“And It Sure Sounds Like Your Voice!” (Home Recordo ad, 1940)
Back in the Sixties, I owned a little reel-to-reel tape recorder (it was probably the cheapest consumer-grade device, with 3-inch tape reels) and utilised it to record television shows (holding up the tiny microphone to the TV speaker, naturally) and such. I still have a box of those tapes somewhere, certainly, although the recorder is long, long gone to the gadget graveyard. Afterwards, I upgraded to a cassette recorder, and I suppose if I had a smartphone (which I don’t—I do have a Flip camera, which records sound as well as video) I could use that to record things occurring in real life (electronic media gets recorded differently these days, clearly).
But what did people do to preserve their voices and other sounds prior to the 1960s, you might ask? Before digital media, before the different permutations of magnetic-tape recorders, there were “wire” recorders (for portable use, albeit not truly consumer-oriented), but professional voice and music recording was done on phonograph records (acetate disks, to be more precise). This required equipment to literally “cut” (make the grooves in) the master disk, which was then mass-copied.
Home recording devices began to be sold in the early 1930s, although these were rather expensive and were single-use (i.e., unlike reusable magnetic tape on reels or cassettes or current digital media, once you made it a record it was done and if you made a mistake you had to start over with a new “blank”). In 1939, the Wilcox-Gay company began to market their “Recordio” devices, which were more affordable and produced reasonably good audio results. Some units even had built-in radios which allowed for the recording of broadcasts. In later years, Wilcox-Gay upgraded the device to use magnetic tape for the recording, and the machine then produced a “hard copy” phono-record (which could be used as a demo for songwriters and musicians to send out, for instance).
[There were also arcade recording “booths”—the Voice-O-Graph system, notably—which were analogous to the photo-booth concept, except instead of a strip of photos you’d get a vinyl recording of your voice. These can be seen in pop culture—especially films—of the 1940s and beyond, often showing servicemen making audio messages for Mom or My Best Girl, or aspiring performers “auditioning” (Inside Daisy Clover, Badlands).]
However, even the early, basic Wilcox-Gay units were still not cheap (the company advertised in major “slick” magazines, which indicates they were pitching the device to middle-class consumers), and it appears that by 1940 a knock-off version—called the “Recordo” (not “Recordio”)—became available. Advertised in a lower class of publications and thus presumably aimed at a less-affluent audience, the Home Recordo was extremely cheap—$2.98! (How could they do it? Read on!) Although there is a significant amount of information on the Web about Wilcox-Gay’s “Recordio” system, very little is available about “Recordo” or the distributor (and manufacturer?), the Home Recording Company at 11 West 17th Street, New York, NY.
I’ve found 4 different Home Recordo advertisements, all from 1940. Three of them appeared in comic books (including Batman #1!) and the fourth was printed in at least two small daily newspapers, the “Republic Advertiser” (Republic, Kansas) and the “Boyden Reporter” (Boyden, Iowa). This suggests there was a big sales push from the company around this time. [I also discovered an eBay auction selling a complete, unused Home Recordo unit (amusingly, the seller mis-dated it, claiming it was from the “early 1900s”) for just under a thousand bucks, about 333 times its original price.]
The content of all four print ads is mostly the same, and all four contain the cartoon in which Bob is congratulated for his perspicacious purchase of the device by two lady friends. One of the adverts, however, features a testimonial for the device from band leader Charlie Barnet (leader of a well-regarded, musically ambitious big band of the era). Barnet was a New York native so perhaps he knew someone who knew someone (it’s even vaguely possible he was an investor in the Home Recording Company, since he came from a wealthy family and didn’t need his band money to live on). Most of the home disk-recording devices touted their usefulness for recording music, but it’s still a little surprising to see an actual, contemporary musical celebrity endorsing what must have been a fairly low-end product.
The specific advertisement I selected for our detailed deconstruction features the Bob-cartoon more prominently and the reproduction quality is better than the others ((it was also the first Home Recordo ad I discovered). I don’t remember which comic this came from, however, but I’m fairly certain it was a 1940 issue (the same ad appears in Miracle Comics #1, February 1940 but that’s not the source of this illustration). So, let’s examine it more closely, shall we?
The basic ad layout is fairly utilitarian, with grey-tone art and 5 blocks of pink text (or white letters on a pink block) to spruce it up (something the newspaper version didn’t have). I have to say, however, that the headline—“MAKE YOUR OWN RECORDS AT HOME”—is not only slightly “buried” by appearing in the middle of the page, but that the text pales in comparison with one of the other Home Recordo ads, which splashes “NOW! HEAR YOUR OWN VOICE!” across the top of the page (while retaining the “MAKE YOUR OWN RECORDS AT HOME” in the same, mid-page position). The newspaper and “Charlie Barnet” versions both move the “MAKE YOUR OWN RECORDS AT HOME” to the top of the advertisement.
