Audio cylinder recordings preserve in sound the history of the early twentieth century. The earliest commercial medium for recording and reproducing sound, produced from the 1890s to the late 1920s, the cylinder recordings in this collection represent the voices, songs, stories, and sensibilities of an emerging popular culture at a pivotal point in modern history.

Developed by pioneering entrepreneurs like Thomas A. Edison at the end of the nineteenth century, acoustical recording technology was at the forefront of the communications revolution that would define the century following. In the emerging world of telephones, motion pictures, mass printing and automobiles, the commercial recording “industry” that began with cylinder recordings would evolve into one of the most important transmitters of shared culture on a global scale.

The richness of the cylinder sound archive for historical and cultural research is wide and varied. Some key areas of interest include:

As cultural artifacts, commercial cylinders document the attitudes, social mores, and prejudices of a people as they stood at a particular moment in history. This includes crude expressions of racism and ethnic bias that modern listeners will find offensive. It is important for researchers and students of history to have access to the full range of primary materials that make up the historical record to fully understand the history of racism and its various manifestations in popular culture.

Some recordings in the Belfer collection reflect attitudes of ethnic bias towards immigrant groups, primarily in comic recordings that mock dialects and exaggerate negative cultural stereotypes. Often these pieces were performed by (and purchased by) members of the very same ethnic groups being ridiculed.

Cylinder recordings also reflect racial stereotypes and racist attitudes toward Black Americans, particularly in those materials derived from the blackface theatrical performances known as minstrel shows. One of the most popular forms of entertainment in the 1800s, predating the Civil War by several decades, the minstrel show was a common source of material for early cylinder recordings. By the start of the twentieth century, the minstrel show itself was in deep decline, but remnants of the songs and stock comic routines lived on in early cylinder recordings, representing a snapshot of the racial attitudes of the period, as well as an archeology of the racist attitudes of the previous century if not earlier.