Soprano Frieda Hempel in a 1919 tone test with "Edison's musical experts." Note that the blindfolds also cover their ears

WHY, THAT SOUNDS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE

The Press Democrat just helped solve a century-old mystery, and it’s all thanks to the paper’s laziness back in 1919.

This adventure begins just before Hallowe’en when a large ad began appearing in the PD promoting an appearance by a concert singer. “The music lovers of Santa Rosa will rejoice in the news that Miss Ida Gardner, the well known contralto, will sing in this city Thursday night November 6, at the Cline theater,” announced a related news item. The Cline was the most famous of early Santa Rosa movie palaces (it became the Roxy in 1935) and was a big, cavernous hall that also hosted vaudeville acts and traveling stage shows. What made this performance unique, however, was that tickets were free but could only be obtained from the Santa Rosa Furniture Company. Also, the ad noted cryptically, “Mr. Thomas A. Edison’s Three Million Dollar Phonograph will assist.”

A review appeared about a week after the concert: “Probably a number of people who attended the recital given Thursday night by Miss Ida Gardner and Mr. Lyman at the Cline Theater, were at first puzzled and disappointed when they discovered a phonograph cabinet occupying the center of the stage. They felt that they had been beguiled into going to hear a charming singer and a clever flutist and naturally thought they had been imposed upon.”

Flutist/Edison Company pitchman Harold Lyman came onstage and told the audience that he and Miss Gardner were going to demonstrate why Edison’s new record player was so terrific. “It finally became apparent that the phonograph was at least to receive assistance from the singer, but even then the mental outlook was not exactly bright.”

A record was placed on the turntable and Ida began to sing along. “She paused from time to time, apparently at random and permitted her re-created voice to be heard alone. This gave an opportunity to compare one with the other, and it is no more than just to state that there was no discernible difference in tone quality.”

idagardnerThe PD reported, “It was only by watching the singer’s lips that one could be sure when she sang and when she did not…This proof was very convincing. If it were not, another proof was offered. After Miss Gardner commenced to sing the lights were turned out – ostensibly so that the audience could not watch the singer’s lips.

“It did not seem difficult to determine in the dark when the singer sang and when she did not. The writer was pretty sure about it himself, [until the] lights were turned on again and it was discovered that Miss Gardner was not on the stage at all and that the new Edison alone had been heard.”

(RIGHT: Ida Gardner, c.1919)

Now, I’ll concede an Edison phonograph playing Edison records were considered state-of-the-art in the late 1910s, and the company’s sales brochure convincingly explained why it was technically superior to anything else on the market. Still, it had no electrical amplification nor speaker (aside from the wooden baffles in the cabinet); here’s a video of that exact model playing a record from that time and the only thing heard that sounds as if it could be realistic is the harmonica. We can also listen to an Ida Gardner recording made around that time played on modern equipment and even hearing past the scratches and surface noise – much of it probably due to the record being 100+ years old – it sounds as if she’s singing inside your coat closet. With the door closed. Behind the coats.

For the Press Democrat music critic to claim such a wind-up acoustic phonograph could sound exactly like a live performer is a pretty amazing testimonial. But (s)he was not alone; the Edison Company did about 4,000 of these “Tone Test” exhibitions in theaters and music stores around the country between 1915-1925 but I can’t find a single negative review in a newspaper or magazine. And before Edison, the Victor company was boasting as early as 1908 that it was impossible to tell the difference with their gear.

