Popular Culture in 1877, the Year of the Phonograph


By Doug Boilesen 2023

With the completion of the Phonograph at Edison's Menlo Park Laboratory on December 6, 1877 sound was captured and the recorded human voice was played back. It was an historic moment.

The first public demonstration of the Phonograph at the office of Scientific American in New York City on December 7, 1877 could be called popular culture's official announcement of the Revolution of Recorded Sound.

This page provides some context for the year when the phonograph was introduced to the public. Edison's invention of the Phonograph is just one event in 1877 and its completion was at the end of that year. Nevertheless, the Scientific American writer's reaction in his December 22, 1877 article "The Talking Phonograph" reveals the significance of that moment. The talking machine would change the perception of ephemeral sound forever.

The Phonograph was a wonder bordering on magic and the writer touched on this when he wrote "It is impossible to listen to the mechanical speech without his experiencing the idea that his senses are deceiving him."


Events and Popular Culture in 1877

Like recorded sound, popular culture has records that can resonate beyond their own time and place.


The design of this 1877 1-cent coin depicts Lady Liberty wearing a traditional Native American headdress. The word “LIBERTY” is on the band of the bonnet.


THE NEW YEAR: 1877, Harper's Weekly, January 6, 1877


"The Old Year Out and the New Year In." The Illustrated Christian Weekly, New York, January 6, 1877.


A Day's "Still Hunting" after Buffalo," , Harper's Weekly, March 1877.



January 8, 1877 – Battle of Wolf Mountain: Crazy Horse and his warriors fight their last battle with the United States Cavalry in Montana. Wikipedia

Illustration of Battle of Wolf Mountain, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, May 5, 1877


January 25, 1877: Congress establishes the Electoral Commission to determine the disputed 1876 presidential election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden. In the Compromise of 1877 Rutherford B. Hayes is selected as President, even though Samuel J. Tilden had won the popular vote. Hayes became the 19th President of the United States and was the first President to listen to a phonograph which he did at the White House on April 18, 1878.


President Hayes and His Cabinet, published by Currier & Ives, c.1877 (Courtesy Library of Congress)


Rutherford B. Hayes United States 11-cent postage stamp issued October 4, 1922.


"Chinese Immigrants at the San Francisco Custom-House," Harper's Weekly, February 8, 1877.


February 28 – Agreement of 1877 (19 Stat. 254): Congress annexes Sioux Indian land, including the Black Hills. Wikipedia.

The following is the top portion of the treaty of 1868 which was broken by the Agreement of 1877.

Treaty of 1868, April 29, 1868 (Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration)

"In the 1868 treaty, signed at Fort Laramie and other military posts in Sioux country, the United States recognized the Black Hills as part of the Great Sioux Reservation, set aside for exclusive use by the Sioux people. However, after the discovery of gold there in 1874, the United States confiscated the land in 1877." (Ibid.)


"A Fitting-out Store for Black Hills Emigrants, at Sydney, Nebraska, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, September 29, 1877.


March 28, 1877: A Telephonic Suggestion

Puck magazine, March 28, 1877

In January of 1877, Alexander Graham Bell received a patent for his electro-magnetic telephone. On May 4 he gave a public demonstration at the Boston Music Hall with voices transmitted from multiple locations. Signor Brignoli sang his part from the Providence Music Hall. A three-part song was transmitted from Somerville, MA." (Print and text courtesy Greatcaricatures.com.)



"Reform is Necessary in the Foreign Line," Harper's Weekly, April 4, 1877.


"Asbestos Materials" awarded "The Centennial Prize Medal" for their Absestos Roofing, Paints, Steam-Pipe and Boiler Coverings and Asbesto Steam Packing materials, "Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper" April 1877.


May 5, 1877: Sitting Bull leads his band of Lakota into Canada to avoid harassment by the United States Army under Colonel Nelson Miles. Wikipedia - Aftermath of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.


A United States 28-cent postage stamp honoring Sitting Bull was issued on September 14, 1989.


"Sitting Bull and the United States Commission," Harper's Weekly, December 8, 1877.


