Want to hear the first commercial for a soda, recorded a century ago? Now you can
The first audio commercial for a soda. A vaudeville act about sneezing. A 1920s home ‘exercise band’ featuring a man giving Swedish gymnastics instructions accompanied by an orchestra. One of the first musical performances recorded live, a choir of 4000 people in London singing Handel. A 1913 recording where a Boy Scout leader shows all the patrol calls used by the Boy Scouts at the time (you won’t believe how well this man could imitate a bird).
Over the past year, we’ve been working on our podcast, The World According to Sound, researching archives like the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library to unearth and preserve old recordings like these. . We’re making an experimental audio show that celebrates sound recordings made before 1923, many of which have not been listened to in decades by more than a handful of people.
Many of these records have been lost. Others are buried in archives. But from January 1, several hundred thousand will enter the public domain.
This is a major change in the world of audio.
It’s a great moment in history for sound archivists
Until recently, sound recordings were not covered by federal copyright laws like films, literature or photographs, all of which enter the public domain after some time. Then, in 2018, the federal government passed the Music Modernization Act. The law amended copyright laws for recorded sound and, among other things, required that every commercial recording made in the United States before 1923 enter the public domain on January 1, 2022.
That’s a huge amount of material. The Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) estimates that some 400,000 recordings will fall into the public domain.
In anticipation of this event, archivists across the country digitized and downloaded commercial audio recordings, as well as eccentric and amateur recordings, making it more accessible and accessible to the public. This is their great time to present the recordings they have kept for all these years and share them with individuals and media, who can now take this material, remix it and re-edit it. This makes new projects possible, like the show we’re working on on the origins of sound recording.
AT The world according to sound, we do a series of live listening events. Each show has a different theme and a collection of work done by us and other radio producers, musicians and sound artists. The audio is spatialized to the headphones and streamed live to people listening across the country. We send attendees an eye mask and an invitation to settle into a meditative evening of intentional listening.
This treasure trove of very old recordings that have fallen into the public domain seemed perfectly suited to one of our parties. For the past year, archivists have been sharing with us sounds from their collections, some of which are about to enter the public domain, and others that are historical gems they have been working on for years to digitize.
The Library of Congress has one of the largest collections. For years he has been uploading recordings online to his National jukebox. Their archives contain many musical works of historical significance, such as the earliest recordings of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, a group that popularized Spirituals and is still active today. This is a 1909 recording of Little David, play on your harp.
There is more than music in the Library of Congress collection. There are children’s stories, dramatic performances, vaudeville acts, practical records and other genres that companies were experimenting with as consumer products around the turn of the century. One of those experiences is this recording, which may be the very first home “exercise band”.
The Jukebox has an entire section dedicated to oral creation and recitations. This is a poem by Edgar A. Guest titled The old wooden bathtub. It was recorded in 1929, when much of the country still lacked electricity and telephones, but the speaker of the poem longs for a simpler time.
Not only could the Edison household phonograph play recordings, it allowed people to create their own. People would record on blank wax cylinders, or take a commercial cylinder, shave it and make their own recording over it.
Archivists estimate that Americans made several hundred thousand home recordings during the first decades of the 20th century. Most are lost. UC Santa Barbara cylinder archives has over 650. This is one of our favorites. We hear a man calling his dog Mugsy, who also accompanies him on a musical number.
The cylinder archives contain more than 10,000 wax cylinders, which served as the recording medium for devices like the Edison household phonograph. Curators have created thematic playlists everything from Tahitian field recordings to popular WWI songs.
For our live broadcast, the New York Public Library digitized a recording of a Boy Scout leader demonstrating patrol calls. This is the first time that this document has been digitized. We would love to share it with you here, but the audio cannot be released to the public until January 1.
The New York Public Library also showed us a wealth of recordings made by Lionel Mapleson, who was one of the first to attempt to systematically record a series of live musical performances. He was librarian at the Metropolitan Opera House and from 1901 to 1903 he made recordings of the opera. We made this story about Mapleson’s recording efforts for Radio newspapers.
Archivists have played a vital role in the preservation of these ancient records. The media is fragile, and without protection from the elements, wax cylinders and discs can crack and become unplayable.
At the same time, many of these recordings were first kept by private collectors and then acquired by archives. This is the story of the Mapleson cylinders, which the New York Public Library obtained from a private collector, Mr. Herbert Bretnall. The same goes for personal records and some of the other cylinders in the UC Santa Barbara cylinder archives. Many were donated by David Giovannoni, who has set up its own online repository for the sound recordings he collected.
Online you can find many old cylinders and recordings that people have uploaded. Archivists at the Library of Congress have told us about what is believed to be the very first audio commercial for a soda. They didn’t have it in their collection, but we were able to find a version online. Someone with an old Edison phonograph had taken a video of the cylinder being played, which is not an advertisement for Coke or Pepsi, but a state of Maine favorite brand of soda.
Archivists have also told us about the existence of an early advertisement for the Edison household phonograph. In it, you can hear the hopes of the companies that recorded sound will be a major commodity.
This ad actually became the backbone of the storytelling. our live show, which we air on january 6th. For the show, we’ve remixed a lot of old audios like the tracks above, added a few new recordings of our own, and sprinkled a little context here and there to help you immerse yourself in all those old recordings.
The whole show would have been impossible if the Music Modernization Act hadn’t put these recordings into the public domain. If you want to listen to other sound gems that will go public on January 1, you can check out this list of records set up by ARSC.
Sam Harnett is co-founder and co-host of The world according to sound, and a former tech and work reporter. Chris Hoff is an independent audio manufacturer based in San Francisco.