking devices, Wurlitzer made player pianos that could evoke an orchestra's worth of instruments. The Wurlitzer Pianino, released in 1902, was an automatic piano with optional built-in flute pipes, violin pipes, and a xylophone. The Wurlitzer Mandolin Quartette (1907) had a rapid tremolo mechanism which, when it struck the strings, mimicked the tones of a mandolin. And, of course, there was the Automatic Harp.
The Wurlitzer Automatic Harp was enclosed in a tall, elegantly detailed wooden box. A harp-shaped glass front displayed the strings, each of which was equipped with a metal pick and a damper. It was powered by a motor and used paper rolls, each containing a repertoire of six strings.
Unlike the automatic pianos, the harp never really took off. For one, it was so quiet that it could be entirely drowned out by a restaurant's ambient noise. And while the pianos sounded pretty convincing, the harp was incapable of playing glissandos, the single most distinctively harp-like technique of an actual concert harp. Instead, the Automatic Harp relied on a picking mechanism, giving every song an odd, brassy harshness. As a result, the music sounded more harpsichord than harp. It was not exactly popular.
Production of Automatic Harps ceased by 1911, and from there Wurlitzer desperately attempted to dispose of its unwanted stock. First, they attempted to cancel the order of the intial 1,500 harps that they had already committed to purchase from the manufacturer, J.W. Whitlock.
Whitlock's operation was very small: in fact, it more or less revolved around this partnership with Wurlitzer. And, by 1911, nearly every harp had already been built. Wurlitzer's reneging on their end of the agreement would doubtlessly be catastrophic for Whitlock's company. He promptly filed a $37,000 breach of contract suit, which Wurlitzer settled in July 1911.
This left Wurlitzer with a lot of harps that they needed to unload. The company scored an editorial in an October 1911 issue of Music Trades Review that breathlessly declared that:
"The Wurlitzer Automatic Harp is one of the most wonderful musical instruments ever invented. The picking of the strings by little automatic fingers, almost human in their action, is a marvelous operation. The Automatic Harp fills a niche in the field of music that cannot be filled by any other musical instrument."
Restaurants didn't seem to agree. By 1916, unwanted harps apparently still lingered in Wurlitzer warehouses and were still be advertised at the "remaindered" price of $375 (over $8,000 in today's dollars). This was still a decent markup on the $200 wholesale price, possibly because, five years earlier, enterprising salespeople had come up with a way of unloading a good number of them across the country.
In 1911, many brothels in San Francisco also had bars, with either live music or coin-operated pianos to entertain patrons. But in April of that year, the police announced a ban on all music in brothels, and ordered that any musical instruments were to be destroyed. This was a mysterious turn of events, since the local authorities received a cut of music sales, as part of the general Barbary Coast ecosystem of graft and corruption.
The next month, authorities relaxed the ban on music in San Francisco brothels. The only catch: the instrument allowed was the automatic harp. Several days later, a Wurlitzer salesperson appeared with a shipment of automatic harps, all conveniently available for just $750 apiece. (That's equivalent to $17,000 today.)
"He bore references from important politicians and experienced no difficulty in making sales," historian Herbert Asbury wrote in the 1930s.
And that's how Wurlitzer became the premier supplier of Automatic Harps to San Francisco brothels in 1911.