History in wax: Library of Congress deems UCSB wax cylinder collection an important cultural artifact

Performing arts assistant Nadine Turner shows a wax cylinder, an early form of a phonograph record, from the UCSB Library.
Performing arts assistant Nadine Turner shows a wax cylinder, an early form of a phonograph record, from the UCSB Library.

Before the 78 rpm shellac record, there was Thomas Edison’s wax cylinder, which had one amazing advantage over the format that would supplant it: you could record as well as play.

On March 25, the Library of Congress announced that it has added the Vernacular Wax Cylinder Recordings collection at the UCSB Library to the National Recording Registry.

That’s made David Seubert, director of the UCSB Library’s Department of Special Research Collections, very proud, as for many years preservation of these recordings and the library’s massive collection of 78 records has been his baby.

Ms. Turner places a cylinder on a modern wax cylinder player.
Ms. Turner places a cylinder on a modern wax cylinder player.

“It’s an acknowledgment that this particular type of recording is essentially unique,” he said in a press release this week, “and this genre is an important cultural artifact that should be recognized and preserved.”

Since 2002, 25 recordings are chosen annually by the Library of Congress, with input from the public, as historically important and worth preserving. Past honorees include Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech from 1965, the first transatlantic broadcast from 1925, and a recording of Stravinsky conducting his own “The Rite of Spring” from 1940.

The collection of 700 recordings won’t be moving to Washington D.C., however, and anybody interested in hearing these recordings can do so: The library has put a huge selection of them online to hear.

These recordings, not meant for the general public, are one of the clearest audio snapshots we have of American life from 1890-1920.

2352902What they reveal is an immigrant-heavy American middle class, who recorded their own wax cylinder messages. Some people record their children, some sing, some record New Years parties, some recite poems and soliloquies. Not everything is in English.

“They represent the first home recordings,” says Sam Brylawski, chair of the National Recording Preservation Board, the group that advises the Library of Congress on what gets named to the recording registry. “It’s like the Brownie camera, where people could take their own photographs for the first time. So this is like an aural snapshot of certain people at certain times.”

Other recordings include a song sung by a Civil War veteran, and the voice of a certain R.C. Wombough. Born in 1823, she is the earliest-born American woman whose voice survives on a recording. She wasn’t famous — it’s just that her doting son decided to record his mom.

The cylinders look like small soda cans, and would sit on the player like a paper towel roll. A record player-like stylus would run along the grooves from left to right, with most recordings between three and five minutes.

The cylinders were erasable too: one just needed to shave off a millimeter or two of the wax and start again. Thomas Edison promised something like 100 recording opportunities before the wax ran out, but nobody at UCSB’s library could verify that.

The UCSB wax cylinder collection is now registered by the Library of Congress.
The UCSB wax cylinder collection is now registered by the Library of Congress.

Unlike commercial cylinders, the recordable home cylinders are more fragile, so each item in the collection gets played once on a professional piece of modern equipment specially designed for the cylinders and transferred to a high-quality digital file.

Because the cylinders are so personal, many come without any identifiable labels. The names of the people who recorded them are lost to history, though sometimes a name or a place or a time reference can help researchers figure out a rough location or date. Some descendants have been tracked down.

“There’s a mystery to them,” says Mr. Brylawski. “There’s one recording of thespians in a New York hotel and they’re sort of thanking the hotel for having them there. I don’t really understand the circumstances in which it was made. They conjure up images of these guys in a room recording this.

“It’s not like picking up a phone and talking into it. It was all done without electricity. You had to shout into this horn to record.”

The machines were heavy but portable, so people would take them to the beach, or on holiday back to the old country to record relatives. It was an expensive piece of machinery, but not unaffordable — the way we would look at the investment into a new computer.

The core of the collection at UCSB comes from several decades of research and collecting by anthropologist Donald R. Hill and sound historian David Giovannoni, who had already digitized their collection before donating it to UCSB in 2013.

Although a majority of the world’s wax recording reside in private collectors’ hands, “Nobody has as many recordings online for the general public to listen to as the UCSB library,” says Mr. Brylawski. “No one comes close.”

Other 2014 inductees into the registry include recordings made by Benjamin Ives Gilman at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair; “Black Snake Moan/Match Box Blues” by Blind Lemon Jefferson from 1927; Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker’s band playing “My Funny Valentine” (1953); Ben E. King’s hit single “Stand By Me” from 1961; The Doors’ debut album; and “OK Computer,” the 1997 album by Radiohead.

For a full list, go to: http://www.loc.gov/programs/national-recording-preservation-board/recording-registry/registry-by-induction-years/2014/

The recognition of the collection by the Library of Congress helps UCSB’s library financially — the institution helps pay for some of the digitizing and the man hours needed.

The last word — a very prophetic one — comes from an unidentified man in 1915, who has an inkling of where his voice may stand in history:

“”Hello Mr. Graphophone. How do you do this evening? Well, it’s certainly been a long while since I talked to you. This is nineteen-hundred and fifteen now. The last record I had with you was about nineteen-hundred and two. All of these records will be very interesting in time to come when all of these people have passed away and only their voices can be heard on your Graphophone. Goodbye!”

The collection can be listened to here: http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/

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