• Introduction to Early Voices

  • America and Its Early Voices

  • Introduction to Early Recording


  • William Jennings Bryan
  • Eugene Debs
  • Thomas Edison
  • Samuel Gompers
  • William McKinley
  • William Taft
  • Booker T. Washington

    Thomas Edison’s 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 Voices” gallery.

    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 1900’s, 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.