Emily Thompson, a Macarthur award-winning historian at Princeton, created an online sound map of New York City in the 1920s. It’s immersive and interactive: she arranged a combination of written sound complaints, news excerpts, as well as video newsreel footage, to help people listen in on what New York might have sounded like in the 1920s.
In this interview she talks about how people heard their world differently in the 1920s. And, by comparison, how someone from the 1920s might hear us today.
1. Many of the sounds from your website, such as the church-bells and locomotive trains, make me feel nostalgic for simpler times. And yet these are the sounds that people were complaining about. How can your work help us understand how people in the 1920s would have heard these sounds?
The idea is that you would actually spend time with the site reading the letters where people were complaining about these kinds of sounds, reading some of the little summaries of newspaper and magazine articles talking about the problem of noise and just kind of spend time with a lot of textual documents that can do some of the work of trying to get your mindset into the past so that you can understand how people were perceiving these sounds at the time that they were recorded. And that way perhaps you can push back a bit against that attractive nostalgic kind of approach and really try to understand the past on its own terms and recover the noisiness of those sounds….
So it’s a challenge, it’s a challenge, but I think history is always a challenge and the best history will kind of operate on two levels: it will do its best to take you back to understand the past on its own terms but also in a way that it has meaning for you today. So I think if you can operate on both levels at once or perhaps at a midpoint between the two then that’s not a bad thing.
SOUND: THEN AND NOW
2. If you had to explain to a 10-year-old what it would sound like if they traveled back in time to the 1920s, what would you say? What would stand out to us now? What would we hear?
One of the interesting things that really hit home to me when I saw the visual evidence on the newsreels was the mixture of old sounds and new that characterized New York City at this time. So automobile traffic, the internal combustion engine, trucks and cars, are really still quite new and they’re just taking over the streets at this time. And cars didn’t typically have mufflers back then, so this is an incredibly new force of noise. Yet at the same time you see on the news reels horses and carts still lumbering down the street and they made noise too. But this mixture of transportation systems that had been around for centuries and these brand new modern technologies is really quite striking and I think it must have been very unsettling to people who were living through this transition.
If you were on a street like Cortland Street, which was known as Radio Row, down in Lower Manhattan, all of the shops there were advertising radios and phonographs — and for awhile, they mounted loudspeakers outside their shop windows and simply broadcast their wares out into the streets. So as you walked down the street you would just hear one radio program after another as you walked from one shop to the next. And this was considered to be one of the noisiest places in New York.
This is a time where there are elevated trains rumbling overhead throughout the city, and at the same time they’re interested in replacing those elevated trains with subways. So they’re excavating, they’re digging trenches, they’re using dynamite to blow up the ground to ultimately bury those trains into subway systems. So you’ve kind of got it above and below ground coming at you from all sides at once. It must have been incredibly exciting but I think it really was incredibly noisy too.
3. Let’s say someone from 1929 walked into 2013. What do you think would stand out to someone from back then about the sonic landscape now?
I’m not sure that it would be that different in a way that would be unmanageable to someone from the late 1920s. They’d still be hearing internal combustion engines. They’d still be hearing amplified sound. The content is different but I’m not entirely sure that the physical forces of sound would be new and different in the way that they were when you compare 1890 with 1930. So this is a question I’ve pondered and I’ve often asked people when I’ve talked about my work, ‘Can you think of a fundamentally new kind of sound that we have now that we didn’t have back around 1930?’ And I’m not sure that there really is such a sound but I’m open to hearing people’s ideas.
4. Your work sometimes contrasts the sounds of the past—street peddlers and horse-drawn carriages—with the institutional sounds of modernity: quiet office spaces and even the Muzak of elevators. But people don’t respond to these sounds in the same way. People get angry about loud sounds, but you never see people getting upset about a sterilized modern sound environment. Why do we feel justifiably upset at a loud sound but we don’t get upset at the institutional sound environments that the modern world has created?
Well I think that the key to understanding a person’s reaction to any kind of sound and what makes it noise for them really is about control and how much control you have over your environment, the space in which you inhabit and hear these sounds.
