The Phonograph and Its Future

Probability: Letter Writing

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Letter Writing.-- The apparatus now being perfected in mechanical details will be the standard phonograph, and may be used for all purposes, except such as require special form of matrix, such as toys, clocks, etc., for an indefinite repetition of the same thing. The main utility of the phonograph, however, being for the purpose of letter-writing and other forms of dictation, the design is made with a view to its utility for that purpose.

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The "Letter Writing" probability overlaps with Edison's Dictation since in the early years Edison recognized that people on the other end receiving a recorded letter might not have an "apparatus" that would allow them to listen. Therefore, notes Edison, this would necessitate a written letter of the old-fashioned sort but for which a phonograph as a dicatation machine could still be used.

The following examples focus on the letter being the recorded message for this 'probability' of letter writing rather than dictation and transfer to paper.

 

In November 1892, President elect Cleveland received a congratulatory letter on a phonograph record from "an admirer." The phonograph trade magazine The Phonogram showed an illustration "Listening to the Message" and provided the text of the 'letter.'

The Phonogram, November 1892

 






 

Early cylinder machines like Edison's Phonograph and Columbia's Graphophone in the last half of the 1890's were designed and marketed for the home and they had the functionality to record and reproduce "your own voice."

1896

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1899 Edison Standard

Edison Recorder Stylus

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Because these early cylinder phonographs used wax cylinders, however, mailing them as a 'substitute' letter had risks. Most recorded voices on wax cylinders probably never left the home but could become part of a family album, i.e., an acoustic album and literally 'records' of family voices and "audio portraits" in parallel with the family photo album. Edison, in fact, predicted that the phonograph would " unquestionably outrank the photograph." (See Edison's Family Record probability for more details.)

The Edison Historic Site, however, does have an example of a 'phonograph letter' on a cylinder record from President Diaz of Mexico to Edison thanking him via a cylinder record for the letter Edison sent him.

Listen

Courtesy of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior and phono-post.org

 

 

In the January 1892 edition of The Phonogram it was noted that "ultimately a phonograph station will be found in every post-office just as a telegraph station now exists. From these points messages will be sent, at the price of a few cents, to the nethermost parts of the world."

A device designed for this very purpose was made in France and named "The Phonopostal." It is the earliest letter writing acoustic machine that I know of for the specific purpose of recording messages on specially prepared postcards that could mailed.

A reproducer was supplied so that a message could be created and sent, or for listening to one of the special postcards (carte sonorine) received from a friend. "Machines could be purchased by consumers, or could be used in a store where postcards were sold." (See Antique Phonograph Accessories & Contraptions by Fabrizio and Paul, Schiffer Publishing 2003, 3-115.)

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Promotional piece for La Sonorine (recordable postcards) Courtesy of Le Musée de la Carte Postale

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Le Phonopostal et la Sonorine poster, 1905–1910 by Raphaël Courtois, courtesy of the PhonoMuseum Paris

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In this poster and the following ad the girl has presumably made a recording on one of the postcards and her father is startled as he hears it ask "Write more, why? since this phonopostal machine with its postcards is now available and can provide verbal correspondence --thereby no longer requiring rules for spelling and a dictionary (which the father drops to the floor).

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"Speak! No longer write! Listen!" - The new world of correspondence made possible by "Le Phonopostal" and its "La Sonorine" cards.

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Courtesy of the Le Musée de la Carte Postale



Courtesy of the Le Musée de la Carte Postale

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Courtesy of phono-post.org

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Le Phonopostal and La Sonorine cards were never introduced in America and these early examples of 'voice mail' are quite rare. It wasn't really until the 1930's that sending records through the mail started to become truly popular.

Tom Levin has created the Phono Post Archive at Princeton University which is the world’s first collection of audio letters from around the globe. For more information about this excellent collection (and especially if you have one of these audio letters in your possession and wish to donate it) visit the Phono-post.org.

For a podcast and more information about voice mail records from the 1930's through the 1950's visit Radio Topia's page on Voice Mail Valentines hosted by Radio Diaries.

Here's how Radio Diaries describes these audio letters on their Voice Mail Valentine page:

These audio letters are small, lightweight records made in recording booths scattered all across the world in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. At the height of the craze, there were booths at amusement parks, fairgrounds, military bases, bus stops and post offices. People would enter a booth, drop a quarter into a slot, and talk into a microphone for a minute or so.

