William Jennings Bryan and the Phonograph


By Doug Boilesen, 2022

William Jennings Bryan, Nebraska's Boy Orator of the Platte, the Great Commoner and leader of the Populist movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century played a prominent role in American politics and popular culture. He was the Democratic nominee for President three times (1896, 1900 and 1908) and the subject of many conversations.throughout those years.

Much of the press, particularly in the East, opposed Bryan's populist platform which included the unlimited coinage of silver, a graduated income tax, nationalization of the railroads, a decrease in immigration, antitrust laws and other government regulations of business. Many of the characterizations and illustrations of Bryan, therefore, were negative. (See "Well, what do folks in New York think of William Jennings Bryan?" from Willa Cather's O' Pioneers and Willa Cather and William Jennings Bryan, Doug Boilesen, PhonoBooks, 2022.)


Bryan, The Talking Machine, Puck, Jos. Opper. October 21, 1896 (PM-0527)


The 1896 and 1900 Presidential Elections

No recording exists of Bryan from the 1896 Presidential campaign but Bryan's most famous speech from that election, "The Cross of Gold" and the one that got him the Democratic nomination, was released by Zonophone Records as a monologue circa 1900 by John Kaiser (DAHR) (Listen below on i78s.org, from the David Giovannoni Collection).

The Cross of Gold Speech, Campaign poster from the 1896 U.S. presidential election with the text of William Jennings Bryan's “Cross of Gold” speech, colour lithograph. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (digital file no. 3g02112u)



An article titled Campaign Records appeared In the October 1900 edition of The Zon-o-phone Record where it was announced that records "which embrace the most notable utterances that have as yet been made during the campaign by the Presidential nominees" had been made, two of which were by Bryan: "Mr. Bryan's utterances on Our National Destiny (Record No. 9245), and on the Philippine Question (Record No. 9244) have been faithfully reproduced."


The Zon-o-phone Record, Vol. II, No. 3, New York, October, 1900


SAME OLD PRESENTS, Puck, December 25, 1907 by Keppler & Schwarzmann (centerfold)


Puck, December 25, 1907 centerfold with 'Bryan' gifts brought by Santa including a gramophone.


Excerpt from lecture The "Prince of Peace" recorded by Bryan, May 5-6, 1908.

The Talking Machine World, May 15, 1908


"Immortality," Victor 10" Black Label No. 5534 June 1908 (Courtesy i78s.org).



The 1908 Presidential Election: Bryan vs. Taft

To promote his positions in the1908 Presidential election Bryan led the way by recording ten of his speeches on Edison records. Not to be outdone Taft, the Republican nominee, soon issued twelve Edison records.


The Edison Phonograph Monthly, July 1908


His Master's Voice - William Jennings Bryan running again in 1908 (postcard, PM-2109)


His Master's Voice - William Jennings Bryan running again in 1908 (postcard, PM-2110)



Edison Phonograph Monthly, August 1908

William Jennings Bryan, in his Presidential bid of 1908 recorded a series of cylinder phonograph records for the Edison Phonograph Company. In this cartoon, Taft is seen complaining that he has missed out on this innovative campaigning. The Edison Phonograph Monthly in September 1908, however, announced the release of 12 Edison Records by William H. Taft made at Virginia Hot Springs, after Mr. Taft delivered his speech of acceptance at Cincinnati. The EPM called this an announcement of great importance, noting that "no matter how the November election may result we shall have Records by the next President. This makes new history. It indicates progress."


Ten Edison Records by William Jennings Bryan

The Edison Phonograph Monthly, June 1908


"When Bryan Speaks Everybody Listens," The Talking Machine World, June 15, 1908


LISTEN to Bryan's 1908 Recordings courtesy of UCSB Digital Cylinder Archive and i78s.org

"Swollen Fortunes" by William Jennings Bryan, Edison Record: 9914

"The Labor Question" by William Jennings Bryan, Edison Record: 9915

"The Railroad Question" by William Jennings Bryan, Edison Record: 9916

"The Trust Question" by William Jennings Bryan, Edison Record: 9917

"The Tariff Question" by William Jennings Bryan, Edison Record: 9918

"Popular Election of Senators" by William Jennings Bryan, Edison Record: 9919

"Imperialism" by William Jennings Bryan, Edison Record: 9920

"Guaranty of Bank Deposits" by William Jennings Bryan, Edison Record: 9921

"An Ideal Republic" by William Jennings Bryan, Edison Record: 9922

"Immortality" by William Jennings Bryan, Edison Record 9923


Bryan's Move in Making Records of his Noted Addresses Worthy of Emulation by Taft.

