Great New Archive Lets You Hear the Sounds of New York City During the Roaring 20s


The French refer to the decade between 1920 and 1929 as les Années folles, “the crazy years,” which is apt when you con­sid­er how the French mid­dle and upper class­es gen­er­al­ly loos­ened their brassieres and defined mod­ern bohemia, à la Coco Chanel.

But the Amer­i­can moniker — the Roar­ing 20s — fits too. Near­ly every­thing about that decade roared: cars, jazz, man­u­fac­tur­ing, con­struc­tion.

Din, in fact, came to define the age, par­tic­u­lar­ly in big cities and espe­cial­ly in New York. An unnamed Japan­ese vis­i­tor was quot­ed upon his vis­it to that city in 1920: “My first impres­sion of New York was its noise. When I know what they mean, I will under­stand civ­i­liza­tion.”

A Prince­ton his­to­ry pro­fes­sor took that chal­lenge at face val­ue, while cap­tur­ing a broad­er indus­tri­al era. The Roar­ing Twen­ties is an audio (and to some extent video) archive of what New York City sound­ed like from 1900 to 1933. Pro­fes­sor Emi­ly Thomp­son and design­er Scott Mahoy have cre­at­ed a love­ly site that’s fun to explore. The archive includes a beau­ti­ful 1933 map of New York City loaded with links to noise com­plaints (screen­shot at top), com­plete with doc­u­men­ta­tion. New York had long been a place where peo­ple from all over the world lived on top of one anoth­er, but noise lev­els were shifting—getting loud­er and more var­ied, that is—and the city was inun­dat­ed with com­plaints about fer­ry whis­tles, radio shops, street traf­fic, the clat­ter of restau­rant dish­wash­ing, and all man­ner of con­struc­tion.


Sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the city’s vol­ume was high. The city’s Noise Abate­ment Com­mis­sion mea­sured the “deaf­en­ing effect” of sound in Times Square. The women’s cafe­te­ria in the New York Life Insur­ance build­ing was designed with state-of-the-art acoustics to keep the noise of the city out and the sound of office work­ers in.

Cort­landt Street in low­er Man­hat­tan was lined with radio shops, each broad­cast­ing dif­fer­ent music. Don’t miss that video, which you’ll find by scan­ning the Space tab map.

You can also move through time on the site, lis­ten­ing to the city’s cacoph­o­ny from the ear­ly 1900s up to the 1930s, or browse a menu of noise sources from home sounds to the noise of the har­bors and rivers. Again, you can vis­it the The Roar­ing Twen­ties site here.

via i09

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Alan Lomax’s Music Archive Hous­es Over 17,400 Folk Record­ings From 1946 to the 1990s

Cor­nell Launch­es Archive of 150,000 Bird Calls and Ani­mal Sounds, with Record­ings Going Back to 1929

The Chal­lenge of Archiv­ing Sound + Vision in the 21st Cen­tu­ry

Kate Rix writes about edu­ca­tion and dig­i­tal media. Fol­low her on Twit­ter.

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  • templeruins says:

    Im con­fused, I thought you could lis­ten to the sounds, instead you just read about them?



    I’m a sound stud­ies researcher and I’d like to ask where did you take the ‘city nois­es source’ chart from. I ask because the ver­sion Pro­fes­sor Thomp­son’s dis­play in her book is slight­ly dif­fer­ent. The one on her book is this:

    The one you on dis­played in your post is clear­ly edit­ed to add oth­er sources. As I’m research­ing on the top­ic of pol­i­tics of sound the fact that ‘african amer­i­cans’ and ‘asian amer­i­cans’ are list­ed ad ‘noise sources’ is intrigu­ing.

    I appre­ci­ate any help on find­ing the source for this ver­sion of the image.

    Best regards,
    Fer­nan­do Ces­pedes
    PhD can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of São Paulo, Brazil.

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