Peddlers, jackhammers, whistles: Historian Emily Thompson lets you hear the sounds of life in 1920s New York City

By Brett Tomlinson from the December 4, 2013, issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly

In her freshman seminar, Emily Thompson *92 plays records on old phonographs to provide an authentic sound.

Peter Murphy

In her freshman seminar, Emily Thompson (Princeton Graduate School ’92) plays records on old phonographs to provide an authentic sound.

The streets of New York City in the late 1920s featured a cacophony of sounds — some old, many new. Steam shovels and pneumatic jackhammers clattered on concrete. Fog horns and boat whistles blared from the shorelines. Sidewalk peddlers lifted their voices above a disorienting din of traffic and trains.

While the urban commotion inspired poetry and prose by Jazz Age writers like Claude McKay and F. Scott Fitzgerald 1917, many citizens were less enthusiastic, expressing their anger and frustration in letters to city officials.

Emily Thompson *92 has read hundreds of those complaints, now filed under “N” for noise in the archives of the city’s health department. “The letters are wonderful — everything from the crabbed handwriting to the wails of despair,” says Thompson, a professor of history who specializes in the study of sound and technology. “These silent documents, these letters written on pieces of paper, still transmit that visceral despair and anguish that a lot of people were really feeling.”

Thompson’s research on noise complaints in New York played an important role in her acclaimed 2002 book, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900–1933. This fall, the dusty letters and forms found new life in “The Roaring ’Twenties,” an interactive online exhibit published by Thompson and designer Scott Mahoy in the multimedia journal Vectors. [See my post The Roaring ‘Twenties: an interactive exploration of the historical soundscape of New York City.]

Illustrating history with documents and film may not seem particularly innovative, but Thompson and Mahoy’s project has a distinctive integration of sound, video, and place. They combined archival papers, maps, and newsreel films with common Web tools (Google Maps, Flash animation, digital images, and videos) to create an engrossing survey of what it sounded like to live in New York between 1926 and 1933, the years covered by Thompson’s research.

The central element of the project is a breathtakingly detailed 1933 map, peppered with virtual pins that show the locations of noise complaints. Most are in Manhattan, with notable clusters in Midtown and on the Upper West Side, but the sounds of all five boroughs are included, from freight trains on the shores of Staten Island to crowing roosters in the northern Bronx. Readers can zoom in to explore the city, block by block, and click on each of the more than 600 complaints, revealing details about the source of distress and, in many cases, an image of the original letter.

Today’s city dwellers will relate to the complaint writers. Anyone who has lived below a noisy neighbor can sympathize with N. Schmuck of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, who endured factory noise from the nearby Colonial Pickle Works, or attorney H. Bartow Farr, Class of 1910, who complained that his sleep had been disrupted by nighttime dredging on the East River, not far from his Gracie Square home. (Farr, not pleased with inaction by the local authorities, then wrote to the secretary of war, whose department was overseeing the dredging project.)

Schmuck and Farr may have complained about the racket, but the noises that caused such consternation in the late ’20s were linked to promising themes of efficiency, productivity, and technological change. By the 1970s, noise had a more negative connotation: That decade introduced the idea of “noise pollution,” depicting sound as an environmental hazard. Thompson believes that culture’s view of noise changes over time.

“The best work in aural history is as much about listening as it is about sound, recovering the meaning of sound as well as the sound itself,” Thompson writes in her introduction to the project. “To recover that meaning we need to strive to enter the mindsets of the people who perceived those sounds, to undertake a historicized mode of listening that tunes modern ears to the pitch of the past.”

Thompson is an ideal guide for listeners hoping to explore the history of sound, an area of study that she has helped to bring into the academic mainstream. When she entered Princeton’s history of science program as a graduate student in 1986, the field of aural history “didn’t really exist yet,” she says. Her proposal — combining interests in music, technology, science, and architecture — must have seemed unusual to the admission committee. “Good Lord, no one’s done this. How would she even do that?” she imagines the committee saying. “Maybe just out of curiosity they agreed to give me a chance.”

