The first cited term for "honky tonk" was the late 1880s' "honkatonk," from Oklahoma and Texas. There is no evidence that the term comes from Tonk's pianos, or even that Tonk made pianos at this time. The first citation for a "Tonk piano" -- allegedly made in Chicago and New York City -- appears after 1900 in the digitized New York Times and Chicago Tribune.
Wikipedia: Honky tonk
A Honky tonk was originally a type of bar common throughout the southern United States, also called honkatonks, honkey-tonks, tonks or tunks. The term has also been attached to various styles of 20th-century American music.
The Oxford English Dictionary states that the origin of the word honky tonk is unknown. According to one theory of the origin of the phrase, "Tonks" were originally specifically African American institutions; similar establishments that catered to Whites acquired the name Honky Tonk, from the slang honky, referring to a white person. As there are multiple examples of oral history and writings by African Americans born in the 19th century referring to African American establishments as "honkey tonks" or "honk-a-tonks", some historic linguists dispute this suggested derivation.
The "tonk" portion of the name may well have come from a brand name of piano. One American manufacturer of a large upright pianos was the firm of William Tonk & Bros. (established 1881) made a piano with the decal "Ernest A. Tonk". These upright grand pianos were made in Chicago and New York and were called Tonk pianos. Some found their way to Tin Pan Alley and may have given rise to the expression of "honky tonk bars".
(Oxford English Dictionary)
colloq. (orig. U.S.).
A tawdry drinking-saloon, dance-hall, or gambling-house; a cheapnight-club. Also in somewhat extended uses, and attrib. or as adj.
1894 Daily Ardmoreite (Ardmore, Okla.) 24 Feb. 1/4 The honk-a-tonk last night was well attended by ball~heads, bachelors and leading citizens.
24 January 1889, Fort Worth (TX) Daily Gazette, pg. 8, col. 2:
A petition to the council is being circulated for signatures, asking that the Honky Tonk theater on Main street be reopened.
6 August 1890, Dallas (TX) Morning News, pg. 6, col. 4:
Myself and him set and talked awhile and he got up and said he wanted to go to the honk-a-tonk (variety show).
28 July 1892, Galveston (Texas) Daily News, pg. 6:
FORT WORTH, Tex., July 26.
A youth named Goodman, who arrived here from Wilbarger county this evening, entered Andrews' honkatonk on Fifteenth street and was ordered out on account of his age.
22 September 1892, Dallas (TX) Morning News, pg. 5, col. 2:
Willie Frankie, a variety actress, is under arrest, charged with stealing $20 from a patron of the honk-a-tonk where she worked.
11 April 1893, Dallas (TX) Morning News, pg. 6, col. 2:
The honk a tonk in Amsler's hall last night at about 12 o'clock was the scene of another row, which came near resulting fatally.
10 September 1894, Tacoma (WA) Daily News, pg. 2:
It's a deadly insult for one Oklahoma editor to say that another has a pass to a "Honkatonk."
3 February 1900, Reno (NV) Evening Gazette, pg. 2, col. 5:
END OF HONKATONK.
Decadence of Oklahoma's Favorite
What It Was When the Audience
Used to Rise Up and Join in
the Fusillade at
The honkatonk is one of the few institutions of Oklahoma which remain to satisfy the tenderfoot visitor in search of the wild west scenes he has read about. And it isn't so very lively. In the times that were the cow preacher was expected to perforate the gaudy curtain when the performance lagged, or shoot a glimpse of daylight through the star performer's sombrero if his interpretation of his part lacked animation. At the climax, when the wild-eyed heroine, in boots and spurs, rushed madly upon the stage, and fired the shot which out her lover's pursuer's out of the way and saved him from an awful death, the audience was not alone permitted, but expected, to rise as a man and accompany the fatal shot with a volley that jarred the rafters. There is not even this byplay to stir the easterner's nerves nowadays.
