What New York City Sounded Like ca. 1930

A cool website to enjoy on a cold Friday morning: The Roaring Twenties is a digital history project that documents what New York City sounded like ca. 1930.

Site developer Emily Thompson (author of The Soundscape of Modernity; here she explains the connection between the book and this project)  introduces The Roaring Twenties by telling of a Japanese visitor to New York in 1920…

View from the Empire State Building in 1931
One of L. W. Hine’s photographs of the construction of the Empire State Building – a view looking north in 1931 (New York Public Library)

[He noted,] “My first impression of New York was its noise.” While initially appalled by the clamor that surrounded him, he soon became enamored of the task of listening to the noise and identifying individual sounds within the cacophony. “When I know what they mean,” he explained to a reporter, “I will understand civilization.”

As that un-named Japanese visitor recognized, sound is a crucial aspect of the urban experience, constantly shaping – even as it is shaped by – the social and physical dimensions of city life. For historians as well as foreign travelers, noise thus provides a valuable key to understanding civilizations different from our own.

…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.  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.  The Roaring ‘Twenties website is dedicated to that challenge, attempting to recreate for its listeners not just the sound of the past but also its sonic culture.  It offers a sonic time machine; an interactive multimedia environment whereby site visitors can not just hear, but mindfully listen to, the noises of New York City in the late 1920s, a place and time defined by its din.

…it offers an informational environment of media and data.  Letters, forms, photographs, sound motion pictures, and other kinds of artifacts cumulatively constitute a network of content and context that engages the visitor’s historical imagination.  The goal is to enable each visitor to chart their own unique journey through this material and thereby transport themselves back in time, constructing a historically-oriented mindset through which to perceive the images and sounds.

Because it’s meant to bring to life cacophony, it’s hard to give representative examples of the sounds to expect at The Roaring Twenties: there’s everything from the bells of Park Ave. Baptist Church to steelworkers talking about building the Empire State Building to a Salvation Army preacher. You can also explore a map of the city showing noise complaints and a timeline that organizes sources chronologically.

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