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Greetings from the Phonograph

Media scholar and Einstein Visiting Fellow Thomas Y. Levin is studying the history of a medium that has largely been forgotten today.

Dec 10, 2014

Akustische Grüße versenden war schick, ob vom Empire State Building (links) oder aus dem Freizeitklub (rechts).
Sending acoustic greetings was chic, whether from the Empire State Building (left) or from a nightclub (far left). "Use only wooden needles," is on the AEG record from 1933. Image Credit: Thomas Y. Levin (Scans)

 A uniform whoosh and a slight crackle are heard. The next moment, an energetic young male voice speaks: “Dear Lina, it’s Josi!” Is it the start of a letter? Or a phone conversation?

“I’m with Rosl in Munich today and brought the recorder along so that we can send you a talking message,” Josi continues. He enunciates every word very clearly, so it almost sounds mechanical. This is probably so that the recipient – a friend or relative – will be able to understand everything clearly. Josi, Rosl, Trude, and other family members recorded their greetings on a record and sent it in the mail.

Like Josi and Lina, countless people all over the world sent and received “spoken letters” from the 1920s to the 1970s. It was a mass phenomenon that, astonishingly enough, is largely unknown today, as media scholar Thomas Y. Levin, of Princeton University, discovered.

He happened upon the spoken letters more than ten years ago, when he discovered a curious object at a flea market in his hometown of Princeton, New Jersey: a record that didn’t play music. “It was an audio-recorded letter from a soldier,” Levin says, recalling the event that sparked his interest in the history of spoken letters. In the meantime, he has established the world’s largest archive for “phono-post.”

In 2010, Levin got the opportunity to go to the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies at Freie Universität as an Einstein Visiting Fellow and spend four years systematically expanding his knowledge of this early form of voicemail and writing a scientific publication on the topic. One question is of special interest to him: Why have spoken letters, a mass phenomenon, been practically forgotten today – even in media history?

The Audio Message Arrived in the Mail

Spoken letters are brief messages – typically one to two minutes long – that were recorded on a record using a recording phonograph. They were then sent by mail, and the recipient could play them back to hear the message. “These are personal letters from ordinary people,” Levin says. “From soldiers who are far away from their family, or fathers who want to send something personal to their children.”

The messages were recorded in Europe, the U.S., and South America, either at home or in booths specifically designed for the purpose, like modern-day passport photo booths. Manuals with titles such as Recording Your Own Records were published in various editions. “It was a mass industry,” Levin says.

Even before that, it was already possible to record music or a person’s own voice. But the establishment of records as such and the introduction of affordably priced record players that could both play and record sound gave this technology broad appeal. Since talking on the telephone was still quite complicated and expensive at the time, sending recorded voice messages was an especially attractive option, Levin says.

Spoken letters opened up whole new avenues in communication for people who could neither read nor write. This was especially true in South America, where illiteracy was common, Levin says. The Argentine postal service even introduced a specific recording and mailing fee for spoken letters – the Servicio Fonopostal – in 1939.

“Compared with mailing conventional letters, sending records was much more expensive,” Levin says. He points out that the fact that the government introduced new mailing rates shows how important spoken letters were in society. At the post office, customers could also record a message and send the finished record for a reasonable price in a spoken letter booth. The recipient didn’t necessarily need to have a record player; messages could be listened to right at the post office, so those who – unlike Josi and Rosl – lacked a player of their own still did not have to go without these voice messages.

Levin Has Collected about 2000 Letters

Recording booths for spoken letters came into fashion in the United States in the 1930s, and ten years after that they were also found in Europe. They were especially popular at tourist attractions such as amusement parks and at train stations and major department stores, where they were used to send a very special greeting to those back home.

Levin’s archive now encompasses more than 2,000 recordings, which the scholar has collected through online auctions, at flea markets, and by trading with other collectors. He has hardly found any at archives, though. “These spoken letters are one-of-a-kind items, most of them with mundane content. They probably just weren’t interesting enough for archives,” says Levin, an American with German roots. He thinks this also explains why the acoustic letters do not appear in media history: “A spoken letter is always aimed at just a small group of recipients. It isn’t a mass medium.”

Still, spoken letters themselves were a mass phenomenon. Levin suspects that there were various reasons for this, including the fascination of hearing one’s own voice for the first time: “Everyone knows that it’s extremely strange to hear your own voice ‘from outside.’ It always sounds different from the way we ourselves perceive it when speaking. To people in the 1920s, that was something completely new.” The messages’ recipients must have had the same feeling, that it was both delightful and strange to hear a loved one’s voice without the person actually being there. “There was also something eerie about it. All at once, the voice was no longer bound to a body,” Levin says.

The medium did not meet with fundamental skepticism, but there was definitely a certain measure of reluctance. “It took about two minutes to record a message – seemingly a long time to communicate something orally. A lot of people didn’t know what to say,” Levin says. This uncertainty is also apparent in the Munich family’s recorded message. “I feel a little strange, speaking to you instead of writing, but I hope you will also enjoy it,” says speaker Trude, starting her part of the recording.

Many Wrote Down What They Wanted to Say in Advance

For many who were new to spoken letters, the solution lay in writing down what they wanted to say beforehand. Levin can tell when this is the case because the speakers sound wooden, more like they are reading aloud than speaking. The scholar finds this aspect especially interesting for the way that it blends various communication models from letters, phone conversations, and spoken communications.

About 50 audio recordings are now accessible online; the letter from Josi, Rosl, and Trude is one of them. Levin plans to make the rest of the messages publicly available bit by bit. For each letter, the archive contains an audio track that has been prepared using filters and special technologies as well as a transcript of the recording. There is also additional information, such as the recording date and the names of the speakers, if it has been possible to identify them. The archive also features photographs of the records and the envelopes in which they were sent.

To Levin, the database’s functionality is the most important thing. For example, the archive updates itself on an ongoing basis to ensure that it always remains accessible despite constant change on the Internet. The biggest challenge, he says, wasn’t the technology, but transcribing the audio recordings. “The records were stored for many decades, usually under unfavorable conditions. On top of that, the recording technology was primitive and no longer compares with present-day technology,” he explains. Besides that, some records had been damaged when they were played, for instance because the wrong needle was used. “Some recordings are very difficult to understand as a result,” Levin says.

He and his team have been able to decipher most of them, however, thereby reopening a forgotten chapter in media history. Language researchers are especially interested in the archive, and as Levin says, “The recordings are a vast treasure trove of information on accents and dialects.” His funding from the Einstein Foundation is due to expire this year, but Levin definitely plans to continue his research. “The contacts I have made as a fellow at Freie Universität are very valuable and will continue to be useful to me,” he says. In the Munich family’s acoustic Christmas card, a festive waltz is heard in the background as Trude closes the message. “We hope you all stay healthy, and that we will see you again soon. Most especially, please write whether you liked this record. Warm wishes once again from all of us. Sincerely, Trude.”

Thomas Y. Levin asks for support: Anyone who possesses spoken records and would like to save them is welcome to send them to Levin’s team. The scholars will digitize the audio recordings and provide the owner with an MP3 version.

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