Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures

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From the 1940s to the 1970s, the phonograph industry experienced phenomenal growth, both in sales and in cultural influence. Along with hugely popular music recordings, spoken word LPs served a multitude of functions and assumed an important place in the American home. In this book, Jacob Smith surveys a diverse range of spoken word genres--including readings of classic works of literature and drama, comedy albums, children's records, home therapy kits, even erotica--to illuminate this often overlooked aspect of the postwar entertainment industry and American culture. A viable alternative to mainstream broadcasting, records gave their listeners control over what they could hear at home. Smith shows how the savvy industry used spoken word records to develop markets for children, African Americans, women, and others not well served by radio and television.
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Editorial Reviews

Choice - W. W. Demastes
Journal Of American History - Jeff Melnick
“A major contribution to a number of scholarly disciplines, including the burgeoning field of sound studies.”
Music Industry Newswire
“A Bérénice blend of well-researched facts and intriguing interpretation.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520267039
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 2/7/2011
  • Pages: 276
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Jacob Smith is Assistant Professor in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at Northwestern University and is the author of Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media (UC Press).
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Read an Excerpt

Spoken Word

Postwar American Phonograph Cultures

By Jacob Smith


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94835-8


Turntable Jr.

In August 2001, the last episode of the Bozo's Circus television show was aired on WGN in Chicago. Though the show had been a staple of local Chicago television for forty years and over seven thousand episodes, the final WGN broadcast received national press coverage that hailed Bozo as the longest-running children's television character in America, seen at one time on stations from coast to coast. Bozo's television debut had been in Los Angeles in 1949, and in his heyday there were Bozos on the air in most major American cities, as well as in Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, and Greece. Among the many performers who played Bozo on local TV stations were Muppets creator Jim Henson and NBC weatherman Willard Scott, who went on to be the first television Ronald McDonald—a figure who borrowed much of his visual style from Bozo. Sadly, Bozo's reign as juggernaut of postwar children's television was coming to an end by the 1990s, the victim of competition from cable stations such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. The last Bozo broadcast in Chicago marked the end of an era and drew a variety of local celebrities, including Smashing Pumpkins lead singer Billy Corgan, who performed a version of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young."

There was another music industry personality in the WGN studio that day, one who was probably not recognized by many in the audience: Alan Livingston, a former Capitol Records executive. Best known as the man who signed both Frank Sinatra and the Beatles to his label, Livingston had another legacy, one that inspired the Saturday Evening Post to write in 1955 that he had "pioneered a branch of show business" that was earning twenty million dollars a year and had even influenced American educational theories. Livingston had managed this feat by conceptualizing and producing a children's phonograph record called Bozo at the Circus in 1946: a disc that not only introduced Bozo the Clown to the world, but was at one time the best-selling album in phonograph history and the fountainhead of a postwar boom in children's records. It was from Livingston's record that the Bozo entertainment franchise sprang: the proliferation of regional television Bozos actually began at Capitol Records, where Bozo clown suits were kept in all of its regional offices for actors to play the famous clown at personal appearances. That the longest-running children's television character of the postwar era originated in the record industry is a telling indication of the largely unrecognized importance of the phonograph in children's media culture.

Juliet B. Schor has described a contemporary American consumer culture in which children form the link between advertisers and the family purse and children's tastes and opinions shape corporate strategies. Schor states that the centrality of children to the consumer marketplace is a relatively recent phenomenon and that not long ago children were merely "bit players" who were approached by marketers primarily through their mothers. Schor, like many other scholars, refers to the widespread introduction of television as an important turning point in the use of the media as a platform for marketing to children because of the way in which it allowed advertisers a more direct link to young audiences. But the work of scholars such as Daniel Cook, Ellen Gruber Garvey, Lisa Jacobson, and William Leach has indicated that children were seen as more than bit players in home consumption decades before television and even radio. Jacobson argues that middle-class children became targets of advertising more than half a century before television and warns that identifying the 1950s as "the pivotal historical moment" in marketing to kids risks falling into a "technological and economic determinism" that can obscure "a host of earlier efforts to inculcate brand consciousness." The phonograph was one such earlier effort at marketing to children, despite being overlooked in examinations of early twentieth–century children's media culture. Consider that in 1924, the Victor Phonograph Company could eagerly refer to the novel opportunities provided by reaching the "boundless and almost untouched children's market." Victor was embarking on a marketing campaign for one of the earliest lines of mass media products targeted specifically at young children: Bubble Books, the first book and record hybrid for kids.

