Microphones and Radios: How the Public Heard President Harding
Posted May 23, 2022
Topics: Presidents & PoliticsArchives & LibraryMuseum Collections

By Eric Feingold and Wendy Korwin, Curators

We know what modern American presidents sound like. Their voices, accents and cadences are as distinct as the leaders themselves, and they echo in our collective memory years after leaving office. If you close your eyes and recall your least favorite recent president, you can probably conjure his voice as quickly and vividly as his face.

This wasn’t always the case. Well into the 20th century, newspapers remained the primary vehicles for sharing a president’s words directly with the public. Readers had to imagine how their elected leaders sounded.

 

Ohioan Rutherford B. Hayes was likely the first U.S. president to have his voice recorded, but evidence of that capture has been lost. Benjamin Harrison’s address at the 1889 Pan-American Congress is the earliest example of recorded presidential speech that remains accessible today – not just the words themselves, but the way he said them – because it was physically registered onto an Edison wax cylinder (hear it here).

Historically, then, most Americans could not expect to hear their leaders. This would change with Warren G. Harding. President Harding, whose papers and photographs are preserved at the Ohio History Connection, spent less than 30 months in office, from March 1921 until his death in August 1923. Yet his abridged political career spanned several key developments in audio communication. Harding was the first president to deliver an amplified inaugural address, the first to have a radio set installed in the White House, and the first to speak on the radio. His voice introduced many Americans to the very idea of being able to hear their president.

Below, explore how Americans heard Warren G. Harding through recordings, loudspeakers, and the radio.

Sources

“30,000 on One Line,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, September 9, 1920, p. 1: https://newspapers.mnhs.org/jsp/PsImageViewer.jsp?doc_id=addabf07-f848-43e3-a488-2782562f220d%2Fmnhi0005%2F1DFC5G5C%2F20090901

The Concise Encyclopedia of American Radio, eds. Cary O'Dell and Christopher H. Sterling (New York, Taylor & Francis), 2010.

Douglas B. Craig, Fireside Politics: Radio and Political Culture in the United States, 1920-1940 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2000.

“Harding on State ‘Front Porch’ Today,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, September 8, 1920, p. 1: https://newspapers.mnhs.org/jsp/PsImageViewer.jsp?doc_id=addabf07-f848-43e3-a488-2782562f220d%2Fmnhi0005%2F1DFC5G5C%2F20090801

Susan J. Douglas, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination (New York: Random House), 1999.

"President Enthusiastic Radio Fan ‘Listens-In’ Almost Daily,” Telephony, April 8, 1922, p.23: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiug.30112101741210&view=1up&seq=387

“President Harding is Heard,” The Mountain States Monitor, 1921, p.28-30: rb.gy/ptxm7g.

Jerry L. Wallace, Calvin Coolidge: Our First Radio President (Plymouth Notch, VT: The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation), 2008: https://coolidgefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/CCBOOKOur-First-Radio-PresidentPrint-Copy-July-2008-PDF.pdf 

Jerry L. Wallace, "First Presidential Radio Broadcast," Harding Presidential Sites blog: https://hardingpresidentialsites.org/2022/05/29/first-presidential-radio-broadcast-marks-100-year-anniversary

 

Audio Collections

Famous Presidential Speeches, The Miller Center

Nation's Forum Collection, Library of Congress

Vincent Voice Library, Michigan State University

Warren G. Harding audio collection, AV 42, Ohio History Connection

Warren G. Harding presidential speeches, Library of Congress

 

This post was created with grant support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

 

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