INTRODUCTION: The Roaring 'Twenties

"What news from New York?"
"Stocks go up. A baby murdered a gangster."
"Nothing more?"
"Nothing. Radios blare in the street."
F. Scott Fitzgerald, "My Lost City," 1932

Writing from the depths of the Depression in 1932, F. Scott Fitzgerald looked back on the decade that had roared.  He recalled that roar as so characteristic, so ubiquitous as to be remarkably unremarkable.  Fitzgerald's contemporaries may have been less blasé, but many shared his belief that New York was defined by its din.  In 1920, for example, a Japanese governor visiting the city for the first time 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." 1Quote from William Chenery, "The Noise of Civilization," New York Times (1 Feb 1920): 13. 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.

Historians have only recently begun to consider sound, but their work is already reshaping our understanding of the past in significant ways.  This new work has been accompanied by an ever-increasing number of historic sound recordings made easily available via the internet, and the opportunity to listen in on the past has never been greater.  But recorded sound presents new challenges as well as opportunities.  Of course any recording is highly mediated by layers of technology that must be accounted for, but a more fundamental challenge lies in the fact that, while people hear with their ears, they listen with their minds.  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.

The Roaring 'Twenties does not present the simulated kind of virtual environment typically seen, for example, in video games; there is no three-dimensional rendering of a virtual Broadway down which avatar flappers and gangsters stroll.  Instead, 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.

The sonic content at the heart of this journey consists of fifty-four unique excerpts of sound newsreel footage, Fox Movietone newsreels from 1926 through 1930.  The films come from the Moving Image Research Collections of the Libraries of the University of South Carolina.  Fog horns, shouting peddlers, rumbling elevated trains, pounding riveters, and laughing children were all captured by the microphones and cameras of the Movietone men as they traversed the city searching for news.  Much of the footage deployed here was never edited into the published newsreels shown in motion picture theaters at that time, thus it is seen and heard on this website for the first time since those images and sounds were captured onto film.

To construct a context for listening to these historic sounds, the site presents a rich collection of data and documents from the Municipal Archives of the City of New York, testifying to and elaborating upon the problem of noise in the modern city. Aggravated citizens wrote letters to the Mayor and to the Commissioner of Health, describing in sometimes angry, sometimes pitiable tones the noises that vexed them. The surprisingly efficient bureaucracy of the Department of Health responded and occasionally alleviated their distress. Almost 600 complaints - all that have been located within the Archive for this period - are catalogued, charting the everyday sounds of urban life from the cradle to the grave.  Or rather, from the noise of a maternity hospital to the clamor of a monument-maker's stone yard.  Approximately 350 different documents, from hand-written letters of complaint to carbon-copy departmental memos, are reproduced for website visitors to engage with directly.  The historical context is elaborated further through excerpts from hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles of the era, and a complete facsimile of City Noise, the 1930 report of the Noise Abatement Commission of New York City. A lengthy Historical Narrative offers additional background, particularly for those who seek out linear accounts offering concrete beginnings and endings.

How does one engage with all this material?  There are three different paths, three complementary ways to plot a course through the content.  Since all sound exists in space and through time, the user can choose between journeys built around Sound, Space, and Time.

The Sound interface organizes the content by type of noise.  Using categories from the era, as well as a few we have added, one can select and call forth complaints and newsreel footage of specific kinds of noises, from newsboys and barking dogs to steam shovels and radio loudspeakers.  The Space interface plots all the complaints and newsreels onto a street map of the city from 1933.  All five boroughs can be navigated by the familiar screen techniques of scrolling and zooming, enabling the visitor to explore specific neighborhoods and discover the noises that characterized each particular locale. Finally, a Timeline organizes the material chronologically.

Within each interface, specific items are called up by clicking upon listings or icons representing:  noise complaints; noise complaints with accompanying documentation; and newsreels.

Each content window so opened summarizes and presents the material selected. Noise complaint documentation is stacked chronologically to follow the trail of correspondence.  Newsreels are viewed via a standard video controller.  All items additionally include a complete archival citation under a "Source" tab, and for hand-written letters a "Transcription" tab is also available for reference. More information about the original archival materials - the noise complaints, the newsreels, and the map - can be found in the "Info" area of the website's home page.  The City Noise report and the Historical Narrative are also located there, along with a Bibliography and a brief listing of Additional Websites for further reading and browsing.