Courtesy of Radio Diaries - Support for Radio Diaries comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, NYSCA, Radiotopia, and its listeners.

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Visit the PHONOPOST website for more information about phono booths like this one. Phono-Post.org is a research archive investigating the media archaeology of voicemail.

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During World War I there were postcards with soldiers listening to a phonograph and these could be sent as a reminder that they were thinking of their loved ones. These postcards, however, didn't have recordings of a soldier's voice and normally lyrics from songs were on the front of the postcard to express the soldier's feelings (in addition to any written message they may have added to the postcard).

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Another phonograph related postcard made by in the 1920's and 30's had a small record attached to the postcard, usually located over some image. These records could be played on a 78 rpm phonograph. There were no voices on these records, with the only message being whatever could be written on the back of the postcard.

Tuck's Gramophone Record Post Cards from UK postcard publisher Raphael and Sons, circa 1930

Tuck's Gramophone Post Cards - "They Play, Sing and Talk" - 3" 78 rpm shellac records

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1943 Sonora Letter to Mom






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A Voice Record's postal envelope for a Voice Record Aluminuim disc with Voice Records label

The following information about Voice Records is courtesy of Poppyrecords.

" Voice Records' are thin aluminium discs about the same size as a CD. They are recorded on both sides, one side being a personal message and the other side being a pre-recorded advertisment. They were made in the 1930s by automatic machines installed in department stores, seaside pleasure piers and other locations where the public might want to record a short message which could be posted to their loved ones at home. An envelope was provided with the record and a packet containing a small number of wooden needles which were essential for playback on the heavy gramophones of the day. (One playing with a steel needle could irretrievably wipe the sound off the record).

The advertisments were usually for cigarettes, sung by the music-hall comedian, Bobbie Comber. Less often, the advetisment is for a local shop or attraction such as the Pier at Weston-Super-Mare or the suppliers of bed linen for the ocean liners based in Liverpool.

Each side of the record plays for about one minute and the recording quality varies from quite acceptable to absolutely dire, depending on how frequently the recording machine was serviced. The recording machines were made by Brecknell, Munro & Rodgers of Bristol. They were withdrawn during WWII but the casings were re-used after the war by being converted to "Speak Your Weight" machines or "Punch Bag" machines. The company which operated the Voice Record booths was the Amusement Equipment Co. Ltd. of Wembly." - Poppyrecords

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During World War II the United States government implemented their V-Disc program.

"V-Disc ("V" for Victory) was a record label that was formed in 1943 to provide records for U.S. military personnel. Captain Robert Vincent supervised the label from the Special Services division.[1] Many popular singers, big bands, and orchestras recorded V-discs." Wikipedia

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While the V-Disc program was designed to provide music and entertainment to U.S. military personnel, other records during WWII were made by families as "letters" to be sent to soldiers, and likewise for soldiers to send voice letters to their parents and loved ones. One example is Oscar Spaly's letter to his wife made while he was at boot camp. At the time Pepsi-Cola was working with the USO to allow soldiers to send one minute messages to their loved ones. See mlive.com for details about this recording.

In the MLIVE article about Spaly's recording it was explained that Pepsi "set up free recording booths in major cities and took travel equipment to canteens across the country for soldiers to send one-minute messages home. Many were sent before soldiers were deployed overseas."

Dictaphones would continue to be used into the 1960s and those dictations were being sent most often as letters so Edison's predication of letter writing was true and also was relatively long-lasting.

In the 20th century, of course, voice mail came to mean messages left on telephone answering machines rather than voices on postcards sent through the mail. Computers, smartphones, text messages and emails would dominate interpersonal communications until real-time social sharing websites like Facebook further replaced the need for sending individual written letters.

As the Wall Street Journal wrote in January 2020 with the headline "Hallmark Cards to Revamp Operations as Greeting Cards Fade." Century-old company plans to cut costs and refocus on digital efforts; ‘You can’t sell a horse and buggy.’

Clearly, email and social messaging on smartphones and video conferencing have changed the medium. And while I don't think opening an email is like opening an envelope and physically holding a letter but I'm not sure it really matters if we send a digital Hallmark card or a physical Hallmark card in the mail. I think what we are missing and what continues to disappear is the art of writing and communicating which is more about the time and care required from the author of that messaging. But since we are talking about probabilities related to the introduction of recorded sound which connects with talking movies and audio books and Zoom and innumerable other connections, maybe Marshall McCluhan was right and "the medium is the message."

 

 

 

 

 

Phonographia

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