In 1877, the federal government decided to remove the Poncas to Indian Territory. Standing Bear, a tribal leader, protested his tribe's eviction. Federal troops enforced the removal orders, with the result that the Poncas arrived in Indian Territory in the summer of 1878. (Chief Standing Bear - National Park Service).


May 12, 1879: A landmark decision by Judge Elmer S. Dundy determined that Ponca Chief Standing Bear was entitled to the same constitutional rights as all Americans. Previously, Standing Bear was not even recognized as a person by the U.S. government. Dundy's ruling that "an Indian is a person" would be honored 144 years later on a United States usa forever postage stamp "with the Ponca Chief honored as a civil rights icon by the same government that once denied his humanity." (Lincoln Journal Star, Justin Wan, May12, 2023).




THE ADVANCED AGE, Harper's Weekly, May 19, 1877.

May 19, 1877: "THE ADVANCED AGE"- Existential cartoon on cover of Harper's Weekly - Will Humans destroy Earth?

Mercury. "What under the Sun are you doing?"

Mars. "Mortals will make such big guns, and this is the consequence."


June 1877 - NEZ PERCE WAR 1877 - "The Nez Perce War was an armed conflict in 1877 in the Western United States that pitted several bands of the Nez Perce tribe of Native Americans and their allies, a small band of the Palouse tribe led by Red Echo (Hahtalekin) and Bald Head (Husishusis Kute), against the United States Army. Fought between June and October, the conflict stemmed from the refusal of several bands of the Nez Perce, dubbed "non-treaty Indians," to give up their ancestral lands in the Pacific Northwest and move to an Indian reservation in Idaho Territory. This forced removal was in violation of the 1855 Treaty of Walla Walla, which granted the tribe 7.5 million acres of their ancestral lands and the right to hunt and fish on lands ceded to the U.S. government."

"An 1877 New York Times editorial discussing the conflict stated, "On our part, the war was in its origin and motive nothing short of a gigantic blunder and a crime." ( Wikipedia and "A LESSON FROM THE NEZ PERCES". The New York Times. 1877-10-15. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-01-26).



The 6-cent stamp portraying Chief Joseph, the great Nez Perce warrior, was first placed on sale at Washington, DC, on November 4, 1968, as a tribute to Indian heritage and to mark the opening of the National Portrait Gallery. It is the first multicolor US stamp to feature a Native American. (Courtesy Smithsonian National Postal Museum).

June 9, 1877: Nebraska -- Crazy Horse and his band of Indians on their way from Camp Sheridan to General Cook at Red Cloud Agency, Sunday, May 6th. From a sketch by Mr. Hottess.


Crazy Horse and his Band of Indians travel to Red Cloud Agency, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 9, 1877.


Sheep-Shearing Festival of the Southern Nebraska Wool-Growers' Association, Beatrice, Nebraska, May 20, 1877, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 16, 1877.


End of the Nez Perce War - Surrender of Chief Joseph, Harper's Weekly, November 1877.


July 14, 1877 - GREAT RAILWAY STRIKE OF 1877. "The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, sometimes referred to as the Great Upheaval, began on July 14 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, after the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) cut wages for the third time in a year. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was the first strike that spread across multiple different states in the U.S. This strike finally ended 52 days later, after it was put down by unofficial militias, the National Guard, and federal troops." Wikipedia


Maryland--The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Strike - Scenes and Incidents of the Conflict Between the Sympathizers, with the Strikers and the Fifth and Sixth Regiments Maryland Militia, in Balitimore, July 20th. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, August 4, 1877.


Burning of Union Depot, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, engraved by M.B. Leiser, Harper's Weekly, August 11, 1877.


New York City's Brooklyn Bridge under construction, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 1877.


A Whaling Station on the California Coast. Harper's Weekly, June 23, 1877.


"Dining at twenty miles an hour," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, August 25, 1877.


Eastward and Westward Bound Railroad Trains passing on the prairie, near Fremont, Nebraska," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, September 8, 1877.


"Arbor Day in Nebraska," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, September 22, 1877.


"STREET VENDORS OF FRUITS AND VEGETABLES", by W. M. Cary, "Harper's Weekly," September 1877.



