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5 Astonishing Things We Found in UC Santa Barbara’s Old-Timey Audio Archive

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Elephant murdering ghoul-man Thomas Edison poses with his phonograph, an early form of record player that played tin and wax cylinders. West Orange, New Jersey, 1906. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

In the days of yore, before digital recording, cassettes, vinyl and even 8-tracks existed, there lived audio cylinders — also known as tin foil phonographs. These circular tin, foil and wax objects were all the rage between the 1880s and 1920s, having been invented by Thomas Edison so that humans could listen to music and make their own recordings. They captured songs, comedy acts, readings of all descriptions, messages between families and — that perennial favorite — out-of-tune children singing at home.

You name it, people a century ago phonographed it, leaving behind a compelling (and infinitely weird) snapshot of life and culture at the turn of the 19th century. Which is why UC Santa Barbara has taken the time to archive 10,000 surviving tin foil phonographs in the Cylinder Audio Archive. That archive is now all online, organized by theme, and incredibly easy to search using key words. (Certainly a lot easier than trying to locate and play the original cylinders.)

One Edison Blue and one Edison Purple Amberol cylindrical phonograph records, from 1912 and 1914. (SSPL/Getty Images)

Here are five of the most astonishing things I stumbled across while exploring the archive.

Frisco, Frisco and More Frisco

Are you one of the (incorrect) people who thinks “Frisco” is only used by tourists? Are you perhaps one of those Herb Caen fans who agrees with his 1953 assertion that “Frisco is a nickname that reminds the city uncomfortably of the early, brawling, boisterous days of the Barbary Coast”? Hey, maybe you’re just too damn fancy to truncate place names.

Either way, if you are not currently on the “Frisco” train, just know that UCSB’s archive is awash with reasons to love the term. There’s a glorious duet of “Hello Frisco!” by Harvey Hindermyer and Helen Clark from 1915. (The song was written to celebrate the first direct phone call between New York and San Francisco.) There are a number of jaunty little numbers recorded by the Frisco Jazz Band in 1917 and ’18. (The band was based in New York, but its members were all from California.)

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Searching for the term also brought me to a delightful xylophonist named Lou “Frisco” Chiha, who, according to several newspaper articles from the time, publicized his Edison cylinder recordings by playing along with them on stages across the country. When he stopped playing and the music continued, it blew the minds of audiences everywhere.

All of the racism

There was another “Frisco” I found in the archive — 1913’s “Frisco Dan” by Billy Murray, about a sailor who has a girl in every port all over the world. The reason I didn’t put it in the positive Frisco section is because it sounds exactly like an SNL parody making fun of how racist people were in the 1910s. (To give you some specifics so you can avoid listening to it, there is a fake accent used here not dissimilar to the one Mickey Rooney does all the way through Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Ugh.)

It’s one thing to know America’s racist history in theory; it’s quite another to face it down via specific moments from pop culture history. And, dear God, there is a lot to face down in UCSB’s Cylinder Audio Archive.

Golden and Hughes, who used to perform in blackface, are here. As are songs romanticizing the Old South. Then there’s Ada Jones, a white woman who had no qualms about using the N-word in ballads, or doing skits in which she impersonated Jewish people. There’s a track called “Arrah Wanna” about an Irishman marrying an Indigenous woman that is exactly as awful as it sounds. (There are a lot of Irish impersonators in this archive, by the way.) One of the most bizarre relics here is a song by Edward Meeker, titled “The Argentines, the Portuguese and the Greeks.” It features a baffling degree of extremely specific xenophobia that I had, until now, been entirely unaware of.

Needless to say, if you stay in the archive for longer than five minutes, you will hear something very offensive.

A woman holding an Edison Gold Moulded cylinder record that can be played on the phonograph that stands on a table in front of her.
A 1904 magazine ad showing an Edison phonograph with a horn and hand crank. (Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Unintentional Terror

You know that one Death Cab For Cutie song about watching movies from the 1950s and obsessing about the fact that everyone on the screen is dead now? These archives are a bit like that, only much, much more frightening because the majority of these recordings sound like something that would suddenly start playing from the attic in a Paranormal Activity movie.

Crackles, echos, speeds that are just a little bit off-kilter, voices yelling in the distance, the sound of children who are definitely dead… There is something incredibly eerie about all of it. Once upon a time, the scariest recording here was probably an actor named Edward Brigham doing the ghost scene from Hamlet. Now? Honestly? Literally every clip here could be used in a horror movie. Take this recording of a man and two children talking imperceptibly about a “sociable” as just one of many examples. Chilling.

Historical business

The archive is peppered with interesting glimpses of how national events worked their way into entertainment in the Victorian era. “Keep the Home Fires Burning” is a ballad for women missing their menfolk away fighting World War I. “Bunker Hill,” recorded by Harlan and Stanley in 1905, is a patriotic look back on the Revolutionary War — a conflict that had happened in their own lifetimes. And references to presidents show up in some of the comic songs.

Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft also utilized the new technology to make speeches and pass on information about new laws. (Some of what they commit to audio here is so incredibly dull, you have to wonder if anyone ever listened to it on purpose.) You can find the Gettysburg Address in the archive as well, though not Lincoln’s original version, obviously.

Some very predictable sexism

The sexism on display in the archive isn’t as consistently shocking as the racism, but I was entirely taken aback after stumbling across a couple of bawdy limericks about female anatomy. (I now imagine my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ younger lives quite differently, thanks to this one recording.)

Other sexist content includes songs about women with unattractive bodies, ugly women still being marriage material as long as they can cook and songs about how much nicer men would be if Eve had never met Adam. (Suffragettes are Eve’s fault as well, apparently. Super hot take.)

Women couldn’t even vote while all of this was being recorded, and less than 20% of the workforce was female, so it’s not terribly surprising that this generation was judged almost entirely on physical attractiveness.

An artist's rendition of a besuited man playing a cornet into a phonograph horn.
How people used to record onto cylinders, according to a wood engraving from 1889. (Stock Montage/Getty Images)

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So, what have we learned? Wandering around these archives without a plan will give you an extraordinary glimpse into the past — the quaint stuff, the weird stuff and the downright awful stuff we’d rather forget happened. That’s exactly why UCSB’s Cylinder Audio Archive is so important. These recordings stand as a great reminder of how far we’ve come, and just how much progress is still possible.

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