AMERICA AT THE BEGINNING OF THE SOUND-RECORDING ERA
Thomas Edisons development of the first reliable voice-recording
devices took place within an era of unprecedented cultural change.
America was putting the economic dislocations of the Civil War era
behind it and was moving towards its eventual status as a modern
industrial power. An expanding economy fueled the search for overseas
markets, and new industries, like the one Henry Ford would come
to dominate, called upon the ingenuity of legions of inventors.
Technology was anointed as the savior of mankind by even such individuals
as Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist, and Samuel Gompers, the labor
leader. More people were living in cities than ever before, and
many thousands of new European immigrants were flooding the labor
market each year. In many ways, it was an incredibly exciting time
to be alive in America.
Yet many Americans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were
not so sanguine about the changes. And many of their concerns are
reflected in the audio samples that are a part of this Early
Farmers were one group that suffered from the new industrialization.
Fledgling new American industries called upon Congress to pass protective
tariffs so that they would not have to worry about foreign competition,
and Congress obliged. Foreign markets retaliated by refusing to
import American farm products. And with this constriction of the
competitive marketplace, farmers were unable to maintain their prices.
So as deflation squeezed their profit margins, farmers organized
to call for an influx of inflationary cheap silver money into the
economy. William Jennings Bryan, a lawyer from Illinois, soon became
the national spokesman for this populist movement. Bryan
embodied all the pieties of Midwestern Christianity and was also
an effective orator. His Cross of Gold speech at the
1896 Democratic National Convention is a symbol of this movement
and one of the most famous political speeches in American history.
At the same time, many urbanites were disturbed by the social and
cultural effects of modern industrialization. Poverty, inequality,
drunkenness, monopoly, and corruption became the targets of a new
breed of progressive reformers. Although they were not
radicals, these journalists, social workers, trust-busters,
suffragettes, conservationists, labor reformers, and proponents
of the social gospel were determined to restore America to an earlier
state of imagined purity and democracy, so that everyone could take
advantage of the benefits of the modern world. And by the early
1900s, no politician could afford to sound anti-progressive.
Even William Howard Taft, who was hardly a foe of business interests,
defended the Republican Party as the party of the people and of
Christian righteousness. And in the 1920s, the Progressive spirit
could even be detected in someone like Calvin Coolidge, who called
for a humanization of industry.
Finally, in the years leading
up to the First World War, the
place of the United States on
the world stage was often debated.
William Jennings Bryan spoke
out in favor of isolationism,
but his hearkening back to an
earlier time was overwhelmed
by the idea that America could
be a force for righteousness
in other lands.