Menace or Miracle? Recorded Music in the Late 19th Century

by Elisabeth Graham

Music, like many art forms, changes as the technology used to create and share it changes. Before the late 19th century, one could only consume music through live performances in the theater or through private performances at home. As the century drew to a close, the way people consumed music altered dramatically. Scientific innovations throughout this period brought a new interest in sound recording technology, and inevitably, the phonograph was born. The dawn of the phonograph marks the tensions between technology and the arts at the end of the 19th century.

Thomas Edison is accredited with creating the first phonograph in 1877, but he never intended for the machine to record music. As the burgeoning telephone made its way into the world, Edison attempted to create a machine that could better store recordings. Edison also longed to create a better device for recording these sounds (Laing 3). The late 19th century is well known for its advances in science and technology, and the creation of the phonograph is no exception. However, consumers proved to be skeptical about this machine from the beginning. Below, you can listen to “Around the World on the Phonograph,” one of the earliest recordings of Edison’s voice on the phonograph; after hearing it, there’s no wonder why Edison’s contemporaries remarked, “It sounds more like the devil every time” after hearing it (Laing 4).


This image, courtesy of Rutgers University, shows Edison with his phonograph. Click here to access one of Edison’s earliest recordings on a wax cylinder.


Since Edison never intended for the phonograph to become a device for recorded music, how did this happen? Edison was not the only inventor on the sound recording scene; Emile Berliner — a German-born American inventor — saw the issues with Edison’s method of sound recording. Edison used wax cylinders to record sound, and this accounted for a very quiet playback volume and poor storage opportunities. Berliner created zinc disks and an alternative “gramophone” that allowed for a greater dynamic range — how loud or soft music gets — in recordings (Smart 426). Berliner’s disks were also much easier to reproduce, and so commercially reproducing music became a streamlined process rooted in the entertainment industry along (Morton 19). This reveals how music became a phenomenally successful musical endeavor.

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Frederick Strothmann’s accompanying illustrations in Sousa’s article all showcase ridiculous circumstances that arise from recorded music. Here, a young child marvels at an older man playing the piano “with his hands.” This reveals artist’s anxieties of younger generations losing the ability and drive to learn more about music.

As music became a more prevalent part of sound recording and sound consumption, artists quickly went on the defense to protect their craft. By 1896, Edison’s phonograph and Berliner’s gramophone became available — and affordable — for everyday Americans. Towards the beginning of the 20th century, this machine became an ordinary piece of technology in American homes (Thompson 138). But this did not thrill everyone. John Phillip Sousa, acclaimed American composer, wrote an article entitled “The Menace of Mechanical Music.” Throughout the essay, Sousa highlights the myriad ways that recorded music will devastate the craft. Sousa writes:

Right here is the menace in machine-made music! . . . The child becomes indifferent to practice, for when music can be heard in the homes without the labor of study and close application, and without the slow process of acquiring a [technique], it will be simply a question of time when the amateur disappears entirely, and with him a host of vocal and instrumental teachers, who will be without field or calling. (Sousa 280)

Sousa’s critique of “machine-made music” strikes at the conflict between technology and the arts. If technology’s key purpose is to make life easier, then that could make the laborious process of learning music largely irrelevant. This indicates 19th century attitudes towards change; it also reveals the anxiety over losing sight of humanity and the arts as technology gains momentum in popular culture.

Overall, the dawn of recorded music represents how the 19th century is witness to some of the first mixings of technology and the arts. While the recorded music allowed for more people to enjoy music at their own will and leisure, it also uprooted concerns about what this revolution meant for the future of music. From a 21st century vantage point, it is easy to say that recorded music allowed the music industry to persist and grow in unexpected and marvelous ways. Recorded music allowed for the creation of an extensive network of songwriters, but without it, who is to say what could have happened.

Works Cited

Edison, Thomas A. Around the World on the Phonograph. Edison yellow paraffine cylinder. Performed by Thomas Edison. 1888. West Orange. Recording. Retrieved from

Laing, Dave. “A Voice without a Face: Popular Music and the Phonograph in the 1890s.” Popular Music 10, no. 1 (1991): 1-9.

Morton, David. Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Smart, James R. “Emile Berliner and Nineteenth-Century Disc Recordings.” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 37, no. 3/4 (1980): 422-40. http://www.jstor.orgstable/29781870.

Sousa, John Phillip. “The Menace of Mechanical Music.” Appleton’s Magazine 8, no.1-6 (1906): 
278-284. Accessed December 13, 2017.;view=1up;seq=308.

Strothmann, Frederick. “There is a man in there playing the piano with his hands!” Illustration. 1906. New York.