So what was going on? Was everybody lying, delusional, or was there some kind of trickery? To no surprise, academic types have been pondering this for decades.

whichiswhich

 

I’m reminded one of my best college professors emphasized the need to completely sensitize yourself to any particular historical era before judging how people reacted to anything in the arts. During the 5th century BC two artists had a painting contest where one displayed painted grapes which looked so realistic that birds supposedly pecked at them. He challenged his rival to draw back the curtains and display his work, not realizing that curtain itself was a masterful painting. While ancient Greek murals and panels are astonishing works of art, our eyes today would never confuse their grapes and curtain paintings for real physical objects. In the world of music, people in the mid-18th century reacted strongly to hearing the unique Mannheim effects, such as instead of just playing loud, soft, or in between, an entire orchestra would slowly build a crescendo towards a loud and exciting climax. Audiences didn’t know what to make of those unfamiliar sounds and became agitated; women fainted and men jumped to their feet, shouting as they might have cheered on a horse race. Yet to our modern ears it’s…meh. The background classical music at your dentist’s office.

While it may seem absurd to consider today, it’s possible there were those who actually did believe these primitive phonographs sounded “real.” Americans were hearing less and less live music with every passing year; theaters like the Cline were booking fewer vaudeville acts as the public preferred to watch silent movies when going out for entertainment, and home musicians were finding the new jazzy pop music harder to plunk out on the piano in the parlor. Listening to recorded music was the new norm.1 If you’ve become acclimated to hearing music on a tabletop Victrola with its big metallic horn, that Edison floor model must have truly sounded phenomenal, particularly with the theater’s acoustics boosting its limited dynamic range.

Edison also gamed the Tone Tests in a couple of outrageous ways. Although the Press Democrat review claims the audience was very skeptical, the main job of Edison’s pitchman was to put the audience in a highly receptive mood, coaching them on what they should be listening for (and implicitly, the shortcomings they should be ignoring).2

We don’t know what was exactly said in these theater presentations, but Edison gave a strict set of instructions (“The Tone Test and Its Stage Setting”) to the dealerships on how to manage a showroom demo. There should be comfortable furniture (“mahogany, upholstered”), potted plants and “the best framed picture of Mr. Edison you can produce.” When the record begins playing, the listener is to stay “in the moment” for 45 seconds with eyes open. Then eyes should be closed for about a minute, then opened for 15 seconds (“but do not gaze at your surroundings”) then closed again until the record is over. The purpose of those eye exercises was supposedly to “shake off the influence of your surroundings,” although it sounds to me more like the mumbo-jumbo associated with another invention Edison was working on at the same time – a device which would communicate with the dead.

Soprano Frieda Hempel in a 1919 tone test with "Edison's musical experts." Note that the blindfolds also cover their ears
Soprano Frieda Hempel in a 1919 tone test with “Edison’s musical experts.” Note that the blindfolds also cover their ears

 

Edison also boasted that a roster of famous musicians were performing his Tone Tests but in practice, newspaper searches reveal his company mostly relied upon a handful of female singers of little renown. The woman who performed in Santa Rosa, Ida Gardner (real name: Ida Greson) apparently had no professional background at all aside from sometimes being a soloist in New York City churches. Their talent lay in another direction, however: A kind of reverse mimesis, where they could imitate the sound of their own unnatural voice bleating from a mechanical record player. One of the singers confessed in an interview fifty years later:3


I remember I stood right beside the machine. The audience was there, and there was nobody on stage with me. The machine played and I sang with it. Of course, if I had sung loud, it would have been louder than the machine, but I gave my voice the same quality as the machine so they couldn’t tell. And sometimes I would stop singing and let the machine play, and I’d come in again. Well, it seemed to make a tremendous success.

So add all this up – the singers imitating the tinny sound of their own recordings, the audiences being trained to ignore their lyin’ ears (and maybe flap their eyelids on command), the fading memory of what live musical instruments and singers really sounded like on stage – and it explains why Edison’s Tone Tests always received nothing but rave reviews. After all, the only other explanation is that everyone was lying.

Believe it or not: Everyone was lying.