So certainly when you are outside there is a sense that you as an individual in that physical space have very little control over the overall experience there. If you’re in an interior place, a place that you own or you rent or that you paid a ticket to enter, you know you feel more invested that this is your space and that you should are entitled to some kind of degree over what you hear. So in some ways that would be why a noise that you encounter outside on the street is perceived very differently when it’s coming through a closed window and you can still hear it within your bedroom or something like that.
Of course it depends on what you are trying to do at the time that you hear it as well. If you are trying to sleep, if you are trying to work, and the sound is preventing you from doing what you want to do, that is another kind of loss of control, whether it is loud or whether it’s soft.
5. One of the striking patterns on the website was just how many complaints there were about radios. While people still complain about radios or headphones some, now it seems like the biggest complaint is cell phones. Are we just upset because it’s a new sound? Are we all just curmudgeons, angry about the newest technology that has invaded how we think the world should sound? Were there more old people than young people complaining about radios?
Yeah, that is intriguing and interesting. I think that amplified sound was still relatively new in the late 1920s. Initially people started listening to radios around the turn of the century. But commercial broadcast radio didn’t really begin until around 1920 and even then people originally listened through headphones and it was only around 1922, 1923 that radios and then phonographs came with loudspeakers and were electrically amplified sounds. So I think that certainly for people who have lived through that change it is a new kind of sound, a new volume, a new quality of sound.
Unfortunately the people who wrote in to complain didn’t indicate their age but as best as I can get a sense from the context of their letters we probably weren’t hearing from too many 20 year olds at the time. I would suggest that they probably were older people and older people probably bristled against the unfamiliarity as well as the inconvenience and the other problems associated with the noise of other people’s radios.
6. The map shows that the majority of complaints were in Manhattan where presumably there was more privilege. What was different about the sound environment if you were, say, an African American or an immigrant who recently arrived to the city and didn’t have access to these technologies? According to the map they’re complaining less. Was it because they were not choosing to complain or didn’t know how? Or were they further out from the loud noises of the city?
Well I think that here too the archival record doesn’t tell us the race and always the ethnic makeup beyond people’s surnames. So I think it’s probably safe to assume that most of the people who were writing those letters and complaining about noise were probably native born white Americans, but I’m not sure about that. Certainly you had to be literate, you had to be able to find out you know the address of the Mayor, or the Commissioner of Health, and just have a certain attitude even to imagine writing a letter in to such a person. And there are records, though, of course the names are an ethnic mix and several of the letters do talk about, ‘I’ve been in this country for 25 years, I am a citizen’, that give you a sense that there is no single background that would define the kind of people who were writing in to complain.
So there too the historical record is biased in representing some kinds of people and not others. But of course my database of letters is ultimately just the tip of an iceberg. I think we found about 600 letters that existed from this period from approximately 1926 to the early 1930s. And there are suggestions that many, many more people did write in to complain about noise and occasionally call on the telephone. But this is what we have, so we try to understand what it can tell us but keep in mind what it certainly isn’t getting at.
THE MODERN ATTEMPT TO CONTROL SOUND
7. You make an argument in your book The Soundscape of Modernity that there was something fundamentally different about sound in the 1920s, at the rise of modernity. But technologies, such as the horse and buggy, have always been creating new sounds. So if it’s not technology itself, is it the particular technologies, such as the radio, that became popular in the 1920s that made it so different? That these technologies, not only created news sounds, but actually separated sounds out from the spatial environments they once originated in and inhabited? Is that what you believe was fundamentally different about sound then?
I think you’re absolutely right that what I call the soundscape of modernity, is in part it’s a new kind of sound, but it’s also a new attitude toward sound, a new understanding of the relationship between sound and space and a perception that, through the kind of control that architectural and electrical acoustic technologies can provide inside if not outside, you can take any room and make it sound pretty much however you want.
And that was a new technological kind of freedom to design sound that hadn’t existed. When you know if you were going to build a large room out of stone material it was going to sound like a cathedral. And if you built a small room with lots of absorptive materials it was going to sound very differently. With new technologies you could play with that relationship so that the traditional relationship between sound and space was broken apart and now could be manipulated.
And from my perspective that fits with how we’ve understood modernity and other kinds of cultural forums, whether it’s Einstein’s physics or modern cinema, the ability to come up with a much more flexible relationship with time and space.