Thompson, Emily. “Machines, Music, and the Quest for Fidelity: Marketing the Edison Phonograph in America, 1877-1925.” The Musical Quarterly 79, no. 1 (1995): 131-71.

Learning and Growing Past the Civil War

by Elisabeth Graham

Looking back at the events in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 13, 2017, all I can feel is hurt. Like a vice grip around my ventricles and a fist in my gut, the feeling is so visceral and raw. I remember thinking: I don’t understand how this could happen, I don’t know how people could be so cruel, I don’t know why we’re making so much fuss over a statue.

Frankly, that doesn’t matter. My thoughts and feelings as a privileged white woman do not matter. What matters is how I can take those feelings, use them to educate myself, and generate positive change.

The Civil War persists in our national memory as if it were a scab that keeps getting picked at. Its effects are lasting, and that is not for nothing. Over the course of 4 years, we lost 2% of our entire population (Faust 266). While our nation may still be reeling from the abysmal amount of loss, we have to reach a point where we stop licking at our wounds and pointing fingers at each other. We have to find a better way to reach a point of understanding. One of the best ways we can do that is through education, and the only way we can educate the masses on the realities of the Civil War is with the help of state and local governments.

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One of the flags with the medallion commemorating a Civil War soldier in Elmwood Cemetery. These medallions and flags serve to honor those who may have been forgotten for their service. Illustration by Elisabeth Graham

In the wake of the war, the United States government made it paramount to chronicle losses and assist the veterans and families who suffered. Since 1862 and throughout the rest of the 19th century, families of the dead and survivors applied for pension benefits via the federal government (Faust 255). Here, it becomes evident that there could never be a future where the government remained separate from its citizens lives. While this can be seen as a point of contention, it should not be. If anything, this system of government taking care of its citizens should be celebrated by the people.

This relationship between the government and its people is further evidenced in the data generated after the war. In This Republic of Suffering, Drew Faust catalogues the methods that Americans used to number the soldiers lost throughout the war. Faust writes, “Americans counted in order to define . . . shared national loss that transcended individual bereavements. They counted to establish the dimensions of the war’s sacrifice and . . . national unity” (Faust 260). This is precisely what I want to highlight: the dimensions that exist behind shared national losses. There is no master narrative behind the Civil War, there is no singular story to tell. However, that should not inhibit us from seeking ways to productively tell those stories. It should inspire us to find innovative ways to do so; we can honor the dead and still educate the living.

If the events at Charlottesville reveal that we cannot tear down Confederate monuments and memorials, then maybe we can give them context. Countless white Americans incensed by the removal of these monuments, calling it “erasing history.” Countless black Americans feel oppressed by their inherent meaning. These monuments without context are meant to glorify a national tragedy, and they are meant to send a message: if you did not side with the Confederacy, you are not welcome here. So how do we reach better points of understanding?

If there is any model for governments (at any level!) to sponsor beneficial education, consider Elmwood Cemetery in New Brunswick, New Jersey. This site proves that not all learning happens in a classroom. By integrating historic tours with the cemetery’s Civil War history, Elmwood provides an experience meant to educate and bring a more complex understanding to the people fighting the wars. Elmwood also provides a space for younger generations to participate in education. An Eagle Scout project featured at the cemetery allowed a young man to map and identify every single veteran buried at Elmwood and mark their graves with a flag and a medallion. Through his research, he found out that some of the Civil War veterans buried at Elmwood had no grave markers at all because they could not afford them. This project allowed the young man and all future visitors of Elmwood to learn about their stories. Furthermore, this project could not have been possible without donations of the flags and medallions via the veterans organizations, and it displays a positive way that the government can assist the continued education of its people, even in seemingly small ways.

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Elmwood Cemetery is part of the “Rural” Cemetery Movement. This encouraged better public health in urban cities and also allows quiet spaces to reflect on the death of loved ones. Illustration by Elisabeth Graham

This is all said at the risk of sounding idealistic, and there is no way that this process can be easy. As Faust puts it, the Civil War caused a “crisis of knowledge and understanding” (Faust 267) that soldiers on today. Contemporary families still feel the generational trauma of losing loved ones; however, that does not permit blindness to the root causes of the Civil War. It is up to us — whether you are a student, a teacher, a lawmaker, a citizen — to take a good, hard look at history and then make a decision. Will you choose to find ways to educate yourselves and others? Will you encourage your local, state, and federal governments to aide programs that encourage learning, growth and development? Or will you stew in your feelings and choose not to act? Believe in your own power to learn, grow, and make change.


Works Cited 

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Elmwood Cemetery Tour on November 8, 2017.

