Web History Tools

The Meaning of Sound

Sketching scenes and painting likenesses have been with us for millennia. On Columbus Day, 2014, I can find a portrait of the explorer on the internet. “Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus” hangs in the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has become our standard image, although dated 1519 — thirteen years after Columbus’s death.

Images of Columbus: Library of Congress

Since the advent of photographic images in the nineteenth century, and then motion pictures, we have windows into the past, however inexact they are at telling us the whole story. Having read biographies of Samuel Clemens, it was still moving to see Mark Twain amble across the screen in this wonderfully restored film taken in 1909.

Mark Twain by Thomas Edison

This leads me to my thought for the day. Where are the sounds of the past? I’ve created hundreds of short films about historic subjects, and it is always fun to find just the right sound clip for a scene. But it is always that — a clip, sympathetic, yet divorced from its context. The problem is that the archives are shallow. Much as Ken Burns uses sympathetic images to portray battles in The Civil War, because there are no photographs of actual battles, we rely on evocative sounds. Historian Emily Thompson’s book, The Soundscape of Modernity, explores that very issue. Now, Thompson, with others, has created a website, The Roaring Twenties.

What Did New York Sound Like?

Thompson and her team poured through written documents, primarily noise complaints in New York City during the 1920s and 1930s. The site posts actual letters of complaint that were sent to the New York City Department of Health. Then, the magic. First, the site maps the complaints. Then, using old newsreels and other random recordings, connects sound to place when possible (not often). We listen to the sound of children playing on the street, the street cleaners as they pass by, and, my favorite, “Radio Row”. This was the nickname given to Cortlandt Street, between Washington Street and Broadway, in lower Manhattan during the 1920s due to the concentration of radio shops located there.

Thompson explained: “The aim here is not just to present sonic content, but to evoke the original contexts of those sounds, to help us better understand that context as well as the sounds themselves. The goal is to recover the meaning of sound, to undertake a historicized mode of listening that tunes our modern ears to the pitch of the past.”

An Animated Geography Lesson

The Digital Scholarship Lab (DSL) at the University of Richmond recently created a website with a great American atlas: Charles O. Paullin and John K. Wright’s Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, first published in 1932. I love maps and this has been wonderfully reproduced with nearly 700 images. It gets better. There are numerous enhancements to trace change over time. For example, I have an interest in American religious history, and recently completed a National Register of Historic Places evaluation of a former Augustana Synod Lutheran Church in New London, Minnesota. With the atlas, I pulled up an animated map that showed the expansion of Lutheran churches from 1775 to 1890. This is an excellent example of how we can make resources available on the internet — and then add value with thoughtful digital tools.

Take a look.

Blogging the Past in Real Time

One piece missing from most history museum installations is the sense of time. That might seem like a strange statement, but a good gallery tour might take one hour, during which events that took days, weeks, and years are compressed so that you can get the whole story in one visit.

I’ve found a couple blogs that are telling their stories in real time. One, Blogging the Beatles, has been following the world’s great rock band from its start. The posts roughly match the real events of fifty years ago, so, although we know the rest of the story, there is a certain anticipation as they have their first recording sessions with George Martin, or when they hit Number #1 on the charts with “Please, Please Me.” It helps me to understand how the Beatles exploded on the U.K. scene while remaining generally unknown in the U.S.

A second blog, Bound for South Australia, takes the same approach, except this time using captains’ logs and diaries to follow, with once a week entries, the voyages of nine ships from Great Britain to Australia in 1838. At times, not much happens, and as a reader, I watch the horizon, looking for an island up ahead. At others, storms beset the ships and with accompanying maps, we can connect the story to a place. In these forty-five entries, the authors make available primary resources for further study. It’s a great teaching technique.