Thompson had a background in applied science, a common path in her family — her father, uncle, older sister, and two cousins all were engineers. After finishing her undergraduate work at the Rochester Institute of Technology, she landed a job at Bell Labs in Holmdel, N.J., helping to develop early tools for video teleconferencing. Her shift toward history grew from a modest seed: She read an article in a science magazine about the acoustical pioneer Wallace Sabine, who applied quantitative principles to the design of Boston’s Symphony Hall in 1900. Sabine, a physicist at Harvard, developed calculations for the reverberation time of sound in a given space, paving the way for extraordinary changes in architectural acoustics. Thompson pursued her interest in Sabine at Princeton, writing a paper for Professor Charles Gillispie’s graduate seminar, and continued to study the history of acoustics for her dissertation. The research ultimately became a major part of The Soundscape of Modernity, which begins with Sabine’s work on Symphony Hall and ends just after the opening of a very different incarnation of acoustical engineering, Radio City Music Hall, in December 1932.

To categorize sound clips and noise-complaint documents on “The Roaring ’Twenties” website, Thompson and Scott Mahoy adapted a document used by New York City’s Noise Abatement Commission in the 1930s.

The Roaring ’Twenties website: vectorsdev.usc.edu/NYCsound/777b

To categorize sound clips and noise-complaint documents on “The Roaring ’Twenties” website, Thompson and Scott Mahoy adapted a document used by New York City’s Noise Abatement Commission in the 1930s.

Around the time Thompson’s book was published, other scholars were emerging with notable works about sound in history, and academic journals began to take a closer look at the theme. Thompson held junior positions at Iowa State University and the University of Pennsylvania before her book was published, and started her first tenured position at the University of California, San Diego, in 2005. Within weeks, she was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant.” The citation credited her for filling a gap in historical study by “charting the transformation of the elusive and ephemeral phenomenon of sound.” The unexpected award also boosted her confidence. “It gave me the recognition that what I was doing was important,” she says.

Thompson, who joined the Princeton faculty in 2006, says that the University has a critical mass of people interested in sound history, stretching across departments. Aural history is “more of an approach than a topic,” she says; for its proponents, a key aim is to encourage scholars to think of the study of sound as “another tool in the historian’s toolkit.” “You don’t have to be a sound historian, but just a historian, to realize that sonic content may help you if you want to study the Civil War, or you want to study race relations, or you want to study immigration,” she says.

Some of the most powerful examples of sound in history are embedded in written accounts. One of Thompson’s students, Ben Cruz ’17, analyzed New York Times coverage of the 1963 March on Washington for a class assignment in the fall, documenting how the day’s sounds were presented using the tropes of African-American religious practice, with an emphasis on respectability and orderliness. Was that a reflection of how the participants aimed to present themselves to the nation? Or was it the reporter’s effort to explain the event to a largely white readership? With additional sources, Thompson says, “one could dig in to try to answer these questions.”

Thompson partnered with Mahoy, an interactive-design specialist at the University of Southern California, to create the New York City project, which allowed her to step outside of her comfort zone of linear writing that scholars rely on in books and journal articles. While there is no prescribed narrative, readers who interact with the project reveal a story with each successive click, Mahoy says. For example, a reader who starts at the heart of the commotion, Times Square, can find film clips of fashionable crowds strolling under the marquees of Broadway. A few blocks south, she might click on the complaint from Charles Kadison, a dentist who was disturbed by mobile loudspeakers dispatched by Ferdinand Pecora’s campaign for district attorney. (The “continuous raucous din … unnerved me so as to make working in a patient’s mouth positively dangerous,” Kadison wrote.) That may inspire a search for other complaints about radio loudspeakers — 54 in all, listed on the sound page — and before long, the reader has gained some sense of just how pervasive the radio had been in the 1920s urban soundscape.

“I wanted to take this dispersed, disembodied, immaterial medium” — a website — “and try to turn it on its head and use it as a tool to reconstruct a very specific physical space in the past,” Thompson says.

