For anyone who has ever wondered what the famous “roar” of the 1920s might have sounded like, The Roaring ’Twenties can help with the answer. Emily Thompson, a historian at Princeton, created the interactive project that documents the aural history of New York City in the vibrant 1920s and early 1930s. In the first few decades of the 20th century, the city was beginning to deal with the relatively new problem of excessive noise and the inevitable complaints that followed. The Roaring ’Twenties uses a variety of media, including documented noise complaints, contemporary newspaper articles, and Fox Movietone newsreels from MIRC to piece together the sounds of the city as it moved from the high life of the 1920s into the Great Depression of the 1930s.
In the introduction, Thompson describes the website as a “sonic time machine” that allows people to engage with “a place and time defined by its din.” Visitors to the site can browse using the Sound, Space, or Time buttons, which organize the various complaints, newsreels, and articles by type, geographic location, or date.
MIRC contributed fifty-four newsreels from the large archive of early sound footage in the Fox Movietone News collection. The first company to incorporate sound into its newsreels, Fox Movietone utilized an unusual recording system that created variable density optical sound tracks on the same strip of film that captured the corresponding images. This system ensured the original sound and images would remain paired together, over eight decades later.
Because image and audio in the Movietone footage are inherently linked, The Roaring ’Twenties offers not just the sounds of the decade, but the sights as well. One newsreel documents the streets of New York as the truck winds through Times Square, capturing not just noises, but the look of the people on the sidewalks, the cars in the road, and the theater marquees. Another video actually features the Noise Abatement Commission mentioned so often on the site. Toward the end of 1929, Movietone cameramen filmed a team from the commission measuring the “deafening effect” of the noise in Times Square. In yet another clip from 1928, visitors can watch a carnival barker at Coney Island “levitate” a woman as he yells to the passing crowd. The variety of footage, shot all over the city, represents the different aspects of life at the time. Sirens, music, early automobiles, construction sounds, and the bustle of the crowds are just some of the noises waiting to be discovered.
MIRC Newsfilm Curator Dr. Greg Wilsbacher was happy to work with Thompson on the project: “It’s rewarding to see the Fox collection used in such an innovative piece of scholarship. I’m learning more about these early sound films by viewing them in this new context.”
Thompson partnered with Scott Mahoy to develop the website over several years, publishing it with the online journal Vectors at the University of Southern California. Unsurprisingly, The Roaring ’Twenties has already generated lots of buzz, with articles showing up on NPR and the New York Times websites.