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Digital Site Review: ‘The Roaring Twenties’


April 1, 2015 by kdaly3

The Roaring Twenties is a digital exhibit that relies on archival material of various formats. These materials consist of sound clips, newsreels, and government documents, primarily noise complaints in various New York City neighborhoods. The site’s intended purpose is to document sound and noise in urban areas during periods of population growth and industrialization to show viewers the effects of sound through three perspectives: time, space, and place. This site is very thorough in its documentation of sources and use of objects, and it is because of this that makes it an effective and useful resource in the study of New York City neighborhoods and the effects of industrialization and population growth, and sensory history.

The site was created by Emily Thompson and designed by Scott Mahoy for the Vectors journal (the site was produced through them, and funding from other sources is not mentioned anywhere in the site), which focuses on digital projects that mediate story-telling about social, cultural, and political issues. It serves as a platform for digital technologies to act as agents of new historical thought and perspectives. Emily Thompson is not only a contributor to the journal, but also a professor at Princeton University. She primarily focuses on the study of sound in various landscapes such as architecture, music, and film. She initially created a book titled The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933, but this information seems better served on a digital platform where you can actually experience the city through newsreels and sounds rather than using your imagination about what the landscape might have sounded or looked like during that time. Scott Mahoy is a designer from the University of Southern California (which is where Vectors is based) who has worked on a variety of digital projects and is responsible for the overall look of the site.

The materials originate from various archives, such as the Municipal Archives of the City of New York, the Moving Image Research Collections of the University of South Carolina, and The Princeton University Library. The site appears to be based solely off of Thompson’s research, but it is a joint effort between her, Mahoy, and Vectors, so in this case it is a scholarly collaboration between two scholars (a historian and designer) and a scholarly multimedia journal. She cites a variety of people as the intended audience for this project, from scholars interested in sound studies and sensory history, to students of all ages, and finally to interested parties who either have an interest in New York City neighborhoods. The site contains three different tracks of thinking about sound and noise in the city: time, which is looking at noise complaints, newspaper clippings, and newsreels to understand during what years was New York City loudest; space, which is in the form of a map of New York City in 1933 to see where the most noise complaints are centered; and sound, which is broken down into eight categories: traffic, transportation, building operation, homes, streets, harbor and river, collection deliveries, and miscellaneous sounds (which range anywhere from animal sounds to miniature golf courses). One can combine their understanding of these categories in conjunction with each other in order to gain a better understanding the changing landscape of New York City throughout time and space through the development of technologies (not only sound and film technologies, but also those pertaining to industrialization).

The credits consist of various archival holdings as mentioned above, but Thompson’s research has also derived from various text-based sources broken down into three categories: ‘Environmental Sound Studies’, ‘Sound Newsreels’, and ‘New York City’. Her permissions are in the credits of the exhibit/site, but also are stated as bibliographic information in each object that is utilized to interpret the use of sound in the urban landscape. For instance, if you click on one of the Noise Abatement Commission documents, you will see the object has three tabs: information, source, and documents. I like this feature because it gives me both the actual document and source information on the timeline without having to search through different pages of bibliographic information. However, you are also given the choice to interact with a heavily text-based version of this research in order to get a better understanding of the origins of her research in each category of time, space, and sound (this can be found in the “Info” page). It also takes me back to the year that I was looking at when I’m finished with an object in case I want to examine a different type of document or audio/film clip. I also like how the newsreels and audio clips are utilized in the site, providing various perspectives to interact with to interpret these histories on a sensory level. This site is a useful complement to understanding text-based research about New York City in the 1920s.

This site is incredibly effective at meeting its goals and engaging its audience through a digital platform. The interpretation is based off of the overall look and platform of the site, wherein Thompson simply places the archival materials into contexts of time, space, and sound whereby she is giving the interpretation of how these materials interact with each other in these various landscapes. The timeline feature is also spread out to measure what years the most noise complaints were reported (which happens to be 1930, the height of industrialization in the city it seems). I personally like the feature that allows viewers to read part of Thompson’s book on which this site was based; it provides further context to the interactive portions of the site. I don’t really have any criticisms, but if I had to come up with something I would say that there’s almost too much information bunched together in the space section. On the other hand, I think this is an integral point to Thompson’s overall purpose: to examine the chaos of industrialization and the use of space of the city through these documentations of sound. Another criticism is that some of the links are broken, so I’m not sure if Thompson or Mahoy keep up with the site as often as they could. However, this is minor issue as the features for historical use will stay relevant as long as the platform is supported; so unless there is some major technological problem, the site can generally afford to be left alone without any major updates. The site does an overall good job of explaining people’s understanding of sound based on place and how people of the 1920s interacting with the changing aural landscape of an industrializing New York City.


  1. nsakas1 says:

    Kate- this sounds like an interesting concept. I do not think I have encountered a site or any historical project that seeks to document the history of sound in an urban area. I like the fact that the site approaches the topic from different perspectives such as time, space, and sound. This certainly would allow the data to be compared and processed in multiple ways. I also like the use of the map to show where concentrations of noise are highest. However, the site is called the roaring twenties. Does the site go into more detail about why this period is important as far as measuring sound? How much time are they looking at? Is it just the twenties and thirties or do they go beyond that?

  2. Chris says:

    What a great site to showcase what a digital exhibit can do. This type of exhibit would very expensive to produce in the analog world, but as a digital exhibit it is much more cost effective. I wonder if the cheapness of digital space versus digital space created some of the clutter you mentioned. This ability to keep adding on to an exhibit is something we all need to keep in mind as digital history practitioners. We need to keep in mind how willing our audiences are to engage with endless amounts of information, and when they will through their hands up and walk away. This site is an interesting way to interpret artifacts that normally would be very difficult to do in a traditional format.

  3. acoleman34 says:

    At first thought, sound is not an aspect of history that many would think to document let alone exhibit. This site is extremely interesting because it uses text-based research alongside some of these sounds, essentially corroborating the history it is presenting. That is pretty cool.I also like that it links to Thompson’s book because adding any extra snippet of context can be important to furthering the knowledge of the audience and their interest in the subject in general. Not to mention it garners exposure for the author, and hey, what author doesn’t want that? Similar to Nick’s question, what I would have liked to see is some comparison to other major cities of the time such as Chicago or even New Orleans. Does the site do that? This would add more context to New York’s place within the hierarchy of metropolitan America and possibly even reinforce Thompson’s textual work. Overall though, the interpretation of space, place and time is a solid look into 1920s New York.

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