The Patent Office Building Fire, September 24, 1877 illustrated in Harper's Weekly, October 13, 1877, p. 808. For details see ‘No Estimate Can Be Made’: The 1877 Patent Office Fire and the Fate of Federal Record-Keeping" by David Kurlander on Cafe, August 5, 2022.


The Peacock Room featuring the Rose and Silver: The Princess in the Land of Porcelain by American painter James McNeill Whistler, 1877. (Translocated to the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. and courtesy Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery).


November 17, 1877 - The Sorcerer, a two-act comic opera, with a libretto by W. S. Gilbert and music by Arthur Sullivan, opened at the Opera Comique in London. It was considered a success by the standards of that time and encouraged the collaborators to write their next opera, H.M.S. Pinafore. Wikipedia

LISTEN to "The Captain's Song from Pinafore," sung by Harry Dearth, Sterling Records, 1907.This cylinder is from the collection of Frank V. de Bellis at San Francisco State University and is courtesy of tinfoil.com and Glenn Sage as one of its "Cylinders of the Month." (Note: This is one of all-time my favorite cylinder recordings and I wanted to find a place in Phonographia to be able to reference and share this song).

The Sorcerer poster created for 1884 revival - Wikipedia Commons


The Daily Graphic, An Illustrated Evening Newspaper, July 9, 1879 with his tin-foil phonograph shown on his robe. See Phonographia's An Age of Wonders and Thomas Edison as "The Wizard of Menlo Park" for more examples of wonders of the age.


New York City's East River Bridge under construction, Harper's Weekly, November 1877.


"Making Cartridges," Harper's Weekly, October 13, 1877.


The Manufacture of Wall Paper, Scientific American, October 13, 1877.

"Our Indian Allies" with President Hayes, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, October 13, 1877.



The White House, Washington D.C., Currier & Ives, 1877 (Courtesy Library of Congress).


Mold of the Statue of Liberty's head in Paris, France 1877/1878. (Courtesy Musée des arts et métiers Paris, France).
The fund-raising for a pedestal and installation of the Statue of Liberty in the New York Harbor would take six years after its arm was first displayed at the close of the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. For the story on why it took so long see "The Arm That Clutched the Torch: The Statue of Liberty’s Campaign for a Pedestal" by Megan Margino, April 7, 2015 (New York Public Library).


"Colossal hand and torch" at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, 1876. Image ID: G91F380_025F (Ibid. NYPL).


On December 6, 1877 Edison "completed" his Phonograph and made the decision that his invention was ready to be heard by the public. (Note: Friends of the Phonograph now call December 6 the "birthday of the Phonograph.")
On December 7, 1877 Edison left his home and laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey and travelled by train to New York City and the offices of Scientific American.
Scientific American Office, No. 37 Park Row, Third Floor
Thomas Edison and his associates Edward Hibberd Johnson and Charles Batchelor demonstrated Edison's new tin-foil phonograph on December 7, 1877 to Alfred Beach and the other editors of Scientific American.

The next edition of Scientific American, published on December 22, 1877, included an article titled "The Talking Phonograph" which started by describing how Edison had come into their office, "placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and the machine inquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well, and bid us a cordial good night."



Edward Hibberd Johnson (Courtesy LoC), Charles Batchelor and Thomas Edison



Scientific American, December 22, 1877, pp. 384-5
“THE TALKING PHONOGRAPH” - “astonishing’…”it is impossible to listen to the mechanical without his experiencing the idea that his senses are deceiving him…even if in its present imperfect form many words are not clearly distinguishable , there can be no doubt but that the inflections are those of nothing else than the human voice”. December 22, 1877, Scientific American.

“SPEECH BOTTLED UP” – this is an invention “that promises to speak for itself; to give to our ears sound when weeks, months or years may have elapsed since their utterance; that may even restore to us the voice of the dead…” December 26, 1877, New York Tribune.


President Hayes's First Message - Its Impression on the Mind of Our Cartoonist," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, December 22, 1877.


For other 1877 timeline highlights see Wikipedia's 1877.