Tara McPherson, an associate professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and editor of Vectors, says that while a website sound experience has limits — headphones or laptop speakers cannot re-create the feeling of being on a city street corner — the material provides powerful hints of a different time and place. “I think people will find it very evocative,” McPherson says. “It’s easy to spend quite a bit of time with it.”

NPR’s All Things Considered, which highlighted “The Roaring ’Twenties” in October, called the project’s sounds “remarkable glimpses into the neighborhood life we can only read about today.” The audio and video, culled from the Fox Movietone newsreel archives, carry the experience with some uncommon gems, including a clothing peddler negotiating the purchase of a used suit from a housewife who has hailed him from her first-story window; a crew of experts from the city’s Noise Abatement Commission using a phonograph in 1929 to measure noise in Times Square; and the overlapping broadcasts on “radio row,” a stretch of stores on Cortlandt Street in Lower Manhattan where shopkeepers played their wares for passing customers. The newsreels also give voice to a range of individual New Yorkers, from plasterers working on the Chrysler Building high above Lexington Avenue to children shooting marbles in Central Park.

For her next book, Thompson has been exploring another aspect of aural history from the late 1920s: the transition from silent films to sound movies. The competition between studios did not produce a singular trendsetter in the mold of Sabine, but it did give rise to an interesting, complex story that blends technical challenges, philosophical issues, and aesthetic choices. Thompson has access to a trove of transcripts from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hosted closed-door forums where industry leaders discussed the new technology. “There’s a lot of great stuff,” she says. “You’ve really got people thinking out loud, which is the most exciting source for a historian.”

Experts from the Noise Abatement Commission measure the sounds of Times Square in December 1929.

Times Wide World Photos/The New York Times/Redux

Experts from the Noise Abatement Commission measure the sounds of Times Square in December 1929.

The digitization of archival recordings is expanding researchers’ ability to “listen in on the past,” according to Thompson, and the period that interests her most — the late 1800s through the early 1900s — offers some rich resources. But for a historian devoted to sounds, she spends relatively little time listening to them. Her work still relies primarily on written documents. Outside of the office, Thompson enjoys listening to early jazz albums and the new-wave music of her college years, but she would rather spin a record than tap an iPod. She owns five turntables, three of which she keeps in her Dickinson Hall office, and has seriously considered buying an antique Edison Diamond Disc player, a large phonograph that had its heyday in the 1910s and ’20s. “I’m a 20th-century sound person,” she says.

Navigating the world without earbuds has its benefits. In Thompson’s classes, one of her favorite assignments asks students to choose a place — a room, a quadrangle, a café — and analyze how it sounds. Was it consciously designed for sound? Does the sound shape the way people behave? Does the space work? “After reading about the development of techniques of architectural acoustics and its history, I want to give them a practical application,” she says. “It’s a new way to think about the built environment that they inhabit.”

Thompson also pays attention to sounds that can amplify her teaching. This fall, while doing yard work at her home in Princeton, she heard the bells of St. Paul’s Catholic Church ringing in the distance. Her freshman seminar, “Listening In: Sonic Culture in American History,” had been reading historian Richard Rath’s book about sound in early America, including a chapter on the role that bell-ringing and public noise played in Colonial communities. Rath notes that today, most churches swing the clappers, not the whole bells, so the sound does not ring out as it did centuries ago. Thompson made a point to walk by St. Paul’s at noon. Sure enough, the bells were swinging.

In October, the Rev. Michael McClane ’01, who majored in history at Princeton, welcomed Thompson’s class to St. Paul’s and shared some details about the bells, the largest of which weighs nearly a ton. After visiting the base of the bell tower, Thompson and her students gathered on the lawn to watch the bells swing and hear them peal across the edge of campus.

It was not a perfect analog to the Colonial bells that Rath describes — buses and cars on Nassau Street made the group keenly aware of its modern surroundings. But at the same time, it was not hard to imagine 18th-century farmers working in the field as the bell of Nassau Hall rang in the distance. A few curious passers-by noticed the group of Princeton students on the lawn and followed their gaze to the belfry. They paused for a moment on the sidewalk, just listening.

Brett Tomlinson is PAW’s digital editor.

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