Ambient noise is almost always all around us. Right now where I’m sitting I can hear the constant hum of a very loud refrigerator and the footsteps of people walking on the floor above me. That also exists when you go outside as well. If you walk outdoors onto any street in New York City your ears will not be greeted with silence. You will hear the background noise of cars, trucks, and buses operating. You will hear the chatter of people walking on the sidewalks even though you will almost instantly forget the words that were spoken. This is all background noise, the sound that emanates from a city merely existing.
What we don’t often realize is that the ambient noise we hear when we step outside has changed dramatically over time. Hundreds of years ago New York City existed in a world without a combustion engine where the quickest and most reliable forms of land transportation were all horse-powered. What New York sounded like then we don’t exactly know because Thomas Edison hadn’t invented the phonograph yet. However, thanks to the work of historian Emily Thompson we do know what the ambient sound of New York City existing was in the 1920s. Her project has collected as many sound recordings from that era as she could from the twenties and thirties and reconstruct what the ambient soundscape likely would have been. It’s a really cool project from a time when New York City was finally starting to resemble what it is today.
Now we know what that sounds like.