The review that appeared in the Press Democrat also can be found, word for word – except for the name of the theater – in other historic newspapers online. Even more papers share a paragraph or three with the PD’s review and still others beyond that are littered with the same keywords and phrases (“clever flutist,” “the audience confessed,” repeated use of “Miss Gardner’s lips” for ex) which betray they all drew waters from the same well. Clearly, the Edison company was providing advertising copy which the local newspaper editors could reprint in toto or use to cobble together a rewrite, depending on how industrious the copy editor felt. The fingerprints of still other boilerplates can also be found; when Harold Lyman was touring 1915-6 with a different singer, he was then mentioned in Tone Test reviews as a “clever young flutist.”

This simple explanation has eluded scholars because not many are familiar with newspapering practices at that time. The first clue of something funky was that concert reviews even existed; it was very rare then for papers to recap a one-night-only musical or theater performance. That the PD review didn’t appear until almost a week later added a further red flag.

Yes, other types of ads disguised as news articles sometimes can be found but it wasn’t common, and that Edison’s appeared in many newspapers nationwide over many years makes me think that the placement of these “newsverts” was actually the key objective of Edison’s promotional campaign – a kind of early influencer marketing. (That the fake reviews were unsigned only made them appear more legit, as news articles rarely had bylines.)

The scheme also relied upon the Edison dealers having a good relationship with the local papers. Here the Santa Rosa Furniture Company was a regular advertiser in the Press Democrat anyway; buying an additional two weeks of big, expensive ads promoting this phonograph and the Tone Test only gave the editors more incentive to go along with the request to also print all/part of the glowing “review” as a favor for this important ad client.

(As a side note, newspapers also conversely did favors for their advertisers by not printing news; in 1911 a local scandal involving double suicides was suppressed by both Santa Rosa papers as long as possible, even while the San Francisco dailies were covering it on the front page. At risk was the reputation of a downtown store that was a major PD advertiser, and probably fears that drawing attention to the story could launch boycotts against both the store and the newspaper itself.)

Surely there were some publishers (hopefully, many) who balked at printing such “fake news,” but even if the phony reviews appeared in a fraction of the places where there were Tone Test demonstrations, this was still likely the most brazen example of covert advertising in early 20th century America (I’ve certainly never encountered anything like it).

And more than his hundred competitors, Edison needed to generate lots of good publicity; his music system wasn’t going to sell itself. His phonograph players were ridiculously expensive – up to two-thirds the cost of a new Ford car – and the only records you could play on them were the ones Edison made. Worse, he always selected the recording artists himself and besides being a half-deaf old man, his taste in music was mostly abysmal.

The Edison catalog leaned toward military marches, religious and sentimental pap, hillbilly and comic songs (including many in racist dialect), operatic warhorses, classical chestnuts and dance tunes for dance steps nobody did anymore. He liked recording novelty ensembles (the Waikiki Hawaiian Orchestra, the Alessios Mandolin Quartet) and novelty songs (“Farmyard medley“). Edison disliked most trained singers (“many of the most famous of opera singers sing badly,” he said) but praised Donald Chalmers, an amateur who sang without any emotion but hit every note as perfectly as a machine.4

In the end, Edison’s work on the phonograph during those years yielded only small improvements in the evolution of sound recording – but along the way it appears he invented a marketing scheme which was quite good at hoodwinking our ancestors. You might even say he was a kind of wizard at doing that.


1 Emily Thompson: Machines, Music, and the Quest for Fidelity: Marketing the Edison Phonograph in America, 1877–1925; The Musical Quarterly Spring 1995, pg. 159
2 Alexandra Hui; The Naturalization of Built Environments: Two Case Studies; Ethnomusicology Review, February 2016
3 Jan McKee; Is It Live or Is It Edison? Library of Congress Now See Hear blog, May 2015
4 David W. Samuels; Edison’s Ghost; Music & Politics, Summer 2016 2015
Press Democrat ad, October 30, 1919
Press Democrat ad, October 30, 1919

 

Press Democrat ad, November 13, 1919
Press Democrat ad, November 13, 1919

 

 

sources

Miss Ida Gardner to Give Concert Thursday

The music lovers of Santa Rosa will rejoice in the news that Miss Ida Gardner, the well known contralto, will sing in this city Thursday night November 6, at the Cline theater.

