Interactive Website Lets You Listen to New York City in the Roaring ’20s

February 3, 2016

We love looking at footage from 1920s New York City and watching the bustling street life from a bygone era, but we aren’t nearly as familiar with its sounds. The Roaring Twenties, “an interactive exploration of the historical soundscape of New York City,” created by historian Emily Thompson, compiles a wealth of historic data to re-create and share the city’s sonic history, giving context to the sounds of the city in the 1920s and ’30s. In an introduction, there’s a quote from a 1920 New York Times article that speaks of how the city was “defined by its din.”

Roaring 20s Sound Timeline

Thompson explains that a growing number of historic sound recordings are becoming more easily available online, providing an ever-greater opportunity to listen in on the past. Unique sound excerpts from Fox Movietone newsreel footage from 1926 through 1930 offer what Thompson calls “a sonic time machine.” There are fog horns, shouting peddlers, rumbling elevated trains, pounding riveters, and laughing children. Much of this footage never made it into the the published newsreels.

Using archival materials like newspaper articles, sound complaints, and newsreel footage, visitors can scroll through a list of sounds of street traffic or read (undoubtedly familiar) complaints of noisy parties and barking dogs. 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.” Vistiors can choose between journeys built around Sound, Space, and Time.

Roaring 20s Sound
Times Square in 1922, via

Thompson makes the point that the city may not have, in fact, become noisier, and that most of the physical sounds about which we complain today (hello, horn-honkers) have been around at least since the 1920s (though we have perfected techniques of better blocking out the sound with earphones and the like). “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,” she says.

[Via Mental Floss]


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