Ordinarily, the honkatonk opens about nine o'clock, and continues in full blast until one, or thereabouts, as long as its patrons will patronize the bar. There are no reserved seats and the visitor may have his choice of floors. The higher he goes the more it will cost him. Fifteen cents is the regular parquet price. It will cost him a dime extra if he prefers a balcony or a box
seat where he may converse with the actresses after they have done their turn. Down on the first floor you can get drinks "at bar prices, gents," as the hustler from the saloon annex announces at frequent intervals. Wherever the visitor sits, it is unnecessary at any time to abandon the cigar, and whatever the part of the house, he is expected to be liberal in his expenditure for
liquid refreshments. Along about 11 o'clock the stage manager advances to the front and announces an intermission of ten minutes "to give you all time, ample and sufficient, for to refresh yourselves," and then you pay for more drinks.
The programme is made up largely of specialties. Whatever the feeling of a long-suffering public, the honkatonk vocalists never will permit "Sweet Rosie O'Grady" and "Just One GIrl" to perish from the earth, and coon songs are sung as May Irwin never did and never will sing them. Always at least one drama is presented, the entire company, vocalists, dancers and all, participating. Among the most popular plays are "The Dalton Boys" and "Mildred, the She-Devil of the Plains," for the old traditions still are respected to a certain extent, though the participation of the audience is no longer solicited.
The performers do not travel by companies. Every star hustles for himself regardless of all the others, and remains in a community as long as the management will pay him his price, or, if in case of an actress, as long as she is a success at winning checks by inducing her admirers to buy beer. At what age the performer usually enters his career is questionable, but the Gerry society would hardly find the honkatonk stage a successful fields for operations, even when Little Eva or Jack the Boy Scout makes her or his appearance.
The stage manager is an interesting individual. If he is the valuable man the proprietor expects him to be, he can beat the drum in the street band; sell tickets when the doors are opened; "leg" for the bartender during intermission, play the heavy villain in the tragedy act, and do a turn as clog dancer
all in one evening. Long hair and a soiled frock coat are the marks which distinguish him from his fellows on the stage. Every afternoon he gathers the people of the cast at the theater and outs them through a rehearsal of the piece to be put on that evening.
There is no defined circuit of honkatonks, but the performers swing around a circle of a half dozen theaters which dot Texas and the two territories. The once popular institution is dying off. There is one in Guthrie, one in Apimore, one in Fort Worth, and a few others further south. Weatherford had a honkatonk, which the stars say was one of the best-paying of all, but when the
city authorities cut down the corn in the streets and Weatherford was declared to be a city of the first class it was crowded out.
Every child of the range can tell what honkatonk means and where it came from. Away, away back in the very early days, so the story goes, a party of cow punchers rode out from camp at sundown in search of recreation after a day of toil. They headed for a place of amusement, but lost the trail. From far out
in the distance there finally came to their ears a "honk-a-tonk-a-tonk-a-tonk-a," which they mistook for the bass viol. They turned toward the sound, to find alas! a dock of wild geese. So honkatonk was named -- N. Y. Sun.
6 July 2003, New York Times, "F.Y.I." by Ed Boland, Jr., pg. CY2:
Tickling Tonk's Ivories
Q. I've been told the term "honky-tonk" has its root in New York. True?
A. The origin of "honky-tonk" is unknown, according to Merriam-Webster. But many musicians say the term, which can mean a type of ragtime music or a tawdry nightclub, stems from Tin Pan Alley. In the early 1900's, every music production company had a piano in the office, and from the street you could hear people banging away. Many of these pianos were made by William Tonk & Brothers at 10th Avenue and 35th Street. The pianos and the sounds they made soon became known as honky tonk.
New York City • Music/Dance/Theatre/Film/Circus • (2) Comments • Wednesday, July 05, 2006 • Permalink
I have a William Tonk & Bro. piano that has a number# 15152 can you tell me anything about this or can you guide me in the direction to find out info on this.
I have an old Tonk Brothers piano,but this one has the the big cross bars in the back,with the faces of the Tonk brothers carved in the center like two big coins. Never seen one like it,nor can i find anything about it, I do know it was a player piano,before someone gutted. I have it now and it is beautiful and just love to know more about it.