Miss Gardner comes to Santa Rosa from a long and most successful concert tour. Her voice is said to be more charming than ever, and she has increased her repertoire to include some delightful new songs.

Miss Gardner says she hasn’t any specialties in songs, as some artists have. She sings a wide range of things and is not at all averse to giving one or two numbers by request.

During the war, Miss Gardner devoted practically all her time to entertaining soldiers in camps. She was very popular among the boys, and among the officers as one colonel can testify.

– Press Democrat, November 2 1919

 

 

MANY AMAZED BY GARDNER CONCERT

Probably a number of people who attended the recital given Thursday night by Miss Ida Gardner and Mr. Lyman at the Cline Theater, were at first puzzled and disappointed when they discovered a phonograph cabinet occupying the center of the stage. They felt that they had been beguiled into going to hear a charming singer and a clever flutist and naturally thought they had been imposed upon.

They hardly were reassured when Mr. Lyman appeared on the stage and commenced to talk about “reproduction,” “re-creation,” and other like matter. It finally became apparent that the phonograph was at least to receive assistance from the singer, but even then the mental outlook was not exactly bright.

Mr. Lyman explained that the purpose of the recital was to show that Thomas A. Edison, after years of work, had achieved his ideal to perfect a musical instrument which actually re-creates music so perfectly that the re-creation would be indistinguishable from the original.

This was a broad claim but it was established before the evening was over for Miss Gardner actually stood beside the new Edison Phonograph and sang in unison with Mr. Edison’s re-creation – so called – of her own voice. This would have proved little as her voice might easily have overbalance the tone of the instrument — swallowed it up – so to speak; but Miss Gardner did more, or to accurate, less. She paused from time to time, apparently at random and permitted her re-created voice to be heard alone. This gave an opportunity to compare one with the other, and it is no more than just to state that there was no discernable difference in tone quality.

There must have been a slight difference in volume when Miss Gardner stopped singing, but it was not noticeable, for the voice which came from the cabinet was round and luscious with all the vibrant, pulsating quality of that which came directly from Miss Gardner’s throat. It was only by watching the singer’s lips that one could be sure when she sang and when she did not.

Mr. Lyman offered similar comparisons with his instrument playing in direct comparison with the re-creation of his own performance. This proof was very convincing. If it were not, another proof was offered. After Miss Gardner commenced to sing the lights were turned out – ostensibly so that the audience could not watch the singer’s lips.

It did not seem difficult to determine in the dark when the singer sang and when she did not. The writer was pretty sure about it himself, [until the] lights were turned on again and it was discovered that Miss Gardner was not on the stage at all and that the new Edison alone had been heard.

– Press Democrat, November 12 1919

Read More

vibrator

WAS THAT REALLY IN THE PAPER?

Ads in the Santa Rosa newspapers a century ago could be quaint, silly or downright fraudulent, but some required a double-take – did I really see that in the paper? Here is a sample of ads from 1911-1913 that require some explanation:

Actually, this ad, which appeared in the Press Democrat for a week, probably doesn’t require any explanation at all. Great grandma certainly looks happy with her Arnold Massage Vibrator.

Great scott, did a 1911 vaudeville act really include a live grizzly bear? All sorts of trained animal acts appeared on stage in Santa Rosa: Dogs, monkeys, even goats. But even when raised from a cub by humans, grizzlies are famously temperamental – goddesses know what might happen if one was frightened or angered by rowdy drunks in the audience.

As it turns out, the grizzly was a guy in a bear suit with La Angelita and “Petus” doing the “Grizzly Bear” and “Texas Tommy,” so-called rag dances that Petaluma and other cities banned for being indecent. That it was a novelty dance act was remarkably difficult to learn – newspapers presumably didn’t mention that angle so as to not spoil the surprise. Once the ragging craze faded La Angelita began appearing with two other women as costumed Spanish dancers. The ersatz grizzly still showed up for the finale, which confused a reviewer for Variety: “The only drawback to the act is the bear dance, wherein a man parades in a bear skin.”