8. You talked about how they tried to tackle sound complaints in the past, by inventing new technologies to hide and cover-up sounds. And you mentioned that they passed new laws to regulate the use of sound. But did they invent any new standards of of politeness or cultural mores to deal with noise complaints—much as today people judge someone for speaking on their cell phone in a restaurant?
Really in many ways the noise abatement campaigns that New York City held in 1929 and 1930 was really trying to operate on that level. They realized they had limited ability to legislate laws and then even less ability necessarily to enforce any that might get on the books. And a great deal of the energy of that campaign was to educate people, educate people about what they felt were the serious problems associated with noise–medical problems, work productivity problems, things like that–but then also simply to undertake a kind of campaign for specific courtesy.
And the radio stations for awhile were encouraged by the noise abatement commission and they followed through by making an announcement later in the evening encouraging their listeners to turn the volume down and respect their neighbors sonic privacy.
But there was a sense, kind of an idealistic sense that if you just told people how problematic noise was, they would changes their ways and everyone would get along much better. In fact it didn’t really work out that way and even the laws that were passed were hard to enforce. So in general the noise abatement campaign was not terribly successful, it was not perceived as being terribly successful at the time.
9. So were the new technologies the most successful tool for eliminating noise?
I believe that for people who had access to interior environments that were treated acoustically for sound absorption, for sound insulation, that the more successful strategy was to find a refuge from the noise by going into a space that had been acoustically designed to minimize the impact of external noise. Now of course only a small percentage of people in New York City would have really had direct access to those kinds of places, either in a soundproof apartment building or simply working in an office building that had been treated acoustically to minimize noise. But I think that is a much easier fix than trying to change the behavior of 7 million people.
10. Did you come across any example of people trying to subvert sound in a rebellious way, like we think of rock ‘n roll or later on punk or metal — taking what was considered an ugly sound and turning it into something beautiful?
Well I think within musical culture, musicians and composers of some very different stripes are really responding constructively and creatively to the sounds of the modern city. On the one hand, there is a collection of really kind of Avant-garde concert-hall composers in America and also in Europe who are really creating what was called “noise music” at the time. Edgard Varese….George Antheil….and lots of others are writing very innovative avant-garde music and really abandoning the traditional harmonies and melodies of the western classical tradition and composing works that often when they were performed in concert halls were simply dismissed as nothing but noise.
At the other end of the spectrum, a lot of popular music—and here I think the connection between this new urban sonic environment and the development of jazz is particularly interesting, when you consider that many African Americans were migrating from the rural south to these northern noisy cities at this time. I think the way that the music fit their constituents’ social context, their sonic context, is a really interesting aspect. I can’t really prove connections here. I’d love for a musicologist to dig in further and find out more about the connection between the urban environment and actual musical composition.
11. Was it louder then or now?
11. Was it louder then or now?
I don’t know the answer to that question. One could possibly pursue that because right at this time, the late 1920s, for the first time scientists have instruments to measure sound levels. At the time they were wondering if 1930 was louder than 1830 or 1890. They felt that it was but they didn’t have any basis of comparison because there was no way to take scientific measurements until around 1930. We have measurements from that time. The equipment probably isn’t the same, we probably make measurements in different ways, so someone would have to keep that all in mind when they make the comparison. But there is certainly the ability I think to do so and answer that question today.
12. If I’m looking at myself in the mirror versus weighing myself on a scale, I feel very differently about what I’m seeing. Sometimes I think I look great and then look on the scale and feel awful, and vice versa. Was the same thing true once people could start to measure the intensity of sound? Did people feel differently about what they were hearing once they could measure it?
Yeah I think that once you can measure something, first of all there is a sense that you have control over it in some way. And it was easier to measure sound than it was to get rid of it. So I think the ability to measure may have deluded some people into how straightforward it would be to solve the problem of noise simply because they had these tools of measurement. I think it also highlighted public awareness of the problem. There were a lot of articles in the newspapers at the time announcing that the opera singer at the Met last night was as noisy as a streetcar and this is how many decibels of loudness that noise represents. They were kind of educating people in this new scientific language for thinking about noise. And that probably both heightened people’s perceptions of noise and also may have deluded them into thinking that scientists had control and would be able to fix the problem and not simply measure the problem.