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Sounds of the Office

History and culture in sound

When defining the term "Folkways" Moses Asch said simply: "Anything that is sound." In the spirit of Asch's assessment, one of the most essential, yet least known component of the Folkways collections are recordings made not of music or even speech, but of everyday sounds.

Recorded by Michael Seigel in 1964, Sounds of the Office uses the sounds of daily, mundane office activities to document the adolescense of American corporate culture. The album follows an office worker through their ordinary day, beginning with the punching of the time clock and a coffee break orchestrated by stove tops, glass jars, and tea kettles.

Some of these sounds, like the shuffling of papers and stuffing of envelopes, are still with us. Others, like the rolling paper of an electric typewriter, changing ledgers of a bookkeeping machine, or loading plates of an addressograph, seem foreign because we no longer hear them. The true beauty of this recording is in re-hearing or hearing anew sounds that have gone unheard and remembering everyday American experiences that have so nearly been forgotten. This recording proves that sound is a powerful medium through which to document history and culture.

What are the sounds of today's office? The hum of your computer's fan? A cell phone ringing? A paper shredder? What do these new sounds say about the evolution of corporate culture? The soundscape of our everyday lives is continuously changing, and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is here to capture it.