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ARSCLIST  May 2007

ARSCLIST May 2007

Subject:

Manhattan street-noise recordings, 1906 to 1908 - any leads?

From:

"James R. Chiles" <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Association for Recorded Sound Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 11 May 2007 17:39:27 +0000

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text/plain

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Greetings:

By way of background, Im finishing up a book for Random House that will be a social history of helicopters (the book is due out in October, and entitled "The God Machine"). It's my second book.  I've been a writer in the fields of history and technology since 1979, mostly for Smithsonian, and Air&Space. 

I apologize for any cross-posting. I am posting this inquiry on both ARSCLIST and 78-L and other lists that people might suggest. 
 
While researching the early history of citizen opposition to loud noises in Manhattan for my helicopter book I came across a line of clippings describing street-level ambience recordings that were done on behalf of a movement called the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise (SSUN), which was organized in 1906 by Julia Hyneman Barnett Rice, the wife of lawyer-financier Isaac L. Rice. 

This is peripheral to my book but I'm intrigued about whether any of these custom recordings might still exist. If so it would be great to have the sounds cataloged and preserved for urban historians. 
 
Summarized in one sentence, here is my question to the list:
 
"Does anyone have information or leads about New York City street-noise recordings collected in the period 1906-1908 on the behalf of anti-noise activists associated with the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise?"
 
These recordings are mentioned in several New York publications of the era. Whether any of the recordings were saved is unknown (and the odds are against it), and even if saved in some attic or basement, mold or heat may have damaged the cylinders irreparably. But if found and reconstructed they would be of considerable historical interest as they may be the earliest urban audioscapes ever collected.  I have promised to let professional archivists know if any of the recordings turns up.  
 
Here is one article excerpt, from page 4 of the New York Times, dated October 31, 1908, entitled "Canned Din by Phonograph."
 
" Canned noises of the New York brand are to be taken to Boston this week and turned loose on a large and fashionable audience, and the week after next Pittsburg will hear the phonographic records of New York's hideous sounds by day and by night.  . Mrs. Rice has been employing a number of Columbia students to get samples of the noises for reproduction by phonograph. She now has a large collection "
 
More background on the circumstances: A key to Julia Rices political strategy, which worked rather well in getting anti-noise laws passed both in NYC and at the federal level, was to gather the most obnoxious street noises by phonograph and play them at public meetings. The captured noises included iron rims clashing on cobblestones, phonograph parlors that charged listeners by the nickel and advertised by blaring into the street, flattened and screeching wheels on streetcars, church bells, steam tugboat whistles at night along the Hudson, and street vendors.
 
The noise recording activity began in November 1906 and may have continued through 1908. One person central to the recording effort was Victor Hugo Emerson, then a recording supervisor with Columbia Phonograph Co.
 
Here are some thoughts about this search - any corrections or additions are welcome. I am strictly a rank amateur in the audio archive field. 
 
- Presumably these noises were all recorded on wax cylinders, either a Edison or Columbia machine, given the state of portable recording technology. Edison cylinder machines were popular among field anthropologists at the time.
- Articles mention graphophones for playback, but I suppose this term was loosely used and did not always indicate a Columbia "Graphophone" product.
- Articles mention students working on the project, from Columbia University. Isaac Rice had been a professor at Columbia before going into business as a submarine builder and battery magnate.
- Mrs. Rice was wealthy and the SSUN had many prominent supporters around the city and she would have had the money to lease a top-end machine for playback.
- Columbia Phonograph was interested in publicizing the usefulness of dictation machines at the time, or so I have read.
- There is no mention that the cylinders were transcribed to discs for playback, but there is mention that the recordings were played repeatedly and at high volume. Julia Rice wanted the highest volume obtainable, to make her point about how certain sounds were upsetting. 
- Could typical machines be heard in a hall with 100 people? Might this indicate the use of a Higham reproducer, such as on the Graphophone model BM?
- Cylinder boxes would probably be private recordings done between 1906 and 1908. They might be hand-labeled. Labels might refer cryptically to "New York streets," "hospital zones," "peddlers," "street cars,"  "steam whistles," "church bells," "Health Commissioner Darlington," "SSUN," "Mrs. Isaac Rice," "Victor H. Emerson," or "Columbia Phonograph Co. personal service department."
- Julia died in 1929 in Deal NJ. If the cylinder boxes were not discarded when the SSUN was discontinued or at her death in 1929, the cylinders might have gone any of several directions: to the Board of Health, to subsequent anti-noise groups like the League for Less Noise, to Columbia Phonograph Co., to Columbia U, or to her six children.
 


Posted by:
 
James R. Chiles      [log in to unmask]

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