Mother of Who? Not Them. Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” and the Reality of 19th Century Immigration

by Elisabeth Graham

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“Emigrant Arrival at Constitution Wharf, Boston, from Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, October 31, 1857” – This wood engraving on paper perfectly captures the mixed sentiments towards immigrant peoples at this time period. At first glance, these immigrants could seem violent and angry. They are drawn with distorted, dark features . However, taking a closer look, it becomes apparent that this is a family being reunited after a long period of time. This reveals the combination of admiration and fear felt towards immigrant peoples at this time.

When asked to write a poem for the installation Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus replied that she didn’t write “to order” (Mettler). Yet out of her begrudging attitude came one of the most celebrated and quoted American poems of all time: “The New Colossus.” By examining “The New Colossus” against actual immigration policy and American attitudes towards immigration as well as the poem’s poetic form, it becomes apparent that the emerging American cultural voice is rife with discourse and contradiction.

While “The New Colossus” is an American poem, it does not have its roots in any American literary tradition; Lazarus builds upon traditional European form and content to craft this seminal American poem. Using the Petrarchan sonnet form (categorized by the rhyme scheme “abba abba cdcdcd”) Lazarus is playing upon a poetic tradition that can be traced all the way back to the 14th century. To place modern subject matter in a classic form is to question the temporality of the monument. This is most prominent in the last 6 lines of the poem, particularly these 3 lines: 

‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’

This line of the poem specifically places Lady Liberty in a time beyond the classical era while still calling back to it. Furthermore, the subject matter Lazarus has chosen works to build a new American voice while still holding onto classic texts. Lazarus asserts that this new colossus is different from the Greek giants of yore; she gives this colossus the following title:

By attributing maternal and feminine characteristics to this monument, Lazarus feminizes an otherwise masculine concept of a colossus. The choice to place these contrasting ideals in conversation with one another reveals another way that the American literary tradition begins with a sense of cultural insecurity. Unsure of how to create a new American identity, writers like Lazarus instead choose to fall back on classical material and show the ways that new literature builds upon and changes the medium.

However, it is not just the form that informs the tone of this poem; the content juxtaposed with its social context also contributes to a richer understanding of Lazarus’ text.

First, it is integral to understand Lazarus’ own social position as an upper-class, Jewish-American woman in the late 19th Century. In his article, “Emma Lazarus and the Golem of Liberty,” Max Cavitch identifies Lazarus as a Zionist, revealing the contradiction of Lazarus’ poem acting as a call to welcome refugees and the “tired, poor, huddled masses.” While the Statue of Liberty is meant to welcome citizens to America, Lazarus believed that there should be a separate space where Jewish citizens could live freely. Cavitch also writes, “Incidences of anti-Semitism were already on the rise in the US, and many assimilated American Jews of Sephardic and German descent feared the new visibility their eastern European cousins would presumably confer upon them” (Cavitch 9-10). This fear that Cavitch highlights is in direct conflict with the message Lazarus is sending in her poem. While Lazarus may not have subscribed to this fear of the Jewish immigrant, it is important to consider this as part of the debate surrounding the monument at the time.

On a similar level, not all immigrants were welcome on America’s shorelines; Lazarus welcomes the “wretched refuse” of other countries in her poem, but American immigration policy made it possible to turn away people with disabilities. Just one year before Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus,” the Act of 1882 barred those considered to be a “lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge” (Baynton 33). This first piece of immigration law reveals the myriad ways that xenophobia has become a cornerstone for American attitudes on immigration policy. Douglas Baynton writes that “visibly different people as well as those whose ethnic appearance was abnormal to the inspectors were more likely to be set apart for close examination, and therefore more likely to have other problems discovered and to be excluded” (Baynton 37). This is a far cry from Lazarus’ description of the tired, poor, and huddled masses being allowed into the golden door of America. Picturing these people coming to America and hoping for new beginnings in a new world only to be turned away from the get-go is a heart breaking inconsistency in the American cannon.

This begs the question: was the Statue of Liberty truly the mother of exiles, or was she merely an empty promise to those on the brink of being exiled once more? Emma Lazarus no doubt hoped for a better world for the newcomers to America, but the realities of the time are riddled with a much different story.


Baynton, Douglass C. “Defectives in the Land: Disability and American Immigration Policy, 1882-1924.” Journal of American Ethnic History 24, No. 3 (2005). pp. 31-44

Cavitch, Max. “Emma Lazarus and the Golem of Liberty.” American Literary History 18, no. 1 (2006). pp. 1-28

Homer, Winslow. “Emigrant Arrival at Constitution Wharf, Boston, from Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, October 31, 1857.” Wood engraving on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed November 7, 2017. 

