The Sounds Of New York City, Circa 1920

Oct 22, 2013
Originally published on October 22, 2013 7:59 pm

We can hear the music of the Roaring '20s anytime we want. But what if you could hear the day-to-day sounds of what it was like to live at that vibrant time?

That's the basis of Emily Thompson's project "The Roaring Twenties." She's a history professor at Princeton University who's been mapping the sounds of New York City in the late 1920s and early '30s.

Specifically, she's interested in the sounds that drove people crazy. Her favorite?

"A man named Mr. Schmuck called to complain about the noise of the Colonial Pickle Works Factory where he lived in Brooklyn and somehow that just seems quintessentially New York to me," she says.

Thompson kept a collection of early New York City noise complaints for years. What, she wondered, if you could actually hear all those sounds?

So, she teamed up with Scott Mahoy, a Web designer, and did just that. She and Mahoy, together with a team at the University of Southern California, matched old noise complaints to footage from newsreels, to produce a sound map of New York, block by block.

The sounds are remarkable glimpses into the neighborhood life we can only read about today. Take the street peddler known as Ol' Clo. He scours the Lower East Side, hunting for old clothes to buy. Listen to him barter with this woman, leaning out her first-story window, trying to get the best price she can for her husband's old suit: "Look, it's good suit," she says. "See, my husband sat on it two years — not a hole!"

The best sounds come from the kids: swimming contests, races on homemade scooters and roller skates, little wise guys on the Lower East Side, arguing about cleaning up trash. Here, on a hot summer's day, unsuspecting firefighters race off to a call. Within seconds, a mass of kids gathers to skip under the spray of water shooting from the fire company's hose.

With noise popping up all over, the city was forced to address the influx of noise complaints. It established the Noise Abatement Commission in 1929, when New York was then — as now — the nation's largest urban center, with a population of just under 7 million. The commission had the near-impossible task of recording the noise levels in the bustling city.

On an interactive map, you can hear a man attempt to precisely measure the din of Midtown Manhattan. He pronounces that Times Square "deprives us of 42 percent of our hearing."

The commission certainly did make an attempt. As Thompson describes, it employed a specially equipped truck that "hit the city streets and logged hundreds of miles from borough to borough taking measurements at different intersections of the sounds of traffic and subways and elevated trains."

There was a lot of research — but few results. "Ultimately, the Noise Abatement Commission was not considered to have successfully solved the problem of noise in New York," says Thompson, "as anyone who's been there today can testify."

Of course, the noise complaints continue. But on Thompson's website, the sounds of old New York — noise complaints and all — sound a great deal sweeter than the streets of today.

Don't you just want to be there with this guy? Swaying along as he strums his ukulele on the beaches of Coney Island, on a hot June day in 1930?

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Finally this hour, the roar of New York in the roaring '20s. Emily Thompson is professor of history at Princeton University, and she's been mapping the sounds, not the music, but the sounds of New York City in the late 1920s and early '30s, specifically the sounds that drove people crazy.

EMILY THOMPSON: I do have one favorite noise complaint. A man named Mr. Schmuck called to complain about the noise of the Colonial Pickle Works Factory, where he lived in Brooklyn. And somehow that just seems quintessentially New York to me.


Thompson, with Web designer Scott Mahoy, collected those noise complaints along with old newsreels and created a sound map of New York, block by block. There's the street peddler buying old clothes on the Lower East Side.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Old clothes. Old clothes.


BLOCK: A woman leans out her window to sell the peddler one of her husband's old suits.




UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Look, it's good suit.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: 75 cents.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, no, no. Look. See?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ninety cents.

CORNISH: Then there are the street preachers in Greenwich Village.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The Salvation Army believes in old time religion.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Isn't that so? Say, hallelujah.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Praise God for the old time religion. It changes a man's life. A man who has been a drunkard becomes a sober man.

CORNISH: And in those days, his chief competition for the ears of New Yorkers...


CORNISH: Construction. Lots of it.

BLOCK: There were also plenty of kids.

MARGERY: I'm glad you won, brother.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I congratulate you, too, for winning, Margery.

BLOCK: A brother and sister after winning a race at Hamilton Fish Park.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: We sure did clean up for dear old Brooklyn.

MARGERY: Ma and pa will be happy too.

CORNISH: And with all the noise all over the city...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Forty, 41, 42.

CORNISH: Something had to be done.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The noise in Times Square deprives us of 42 percent of our hearing.

BLOCK: So, New York established a noise abatement commission in 1929. Here, a man uses a phonograph to help him measure the din of midtown Manhattan.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I will now let you hear the warbling test tone by which we determine the amount of deafness due to noise.

THOMPSON: Ultimately, the noise abatement commission was not considered to have successfully solved the problem of noise in New York as anyone who's been there today can testify.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Everybody quiet and I'll (unintelligible) quiet.

CORNISH: Noise then. But today, these sounds captured on Emily Thompson's Roaring Twenties website are a real pleasure.


CORNISH: We'll leave you with this man and his ukulele, Coney Island, on a hot day in June, 1930.


BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.