Another reason it first seemed the act involved a real grizzly was because at least once they appeared on a bill with actual trained bears, “Albers’ Ten Polar Bears.” Apparently that act mostly consisted of the animals rolling a large ball up and down a slide, although the 1911 Oakland Tribune noted, “Herr Albers promises to give them a big feed during the matinee Saturday, so one can imagine the fun while these ten tons of Teddies are at their porridge.” Hopefully they went on last so the stage could be hosed down afterward.

Oh, the good ol’ days, when someone could shop downtown for large containers of lethal poisons. Painting your house? In 1912 you could stop by the Asbest-o-Lite Paint Company on Fifth street and pick up a few gallons direct from the factory. And doesn’t everybody love the smell of fresh paint? Take a good whiff while they mix your color! And if it’s spring, don’t forget to spray your fruit trees with lead arsenic, that safe and economical insecticide.

They did’t know at the time that inhaling lots of asbestos can cause a particularly nasty form of cancer, so it was widely used at the time – in roofing, flooring, wall insulation, wrapped around hot water pipes, lining the interior of forced-air furnaces, and much, much more. Asbestos paint was probably the least dangerous form of exposure as the stuff wasn’t blowing around, but you wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere near the factory while it was being made. The Asbest-o-Lite Paint Company apparently lasted only a year.

Lead arsenate was heavily used as an insecticide in the first half of the Twentieth Century (good history here) although it was discovered after World War I that it didn’t easily wash off produce completely and contaminated topsoil. Yet until the introduction of DDT in the late 1940s everyone bought the stuff by the tub.

It was particularly risky for people who handled the stuff in the fields, but only California and a handful of other states recognized long-term exposure could be an occupational disease. Making matters worse, it was common to use it as part of a “bordeaux,” mixing it with other arsenics such as Paris green – a fungicide and also the main ingredient in rat poison  – so all spraying could be done at the same time. That cocktail nearly made quick work of Henry Limebaugh, a farmer near Hessel in May of 1912 when after spraying his fruit trees he forgetfully took a sip from the same hose, leading to an emergency visit from a doctor.

Was that a movie about the Klan playing at the Nickelodeon?

D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” is credited with inspiring (and to some degree, inventing) the modern Ku Klux Klan. But that film was not made until 1915; playing here in 1911 was “Night Riders of Tennessee and Kentucky.” A synopsis printed in the Santa Rosa Republican showed it villainized them and since this movie is not mentioned in any cinema history, it would be a pretty big deal to find there was an earlier film with an antithetical view to Griffith’s glorification of the sheet-wearing vigilantes.

It turns out the film was first shown elsewhere in 1910 and the “Night Riders” weren’t the Klan at all – it was about the recent Dark Patch Tobacco War. Once it had a monopoly, the American Tobacco Company sharply dropped what it paid farmers to less than it cost to grow the tobacco. They organized a boycott and formed an association to warehouse the crops until prices returned to normal. The company offered top dollar to any scab growers who would sell their tobacco; in turn, the association organized hooded Night Riders to enforce the boycott by intimidating those sellers, usually burning their fields. The conflict ended in 1908 when the Kentucky National Guard was called up to suppress the Night Riders.

How much of the film was “founded on fact” is impossible to say as no copies survive, but it was most likely propaganda created by the American Tobacco Company to demonize the growers and place the company in a good light. When copies of the movie were circulating in 1910-1911 the company was fighting government charges that it was an illegal Trust and should be broken up (in 1911 the Supreme Court ruled it was indeed a monopoly). Further evidence that it was underwritten by the company is that Mr. Hood and Browning – whomever they were – toured with the movie and narrated it. While live stage appearances with films were presented in that era, it was only in major theaters in big cities and at a premium admission price, not showing weekday nights down at the Santa Rosa Nickelodeon for a dime.