The phonograph industry provides an important missing chapter in the history of the design and marketing of media products for children. Phonograph records have been largely absent from the scholarly history of children's media entertainment. Overviews of children's media typically move from discussions of dime novels to the nickelodeon film theater and from there to radio and television, without any mention of the phonograph industry. In Norma Odom Pecora's overview of media industry output for children, she has this to say about the recording industry: "Teens have been central to the music industry since the 1950s and the advent of Rock and Roll, but the younger market has been ignored both in terms of product and technology." As I will demonstrate, records for children were actively marketed to parents and children by the phonograph industry decades before Disney and television. Of particular interest in the pre–World War II era are the Bubble Books, which were released by Columbia Records (and later Victor) in the 1910s and 1920s. Advertising materials for Bubble Books reveal a lost phase in the development of influential approaches to marketing media products to children and index the anxieties that surrounded the arrival of such products into the home. Notably, children's records such as the Bubble Books did not provoke the kind of public controversy inspired by dime novels, early cinema, radio, and television, despite aggressive marketing by the record industry in popular magazines, department stores, and even in schools. The fact that children's phonograph records sparked such little public debate is certainly one of the reasons that children's records have been off the scholarly radar but also poses some significant questions concerning the study of children and the media: Why did children's records not inspire the same controversy as other forms of children's media? Why do some forms of new media for children provoke more cultural concern than others? The following analysis, then, is concerned not only with adding the phonograph industry to historical accounts of children's media and with documenting early strategies for marketing children's media products, but also with identifying aspects of that marketing that allowed these pioneering instances of home media products for children to be woven into the fabric of everyday American family life.

The Bubble Books provide a new perspective on the emergence of a children's market in American consumer culture and helped to set the stage for children's records of the 1940s and 1950s: the time of a remarkable surge in what the trade press called the "Brat-wax," "peewee platter," or "kidisk" market. Postwar recordings such as Rusty in Orchestraville, Sparky and the Magic Piano, and Genie the Magic Record index debates about child-rearing and the role that media entertainment should play in children's lives. Some of the best-selling children's records of the 1940s and 1950s present a fascinating tension: marketed as home lessons in the appreciation of Western classical music, they trained children in modes of listening more in tune with genres of recorded popular music. In fact, experimentation with multi-track studio techniques on records made for baby boom children blazed a trail for the studio-based rock and roll of the 1950s and 1960s. From Bubble Books to Bozo, children's records have much to tell us about the development of modern media texts that were thought to be good for children. When Alan Livingston discussed the development of his blockbuster Bozo records, he often noted the influence of records made for children in the early decades of the twentieth century. In order to understand developments in the postwar children's record industry, it is necessary to first examine children's records in the early years of the phonograph industry.


It can be argued that the history of the children's phonograph record begins with the history of recorded sound itself, since the oft-repeated "creation story" of the phonograph has Thomas Edison reciting the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into his tinfoil recording device. Phonograph historian Patrick Feaster has pointed out that this heart-warming anecdote is quite probably a rewrite of history: given Edison's penchant for salty humor, the first test was likely to have been quite different. Nonetheless, from the very beginning, the phonograph was cast as a device with a certain affinity for children's entertainment. In fact, one of Edison's earliest intended uses for recorded sound was to make children's dolls that could speak. In 1890, Edison outfitted his West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory as a production line for dolls containing tiny phonograph players. The dolls did not sell well, and the company folded in 1891, by which time the market for entertainment phonograph cylinders had begun to take off. Though the phonograph would not speak to American children through dolls, the major phonograph companies actively sought to develop a child market for phonograph players and records as early as the 1890s and 1900s.

Consider that the first Victor Talking Machine product to be nationally advertised was the Toy Gram-o-phone, which is shown in a December 1900 ad in Munsey's Magazine, with copy that reads, "The most wonderful Christmas gift ever offered for children." In a November 1907 advertisement in McClure's Magazine, we see the image of two little girls amazed by the phonograph horn, while the copy proclaims, "The Edison Phonograph as a Christmas Present": "No single thing furnishes so much entertainment, amusement and enjoyment to a family, especially where there are children and young folks, as an Edison Phonograph." Compelling evidence exists that the phonograph was indeed being given to children as a Christmas gift. On a rare amateur home recording circa 1899–1901, we hear a father or grandfather describing the gift of a graphophone (the Columbia Company cylinder player) to his children: "My children, when I heard you play the flute and the piano ... it occurred to me that you would enjoy a graphophone immensely, and that perhaps it would be the most appropriate ... [Christmas gift] I could possibly give you." The patriarch goes on to describe the gift as both a "source of enjoyment" and as an aid to more serious study.

The phonograph industry continued to actively pursue the child market both indirectly through parents and through direct appeals to children, as is illustrated by the use of a Victor promotional brochure entitled The Victor: For Every Day in the Week (1907), which promoted the phonograph as a multipurpose form of children's entertainment. In the Victor trade journal The Voice of Victor, the company advised retailers on how to use the brochure: "This booklet can be used in conjunction with your window display ... in some localities it may be better to distribute them upon dismissal of school." In the brochure, we see the image of a phonograph player being delivered to a home, as copy proclaims, "There certainly is pleasure for us every day in the week with the Victor." A series of illustrations follow, depicting the various ways in which the phonograph could entertain children: on Monday, a group of youngsters wear military uniforms and march around the nursery to the sounds of John Philip Sousa; and on Tuesday, the children listen to Mother Goose stories on the phonograph player and put on a Punch and Judy show.