Lazarus, Emma. “The New Colossus.” (1883).

Mettler, Katie. “‘Give me your tired, your poor’: The story of poet and refugee advocate Emma Lazarus.” Washington Post. Last modified February 1, 2017.


Virtuosity and the Freedom of Black Women

by Elisabeth Graham

A common thread that weaves through slave narratives in the 19th century is the idea of exceptionalism. It is not enough for an enslaved person to be freed because they are a person, apparently. No, it would seem that it is more incredulous that a free person has ever been enslaved because they are a person of exceptional wit or grace. White authors are time and time again relaying their shock and bewilderment at the eloquence and resilience of slaves in  their narratives.

For black women in this time period, there is a similar story. Within the narratives written by or about freed black women, there is a common theme: an emphasis on virtue. The stories in this collection emphasize black women’s piety as a key component in asserting their right to freedom.

In exploring the biographies of freed black women, I found dozens of narratives written by white women. In these narratives, these religious white women time and time again highlight the inherent virtue of black women. Abigail Mott — a white, Quaker woman — wrote and published a book entitled Narratives of Colored Americans. The introduction to this collection insists that the stories will, “prove acceptable reading to our Colored Americans” (Mott verso). Mott’s book is arranged by narratives — small, bite-sized parables — that “Colored Americans” can learn from and enjoy. Each of the narratives emphasizes the goodness and virtue of freed black Americans so that others might learn by example. Choosing to underscore the piety and goodness of these black Americans reveals Mott’s true desire as an abolitionist. 

The first story Mott writes showcases the exceptional good will and virtue of Phillis Wheatley — a young slave woman who became one of the most celebrated poets in early America. Mott writes, “ Phillis never departed from [being] humble and unassuming . . .  She respected the prejudice against her color, and, when invited to the tables of the great or wealthy, she chose a place apart for herself, that none might be offended at a thing so unusual as sitting at table with a woman of color” (6). This excerpt highlights Wheatley’s meekness — a virtue reserved typically for white women. In displaying a deeper understanding and “respect for her prejudice,” Wheatley proves that black women are more than capable of knowing their place. Following this description of Wheatley, Mott chooses to highlight a few of Wheatley’s poems. Mott writes this of Wheatley’s poetry: “Most of her poetry has a religious or moral bearing; all breathes a soft and sentimental feeling” (7). By focusing on Wheatley’s piety in her poetry and then calling it “soft and sentimental,” Mott wants the reader to believe in Wheatley’s inherent virtue and capability for delicacy.

When I say, “inherent virtue,” I am calling upon a common theme during this time period. This is the idea that black Americans are naturals when it comes to being good Christians. In “Blackface and Blackness: The Minstrel Show in American Culture,” Eric Lott discusses this phenomenon. Lott writes, “Slavery was evil . . . because it destroyed the great good nature, the blithe innocence, and above all the family structure of, in Methodist Bishop Gilbert Haven’s words, “the choice blood of America.” Blacks, it came to be argued, were not only exemplars of virtue but natural Christians” (33). In this argument, Mott’s description of Wheatley gains clarity. Slavery is not becoming for a woman of Wheatley’s character. Wheatley is allowed to be free because her status as a slave tarnishes her innate innocence and talent compared to her white masters.

Religion and virtue are also impressed upon the autobiographical narratives of freed black women like Amanda Smith. As a freed black missionary, Smith relays her first religious experience in the church. In this story, she highlights Miss Mary Bloser, a white woman of the Church. Smith writes, “One night as [Miss Bloser] was speaking to persons in the congregation, she came to me, a poor colored girl sitting away back by the door, and with entreaties and tears, which I really felt, she asked me to go forward. I was the only colored girl there, but I went. She knelt beside me with her arm around me and prayed for me . . . I seemed to be so light. In my heart was peace, but I did not know how to exercise faith as I should” (28). First, Smith’s presence as the “only colored girl” in attendance shows how this group of religious white people believed that she belonged to the group of “natural Christians.” Smith had never attended a church service before, and her presence at this church service is just the beginning of a young woman who was born into slavery coming into the light and being saved by God. By taking this innocent young black woman into the church, they can further protect that piety and innocence and nurture it to be their own.

Both Phillis Wheatley and Amanda Smith, born nearly 90 years apart, share a common part of their story: their freedom is qualified by white Americans who believe in their capability to be religious, black Americans. Supporting Wheatley and Smith is a safe bet, compared to other more radical black Americans. These black women represent a future America where the black population can be safely assimilated into the idea of what it means to be a white, Christian American. Without their dedication to lead pious lives, it is unclear whether or not we would ever know their stories.