Here at the WNYC Archives, we’re often handed mysteries – two-sided 16-inch slates with utterly unique silent spiral etchings, scans of reticent catalog cards referring back to them, and the nonce codes and illegible scrawl from 50 – 80 years past written on their custom green and cream WNYC labels. Maybe an insert, if we’re lucky. It’s our job to turn all this into something that people can make use of, by A) digitizing these recordings and making them available in house and online, and B) providing a more accurate and more thorough catalog record for each of the 1 to 121 minute recordings we’ve painstakingly shifted from one type of disc to another. If there’s little in the way of a paper trail and a speaker greets us cold, it can be a bit of a puzzle.
I’d like to invite you to help us solve one of these puzzles. I’ve already taken care of part A. Together we’ll get a start on part B. We’re going to find out just who is speaking, who he or she is speaking to, and what the heck that person is talking about. We’re going to examine the first 45 seconds or so of the recording, bit by bit, phrase by phrase. We’ll start though, with what little written record remains.
This is the OCR’d text from a copy of the original library catalog card:
7967 Conr/urers . _ „
‘ITe^-VTctories for .or.en
1 album 2 s. 1C in. 6/b/su
Dr CRRIBELL t L’-e on the topic “The Con-sumer
IR Vre Future”
Caribbean Conjurers of the future? Probably not. Truth be told it’s a little clearer with the naked eye: As you might have guessed from the title of this blog piece, “Dr CRRIBELL” is “Dr. Campbell.” And “6/b/su” is somehow 6/6/58. Hopefully that gives you some hints, but you can typically tell a lot more from the recording itself, so let’s have a listen. Take your time to reflect on what you’ve heard and we’ll reconvene after each clip.
The future will call for a reappraisal of many of today’s values and attitudes…
Whoa, easy Engels! Let’s ignore for a moment the possibly revolutionary sentiment of the phrase itself and instead concentrate on the more prosodic aspects of this clip – her tone and accent in particular. It’s calm, measured, and undeniably Australian. It’s not the Bahbie-thick Australian of a Dundee Paul Hogan, or Bond-villain Rupert Murdoch, but neither is it the placeless Australian laureate of a Cate Blanchett or Nick Cave. Come to think of it though, maybe there is a mite of R.P. dignity behind it, is there not? Perhaps it was learned in London, or cropped from the affectations of New York’s cultural and intellectual upper crust.
It is clearly a woman speaking, so we should consider the limited number of options available to women in late 1950s New York (and whether they will be reappraised), but we’ll table that for now. Whether her voice is “maternal,” “feminine,” or what-you-will is subjective, but I think there’s an undeniable presbyphonic dip in pitch that comes with age. I’d say she’s somewhere in the 50-65 range.
Some people temper their political opinions as they advance in years. Others don’t. Based on her rather subdued tone I’d suspect that if she is planning an insurrection, it’s more of a Fabian sort than a Marxist one. And her speech can’t have been that revolutionary, it did air on WNYC after all, still at the time closely allied to the municipal government. Nevertheless, it’s quite an introduction, and it hints that the speech with call some of those “values and attitudes” into question.
So we have a well-traveled, if not cosmopolitan, late middle-aged woman, originally from Australia, giving a speech on an as-yet-unknown subject to two audiences: one as-yet-unknown – the assembled crowd (can you hear the “room” reverb?); and a known audience – WNYC listeners (like you!). As sharp as her words are on paper, the edge has been rounded by her age, temperament, and (probably) a learned pragmatism in life and in politics.
…For one thing it will, I believe, be more consumer minded…
I think we were wise to note the tone ahead of content in the first snippet, but let’s reverse the process for this second one.
“For one thing” is the sort of phrase that keeps a speech’s steady pace, but is otherwise basically meaningless. We can safely ignore it. What’s interesting is the use of two phrases which on their own imply something close to certainty – it will…, I believe – now nested to imply doubt, a reasonable acceptance of uncertainty. I think it’s telling. “It will” is pure force; “I believe” tempers it, opens it up. “I believe” becomes at once a hedge, an implicit statement of a belief in autonomy and human agency, and an explicit statement of, well, belief. It’s not the cold, dead conviction one gets from ideologues, for whom it is less a question of belief than of truth or falsehood. For a Marxist, for instance, the coming rise of consumerism would be closer to a certainty – small degrees on history’s established arc, any “belief” to the contrary an easily dispelled example of false consciousness. The same might be said of a rabid capitalist, communism’s uncomfortable obverse. Our speaker seems to be saying “this is what I expect of the future, but I’m not sure. Other people believe other things.” Or as one of my favorite professors was fond of saying, “reasonable people can disagree.”
The topic of the speech is coming into focus, and in just the first 11 seconds. Efficient, she is. Her speech will apparently be about the coming shift to a more consumer-minded future. Whether this is good, bad, bad-then-good, good-then-bad, or vanilla-bean-neutral is yet to be seen. She strikes me as someone who will leave such value judgments to the side though, tacit, if anything.