Such Mother Goose stories, or juvenile records, were made by performers such as William F. Hooley, who identified himself as Uncle Will and began recitations of material such as The Death of Cock Robin by telling listeners: "Now, children, draw your little chairs nearer so that you can see the pretty pictures." Also consider pioneer recording artist Len Spencer's Columbia 1899 recording of Cinderella, on which we hear Spencer say, "Now children, draw your little chairs around the Graphophone Grand, and Uncle John will tell you the story of Cinderella and the glass slipper." At the end of the tale, Spencer says, "There now, wasn't that a nice story? Run off to bed now little ones, kiss Uncle John 'good night.'" Gilbert Girard was the premiere vocal mimic of the early phonograph industry and frequently applied his talents to making records for children. On titles such as A Trip to the Circus (Victor 1901) and Auction Sale of a Bird and Animal Store (Edison 1902), Girard and Len Spencer presented animal mimicry, an auctioneer performance, and broad jokes: a range of offerings that could appeal to both children and adults. A Trip to the Circus is introduced as a "descriptive selection for the little folks," and then we hear Spencer announce, "Now children, hold tight to my hand, and don't get too near to the animals." "Oh, see the elephants," Spencer declares, and Girard provides a loud trumpeting sound. On Girard's later recording Santa Claus Visits the Children (Victor 1921), we hear Santa arrive on his sleigh and announce: "Come children, gather near. A few nice stories you shall hear." Girard goes on to recite Mother Goose verses interspersed with his impressive repertoire of sound effects. We find here an early model for children's records, wherein a rudimentary narrative framework structures a series of spectacular sound effects meant to capture the attention of young listeners. As we shall see, the calibration of these different types of sonic appeal became a recurring structural dynamic of children's records.

"Juvenile records" from the early decades of the twentieth century demonstrate that the phonograph industry was quick to recognize the importance of the child audience for home media entertainment. In fact, a major campaign to market children's records began in 1917, when Columbia Records formed a partnership with Harper and Brothers Books to manufacture 5½-inch diameter records and market them to children. The Bubble Books were the brainchild of Ralph Mayhew, who in 1914 was working for Harper and Brothers on a children's book of verse in which he planned to have "a child sitting blowing bubbles which ascended and burst into the little pictures and nursery rhymes." In a 1921 interview with Printer's Ink magazine, Mayhew described how he first conceived of combining children's books with phonograph records: "I had a habit," Mayhew stated, "of crawling out of bed occasionally of a Sunday morning, putting a record on the phonograph, slipping back into bed with pencil and paper and working on little verses for my Bubble Book. One Sunday morning, while thus engaged, the idea suddenly occurred to me of incorporating small phonograph records in my Bubble Book, with appropriate music to accompany the nursery rhymes. I had never heard of putting a book and records together, and the idea rather struck my fancy." Mayhew was eventually able to convince Harper and Brothers and Columbia Records to back his idea, and the first edition of the Bubble Books was pressed in 1917. The first Bubble Book—which contained three single-sided 5½-inch records featuring musical versions of traditional children's verses sung by Henry Burr and an accompanying package with illustrations by Rhoda Chase—met with immediate success: "Hardly had the salesmen gone out when the orders began to pour in," Printer's Ink noted, adding that nine thousand copies were sold in the month after it was released. These initial strong sales figures continued over the next several years: according to one 1920 advertisement, more than one and a half million Bubble Books were sold between January and May of that year. Indeed, the Bubble Books sold well enough to inspire subsequent editions through the early 1930s, with the copyright and patents controlled by the Victor Company after 1924. The Bubble Books were the first book and record hybrids marketed to children and so represent a pioneering instance of cross-media synergy between book publishing and the record industry. An examination of the ad campaign designed to sell Bubble Books reveals early strategies for developing a child audience for home media products and the kinds of media texts that were considered to be beneficial to children.


At a time when American toy manufacturers were entering the mass market, Columbia and Harper and Brothers began advertising Bubble Books in both the popular and trade press. In regards to the latter, Daniel Cook warns that the use of trade journals as evidence "demands circumspection," since the "bald, forthright approach to markets" found in such discourse was intended for a very particular audience. Cook suggests that trade material should be considered as "providing an entrée into a historically situated semantic domain" and can provide insights into the process by which commercial portrayals of children and childhood are constructed. Trade advertisements for Bubble Books in Talking Machine World were targeted to record store owners and reveal some of the motivations and assumptions behind influential strategies for marketing children's media entertainment.


Excerpted from Spoken Word by Jacob Smith. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Turntable Jr.
2. Hi-Fi Midcult
3. 331/ 3 Sexual Revolutions per Minute
4. Mimetic Moments
5. Blind Television

Further Reading


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