Advantages of Using Phonograph for Political Speeches, The Talking Machine World, June 15, 1908


'Records' offered everyone the means to hear the "exact words" of each Presidential candidate

FACTOLA: "Now, for the first time, one can introduce the rival candidates for the Presidency in one's own home, can listen to their political views, expressed in their real voices, and make comparison." The Edison Phonograph Monthly, September 1908

Cosmopolitan, September 1908


The Edison Phonograph Monthly in September 1908 announced that Taft Records would now also be available like the previously issued Bryan records so that "no matter how the November election may result we shall have Records by the next President. This makes new history. It indicates progress."

Unfortunately for Bryan his 1908 Presidential Election loss created a record that Bryan did not want to make or hear since Williams Jennings Bryan became the only nominated candidate in the history of the United States to lose three Presidential elections.


Automatons of Bryan and Taft at New York City Arcade where phonograph answers for 1908 Presidential campaign can be heard for 1 cent. (The New York Public Library, Picture Collection)."


William Jennings Bryan, Secretary of State 1913-1915

Bryan (seated front right with other Wilson cabinet members) was appointed Secretary of State by Woodrow Wilson on March 5, 1913. (Nebraska History, NSHS RG3198.PH49-5).

Differing views by President Wilson and Bryan on "how the United States should respond to the sinking of the Lusitania" led to Bryan’s resignation on June 9, 1915. See Nebraska History blog "Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and the sinking of the Lusitania" for more details.


Wilson and Bryan, 1915 Postcard


Bryan visited the Gennett Records Studio in Richmond, Indiana on July 2, 1923 to record his 1896 "Cross of Gold" speech for posterity. (Courtesy Salisbury Daily Times, October 24, 2020).


LISTEN to Part I of Bryan's Cross of Gold Speech recorded by Bryan in 1923 (Courtesy i78s.org)



Bryan and the Scopes Trial, 1925

William Jennings Bryan argued for the prosecution, while Clarence Darrow served as the defense attorney for John T. Scopes, the Tennessee high school teacher accused of teaching evolution.


Judge magazine cover, July 18, 1925.

William Jennings Bryan died on July 26, 1925 just days after the conclusion of the Scope Trial which ended on July 21, 1925. The Scopes trial, "formally The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, and commonly referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial, was an American legal case from July 10 to July 21, 1925, in which a high school teacher, John T. Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee's Butler Act, which had made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school." (See Wikipedia, The Scopes Trial)


"The Monkey Doodle-Doo" by Irving Berlin, 1913 (Courtesy the Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins)


LISTEN to "The Monkey Doodle-Doo - Fox Trot" played by Busse's Buzzards, Victor Record 19934-B recorded 12-28-1925 (Label and Recording Courtesy of i78s.org and the Giovannoni Collection)


From Bryan's first Presidential campaign in 1896 and his fight for 16-1 Free Silver to the last days of his life and the Scope's Trial of 1925 the monkey on Bryan's back is ironically summarized in popular culture. Bryan's literal interpretation of the Bible as an expert witness at the Scope's Trial, his fight against evolution, and his loss of three Presidential elections continue to be what popular culture often associates with the name William Jennings Bryan.


MAKING A MONKEY OF BRYAN, Cover Illustration of Judge by Victor Gillam, September 12, 1896


1908 Postcard referencing his third Presidential race as Democrat's Nominee



References to William Jennings Bryan in Willa Cather Books

Bryan is referenced in two of Cather's stories set in Nebraska, O Pioneers, 1913 and One of Ours, 1922 and one essay titled "The Personal Side of William Jennings Bryan" under the pseudonym of Henry Nickelman.

See the following in Phonographia's PhonoBooks Library with respective text referencing Bryan, explanatory notes, illustrations, ephemera, comments, recorded words by Bryan and an essay written by Cather about Bryan.

O Pioneers, 1913

One of Ours, 1922

"The Personal Side of William Jennings Bryan" an essay written by Willa Cather under the pseudonym of Henry Nickelman, 1900.


Additional Reading on Bryan's Phonograph Recordings in the context of "Canned Speeches" see Spellman, Susan V. and John P. Forren. “ Canned Speech: Selling Democracy in the Phonographic Age. ” Enterprise & Society (2023): 1 – 24.


New York Public Library Citations for Bryan-Taft - The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "À New-York--les phonographes répétant, moyennant un sou les derniers discours des deux candidats à la présidence" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1908-10. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-cd0a-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99