All displays have been designed to work on desktop, laptop, or tablet screens utilizing up-to-date versions of a range of browser software, including Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome. They have not been designed to display well on the tiny screens of smart phones.  The site works best when the browser window is maximized, and it is also recommended that the usable area within the browser window be maximized by closing or minimizing any internal tool bars, menu bars, or other features that take up screen space.  Each of the three interfaces is always accessible via its icon on the left side of the display, and "The Roaring 'Twenties" logo in the top left corner returns you to the home page, to begin your journey anew.

Of course, no history book nor historical website - not even one offering the most advanced technological tools - can ever truly reconstruct the past. The evidence is always incomplete and mediated, and the interests and biases of our own time shape our understanding of history as much as does the past itself. Our time machines thus ultimately and necessarily return us to our selves, and the sonic time machine that is The Roaring 'Twenties is no exception. While dedicated to understanding the meaning of noise in the early twentieth century, it also speaks to more contemporary questions.

As the Bibliography makes clear, the recent past has seen a range of scholars, artists, and journalists turn to the topic of urban noise. The New York Times has covered the subject extensively and numerous books have appeared in just the past few years. In 2011, the Guggenheim Museum commissioned a series of works under the rubric of "stillspotting ( ) NYC," dedicated to the exploration of noise and its corollary, quietude, in all five city Boroughs.

Why do we now once again find noise so compelling? It is not evident that the city has recently become noisier, indeed, most of the physical sounds of which we complain today have been around at least since the 1920s. And we now tune out many of those unwanted sounds by stopping our ears with the earbuds of our iPods and cell phones, replacing the noise of the city with a personal soundtrack that follows us wherever we go. The solution offered by these digital devices, however, may also offer a clue to the problem, for it may be that such digital noise is what truly threatens to overwhelm us today.  We are increasingly inundated by an onslaught of signals competing for our attention, an on-line cacophony of inbox alerts, Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, and cell phone ringtones demanding our attention. David Foster Wallace called it Total Noise, the "tsunami" of information that constantly challenges our human capacity to focus. 2David Foster Wallace, "Introduction,"
The Best American Essays 2007 (Houghton Mifflin), p. xx.

Perhaps from the vantage of our informationally-saturated, socially-networked, virtually-enacted, and earbud-insulated early twenty-first-century lives, there is a curious kind of nostalgia at work, a complicated longing for the old-fashioned problem of physical sounds. Since the word "nostalgia," like "homesickness," evokes pain alongside its yearning for a more familiar past, this supposition does acknowledge the very real distress suffered by individuals today who continue to be plagued by unwanted sounds. But historians strive to understand cultures as well as individuals, and historians of noise must seek to understand why noise as a cultural problem resonates more strongly at some times than others. In the 1920s, noise was part of a production-oriented society permeated by new mechanical machines whose sonic output threatened to undermine their sought-for productivity. In the 1970s, noise was reformulated as an environmental threat, a form of pollution like litter or toxic chemicals that suffused and threatened a culture now defined more by its habits of consumption than production. Within the digitally-defined contours of the early twenty-first century, our own quest may ultimately be more for quietude than quiet, a state of repose that not only calms but also reconnects us with the materiality and locality of our lives, the rich world of people and things that only exist off-line.

If we are seeking solidity as well as the solitude of high ground in the face of that digital tsunami, then this website offers no solution, indeed, it only contributes to our problem by adding a few more megabytes of content to the assault. But perhaps on a more fundamental level it may suggest a solution, a lesson to be learned from the past.

While the newsreel footage on this website has been compiled because it documents the kinds of sounds that many people complained of during the 1920s, very few of the film clips presented here explicitly document noise. The vast majority of newsreels instead simply show New Yorkers living their lives, at work and at play amidst the rich cacophony of city life that surrounds them. While those who wrote the letters complained of the sounds documented here, the people captured on camera more typically seem undaunted, taking pride in their noisy labor and engaging directly with friends and strangers, seemingly drawing strength from the dynamic material world that constituted their home. Perhaps there is something to be gained by attempting to imagine away our digital lives and to conjure up a time and place so different from our own. By understanding how a past generation struggled against a physical adversary yet still thrived within the challenges posed by their environment, we may be emboldened to find a way to master the noise in our own lives.