Read More

1913keegansanta

SALESMAN SANTA COMES TO SANTA ROSA

Call it the year Santa Rosa embraced Santa Claus – or rather, the year downtown retailers discovered the jolly ol’ elf was a great salesman.

In the days before Christmas 1913, Santa invaded the advertising in the Press Democrat. The full page ad for the White House department store (shown below) had no less than four Santas, which was about the headcount seen in all ads in any year prior. Why the population explosion in 1913?

It wasn’t as if Santa was suddenly linked to the concept of Christmas presents. During the Christmas of 1910 advertisements urged shoppers to come downtown and have fun buying gifts. The part of the White House ad below with Santa leaning on his knuckles first appeared that year, and another 1910 store proclaimed it was “The Real Home of Santa Claus.” Kids back then were also clued in to making want lists; in 1908 tykes picked up the telephone and asked the operator to connect “Santy Claus.” The PD reported the telephone office didn’t know what to do at first but soon decided the “Hello Girls” should become Santa’s little helpers, with the chief operator taking down names and list details (and no, their parents were not required to first sign two-year service agreements).

Those pre-1913 Santas are also sometimes hard to recognize. He was less roly-poly than we expect today (the guy in the White House ad was pretty buff) and was more like Father Christmas of 19th century England. He rarely smiled in the earlier ads and even appeared a little grumpy; in this Keegan Brothers ad he looks stooped and damn tired of hauling that bag down chimneys, as if he were just an oddly-dressed workingman in the delivery business. (The caption should have read “At Your Service” and was corrected in later versions.) So another change in 1913 was that Santa was happier as well.

It would be easy to presume Santa received a 1913 makeover by a Madison Avenue advertising agency and everyone followed suit, but that’s not the case. It would be many years later, in 1931, before Coca-Cola would forever transform Santa into the iconic image we all know today. Instead, he evolved in the 1910s and 1920s into a ruddy obese fellow without any firm ownership. A personal favorite is the 1923 ad for White Rock soda water showing Santa apparently reading letters from children with his nose as red as his cheeks, having polished off half a bottle of bourbon. Note that his trash basket is overflowing with tossed-out Christmas lists and also note the year 1923 was during Prohibition. Are YOU gonna confront Mr. Claus when he’s being naughty? I think not.

The mystery of Santa Rosa’s Santa ads only deepens when compared to the big Bay Area newspapers where Santa was almost a no-show. In San Francisco and Oakland the holiday shopping ads usually just showed the merchandise if there was any illustration at all. Never did any of the Santas found in the PD appear there.

Among the California newspapers with online archives (a pretty small number, admittedly) the only papers which were similarly Santa-clogged came from Modesto and Santa Ana – towns which were very much like Santa Rosa: Mid-sized rural county seats with a few department stores. Their department stores ads even used most of the exact same Santa illustrations as our department stores, demonstrating it was stock art provided by the manufacturers (free, undoubtedly) to dress up ads in these smaller markets.

Instead of pushing specific stuff or a sale, the mission of these 1913 Santas was simply to get your warm body into those local department stores. It was by no means assured customers would be going to those merchants anyway; as shown in the article about Christmas 1910, they were competing with hardware stores which advertised “practical” gifts. Hopefully if the holiday shopper could be lured through the door of Rosenberg’s, Dibble’s or one of the other places, a new galvanized wash tub would no longer seem to be an appealing present.

No discussion of Christmas in 1913 Santa Rosa would be complete without mentioning the 800 lb. gorilla in the room – or rather, the Godzilla-like Santa that appeared on the front page of the Press Democrat on Dec. 25. Taking up half of the front page, the cartoon illustrated a story about the PD’s Christmas Exchange, which was the annual holiday gift drive for needy kids. Here Santa teeters unsteadily as little two-dimensional creatures tug at his hand and gift sack. His blank expression makes you wonder if he had way too many of those bourbon and White Rock sodas before coming to the party.


Read More