Voice In The Mail: Audio Love Letters Were Hot In The 1930s And '40s

Feb 14, 2018

We're very accustomed to recording and hearing the sound of our own voices, but in the early 20th century, many people were experiencing that for the first time. A surprising Depression-era trend began: People started sending their voices to their family and friends.

These audio letters were small, lightweight records,made in recording booths scattered all across the world and then sent through the postal service.

It was literally voice-mail.

At the height of the craze, there were booths at amusement parks, fairgrounds, military bases, post offices and even bus stops. People would enter a booth, drop a quarter into a slot and talk into a microphone for a minute or so.

While people spoke, the machine would cut a record in real time. A little record would pop out, along with an envelope to mail it in. If you got a record in the mail, you could play it on your home phonograph.

Unsurprisingly, many of these early voicemails were love notes between couples separated by distance.

While many of the names and people who recorded audio letters have been lost to history, some are still preserved in Thomas Levin's Phono Post archive at Princeton University — the world's first collection of audio letters from around the globe. Click the play button above to hear some examples.

This voicemail valentine was produced by Radio Diaries. You can hear more Radio Diaries stories on their podcast.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

These days, we're very accustomed to recording and hearing the sound of our own voices. But in the 1930s and '40s, many people were experiencing that for the first time, and a surprising trend began.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hi, Jenny - thought I'd make another record. That last one sounded pretty good. We're up on the top of the Empire State Building, looking on over the city like a couple of fools from the country.

SHAPIRO: People started sending their voices to their family and friends.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

These audio letters were small, lightweight records made in recording booths scattered all over the world and sent through the mail. It was literally voicemail.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Down here at Salt Lake City, and I come in this booth down here to make a recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Hello, everybody. We're speaking to you from Atlantic City, N.J.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hello, Uncle Bob (ph), Aunt Marianne (ph). This is Betty (ph). I don't know what to say. I'm so nervous.

SHAPIRO: At the height of the craze, there were booths at amusement parks, fairgrounds. They were at military bases and post offices, even bus stops. People would enter a booth, drop a quarter into a slot and talk into a microphone for a minute or so.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Hi. There goes the green light. Start talking, Kitty (ph). Tell the people at home that you're in Hartford. Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I'm bashful. You tell them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: All right. I'll tell them.

KELLY: While people spoke, the machine would cut a record in real time. And right afterwards, a little record would pop out along with an envelope to mail it in. If you got a record in the mail, you could play it on your home phonograph.

SHAPIRO: And many of these early voicemails were about love.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: "Radio Diaries" and the Phono-Post Archive bring us "A Voicemail Valentine."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Hello, honey. This is your husband. Instead of writing, thought I'd let you hear my voice again. And I wish I could be home. I love you very much, and you know it. And that's about all I can say. I'd sing, but I can't sing. Goodbye, and I love you, and I miss you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Jane (ph), honey, I really do love you, and I want to marry you. Wish you wouldn't have me wait until whenever you get out of school. If you'll do it, well, you'll make me the happiest man in the world. Please write more often, will you, Jane?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Hello, darling. I am wearing the beautiful purse that you gave me. The main purpose of this recording is to make you see that I love you and you only. Sayonara, honey - all my love, Grace (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: (Foreign language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LELAND BURROWS: Hello, darling. How's that darling wife of mine today? Still love me? Well, darling, here I am way out here in New York. Someday, yeah, soon I hope we'll both be back together again, and then we can pick up life just where we left off. I am a little nervous, and you know why. Well, darling, you keep that chin up. And always keep in mind that wherever I am, whatever I'm doing night or day, rain or shine (singing) I'll be loving you always with a love that's true always.

KELLY: That's Leland Burrows singing to his wife, Sophia, on a record he recorded in 1945. They were married for 38 years, and they are buried together in the Elmwood Cemetery in Gooding, Idaho.

SHAPIRO: Many of the names of other people who recorded audio letters have been lost to history. These recordings come from Thomas Levin's phono-post archive at Princeton University, which is the world's first collection of audio letters from around the world.

KELLY: Our thanks to William Bollman, who restores the antique voice booths where these letters were recorded. Our "Voicemail Valentine" was produced by Radio Diaries. You can hear an extended version and more stories on the "Radio Diaries" podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BURROWS: (Singing) Not for just a year but always. Well, sweetheart, my time's about up, so I'll say so long for now - until we meet again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALWAYS")

ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) I'll be loving you always with a love that's true always. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.