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January 21, 2014

New York Sounds Live On in Old Recordings

by Adam Phillips

In the hyper-visual world of today’s New York City, where digital video recordings of daily life are constantly made and instantly posted, it can be pleasantly jarring to listen to the everyday sounds of a different era, when audio recordings of everyday people were almost never heard or shared. 

During the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1929, the wind pushed a huge balloon float down toward the crowd, which scrambled to get out of the way. Almost all those people are now gone, but their humanity lives on in a sound-rich film clip that is typical of the trove of outtakes from Fox Movietone newsreels at the University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collections

For three years, Princeton University historian Emily Thompson pored over those treasures with University of Southern California web designer Scott Mahoy. The result is their Roaring Twenties website, which they call "an interactive exploration of the historical soundscape of New York City."

New York Sounds Live on in Old Recordings

“This isn’t so much the objective, distanced, detailed description that professional historians often write," Thompson said. "But in evoking a world long gone that people have memories of or connect their families to, that kind of personal history, I think sound can provide a kind of emotional element that doesn’t fully come through, certainly in the photographs.”

One example of that element is a Movietone clip recorded while cruising down “Radio Row,” a stretch of Cortlandt Street crowded with shops selling vacuum-tube wireless radios and phonograph players, both high-tech gadgets at the time.      

“And to advertise their wares, these shops had loudspeakers mounted either over the front door or on the sidewalk," Thompson said. "So imagine 10 or 12 shops all within earshot all doing this at the same time and you can get a sense of why it was considered by many to be the noisiest place in New York City.”

Thompson says that fire engine and ambulance sirens from the era seem much louder to her than those in use today, as do foghorns from the city’s still-bustling port.

“When you hear the volume at which those things actually let out on some of our recordings of them, you can hardly imagine what it must have been like to hear that hundreds of times every night as you’re trying to sleep,” she said.

Movietone crews often recorded the growing city at work. They captured pile drivers digging into Manhattan’s sandy soil to make way for skyscrapers, and the elevated trains and subways that connected the city's five boroughs.

And they recorded indoor sounds, such as the clatter of an ultra-modern office building cafeteria of the time patronized entirely by female clerical workers.

But New York during the Roaring Twenties was also a city at play. An itinerant kazoo seller entertains a crowd, and in another clip, children enjoy a ride on a small horse-drawn merry go round.

On Coney Island, the fabled urban amusement park by the sea, a young man amuses his friends with a ukulele and barkers lure customers to try their luck on a Luna Park pig slide.

Thompson hopes these narrow slices of life from long ago will broaden our awareness of the world we inhabit today.    

“And perhaps something you can take away from that experience is to direct that same kind of mental energy at our own sound world and really don’t just hear what’s around you but listen to it, and think about what it means and celebrate the parts that you like and complain about the parts that you don’t.”

No one knows for sure which New York sounds will be heard by people in the next century, but one thing seems certain: there will be plenty of complaint and celebration in the mix.