Pausing to take stock, we can feel more confident in her pragmatism and we know that the speech will have an economic focus, on a coming consumer culture. We also can be confident that her beliefs, while strong, are not set in stone, and are open to light of evidence.
…and this is the aspect of the future which I have been asked to talk to you about today…
I think it’s time to mention briefly the limitations placed on women with professional aspirations in late-1950s America. There isn’t space to elaborate here, other than to say they were often severe, unfair and unfortunate, and as much as she pushed hard to get where she is at the time of this record – a “Dr.” – those limitations undoubtedly pushed back. From this clip we can tell that she is enough of an authority on the subject of consumerism to be asked to speak about it by a person or persons for whom the traditional definition of the word “authority” might be a more literal fit – a man or men in a position of power in the municipal or state government, or a university, less likely a businessman. There is of course a chance that one of the prominent women’s groups of the time – League of Women Voters, Women’s City Club, etc. – or perhaps an Eleanor Roosevelt, noted consumer advocate, might have brought our speaker in, but I wonder how often they drew crowds as obviously captive as this crowd seems to be. I’d suspect not as often.
So we now know that our speaker is likely a trained specialist in the topic of consumerism, a Ph.D holding economist, speaking at the behest of powers that be to a group likely not there to see her specifically, more likely required to listen to her speech for their edification.
…As homemakers you will be responsible for spending a large part of the family income…
Disappointment. In two senses.
Most obviously in the fact that the values and attitudes to be reappraised do not involve greater opportunities for women. But it’s a retrospective disappointment, and maybe we’re reading too much into it – she is speaking at the behest of others, which probably constrains her rhetorical options. You can’t blame her for having missed the social and economic advances made by women as they have transpired in the present day, but you can’t help but wish she hadn’t, especially for the benefit of her in-person audience – young women, probably college aged. Perhaps our speaker, reflecting on her own difficult path to achievement, likely met with that time’s biases and aggressive sexism, was reasonably pessimistic. It’s hard to say.
The other disappointment – for the archivist, the listener, the detective – is that as the mystery is revealed, the narrative is constrained – the listener’s inherent interest in the subject starts to matter more and more, the story less and less. Sure, anything could happen, but we can’t deny that some things are more likely than others – particularly in a prepared speech, as opposed to, say, a debate, a talk radio tête–à–tête, or even a Q&A sesh. Each new word, new phrase, new paragraph reveals progressively less new information. Authors have written of chasing the “incipit” for a book’s length, where no word … is [in]significant. Can a speech, especially one as muted as this, be expected to do the same? It is asking a lot. Still, for those on the hunt for information on the role of women in an incipient consumer society in 1950s New York, this will probably be a veritable gold mine.
From this snippet we can tell our speaker, in spite of having opened up a challenge to the era’s values and attitudes, has actually retained a few in her prediction. Though she’s unwittingly missed a prime target, it’s unclear just how wide of the mark she is in general. I think it’s reasonable to agree that she is at least partially correct in seeing a rise in consumerism, even if she isn’t as prescient about the socioeconomic place of women in the future.
…some of which, of course, you may earn yourself…
Again a hedge, this time against the implicit assumption that the assembled women’s primary economic role will be “homemaker.” In fact it could be read as code, though that might be generous. But I’d imagine some members of her audience read it as exactly that, while others let it slip right through. It is a mistake to imagine passive listeners and I think it’s important to recall that the audience isn’t us. It isn’t even 1958 WNYC listeners, though many undoubtedly heard it. It’s a group of young women, probably navigating their first few years of adulthood in 1950s New York. A prediction in this atmosphere isn’t really a pure prediction, it can also be a call to action, an invitation for these women to reflect on their agency in creating their own future. From that perspective, her accuracy or lack-thereof is beside the point.
In this section we can reaffirm her faith in agency and her faith in her audience, even if one does get the sense she still has a point to make about the homemaker’s role in the coming consumer society…
…How are you going to carry out this spending function? How are you going to behave as consumers? Your actions will affect the future not only of your family, but of society as a whole. Remember that in spending money you are exercising power.
…And there it is. Our late middle-aged female Australian economist is speaking in front of a group of young women, asking them, in so many words, to reflect on their place as homemakers (and maybe more) in a society in which the way money is spent on consumer goods will grant them a power not wholly appreciated in 1950s America. The rest of the speech will elaborate on this theme.
I think at this point there is more than enough information to start trawling the web. Using a popular search engine (and a depersonalizing “&pws=0” tag), a search of “consumer economists New York 1958 Australian” yields this excellent capsule biography as 2nd result on the 2nd page. It would have been first if we’d added the name “Campbell,” which we knew from the catalog card, but where’s the fun in that? It is through this short bio that we can test our interpretations, and you can move on to listen to the rest of the recording, while I dutifully complete our catalog entry of this speech on “the Consumer in the Future” by the Australian-American economist, professor, and civil servant, Persia Campbell.
Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.
WNYC archives id: 150239
Municipal archives id: LT7967