Instead, “our” version places the rather weak statement “You Can Make Your Own Records if You Sing or Play an Instrument” in the upper left-hand corner, and not even in ALL CAPS! Who’d bother to read that? Not to mention the seemingly exclusionary nature of the text itself: what if I don’t sing or play an instrument? What if I want to do dramatic poetry readings? Or political speeches? Or comedic monologues? Am I not allowed to make my own records? What do you have against the spoken word, Home Recording Co.?
Actually, immediately underneath this discriminatory headline, the text does say “you can make a professional-like [ha!] recording of your singing, talking, reciting or instrument playing right in your own home too!” [Apparently the printer charged extra for punctuation marks so this ad simply omits about half of them.] At the bottom of the page the potential buyer is informed that the device is “suitable for recording a skit, voice, instrument or radio broadcast,” which reinforces the many-splendoured uses of Home Recordo. Whoever wrote that initial statement should be fired! You’re scaring away customers!
The ad copy contains some vague and seemingly contradictory statements about the actual nature of the device being sold for $2.98 (which seems awfully low, even for a standard phonograph player of that era, let alone a recording device). “No other mechanical or electrical devices needed” is pretty straight-forward, isn’t it? “Everything is included. Nothing else to buy and nothing else to pay.” The buyer receives various pieces of equipment and supplies, including a “combination recording and playback unit.” That couldn’t be any clearer, could it?
Then why, pray tell, does the text also state “Operates on any A.C. or D.C. electric phonographs [,] record players[,] radio-phono combinations[,] hand-winding phonographs and portables?” Note that the wording is “Operates on” not “Plays on,” since the latter would (logically) refer to the records you made. The text also states “Just sing, speak or play and HOME RECORDO unit, which operates on any electric or hand-winding type phonograph, will do the recording on special blank records we furnish.” [emphasis mine] This certainly suggests Home Recordo is some sort of add-on device that you attach to your own phonograph, doesn’t it? But, but…doesn’t it say “no other mechanical or electrical devices needed?”
Fortunately, the aforementioned eBay auction clears up the mystery and exposes the “secret” of how Home Recordo could be sold for about a tenth of the cheapest “Recordio” devices. To wit: Home Recordo was an add-on which attaches to your own phonograph. I guess “nothing else to buy” assumes everyone already had a home phonograph, so technically you wouldn’t have to buy one to utilise Home Recordo. The “combination recording and playback unit?” It appears to be a horn-shaped device which serves as a microphone (and, possibly, speaker).
Despite the blatantly misleading ad copy, it seems Home Recordo worked, more or less, although almost certainly not as well as the more expensive recording devices of the era. You could record your voice (or, as the art suggests, your clarinet, violin, or drum playing), and honestly, for $2.98 (plus postage, on arrival), what more could you ask for? [I’ll bet some customers were disillusioned, though, since the ads—in addition to the deliberately confusing text quoted above—all depict a phonograph-like machine, implying that you’re buying something similar. The “Charlie Barnet” version has 4 photographs showing the horn attached to a phonograph, again with the implication that you’re going to get the whole shebang in a box from the nice folks at Home Recording Co.]
In addition to the amusing Bob cartoon (to be discussed, soon), there are 3 small pieces of art which reinforce the musical bias of the ad copy: tuxedo-clad white men play the clarinet and drums, respectively (note the cowbells in the bottom illustration, demonstrating the musician’s versatility and indicating he’s not some kind of musical snob), and a young woman plays the violin, proving the Home Recordo is not just for those horrid jazz musicians. These same bits of art appear on 2 of the other ads, but are bumped in favour of actual photos in the Charlie Barnet layout.
What drew my attention to this advertisement in the first place was the rather laughable main cartoon in which Bob proudly shows off his Home Recordo (this was the 1940 version of an iPhone, I guess—men and their tech toys, amirite?). The art is competent enough, although the gray “wash” added to the black-and-white drawing makes it appear Bob and his two friends are blushing furiously (the musicians in the smaller drawings also have huge rouge spots on their cheeks) . The crude lettering—the words in Bob’s balloon aren’t even the same size!—gives this a charming, home-made feel, as if the ad agency boss handed it to his eight-year-old son and said “Here, you put in the words!”
Bob says: “Think of it! I just made this record with the new Home Recordo!” We know, Bob, we’re standing right here. His lady friend on the right isn’t very confident in her mechanical abilities, but she recognises that the “wonderful” Recordo is “so simple—please let me make a record.” Why sure, Susy, it’s so simple even you can use it! Girlfriend #2 cryptically says “Yes Bob” (in response to what, I don’t know) and adds “it sure sounds like your voice!” (even though the artwork clearly shows musical notes wafting from the phonograph’s speaker—to be fair, maybe Bob was singing on the record). Why, this must be one of those “Recording Parties” referred to in the ad copy below, where people sit around and take turns making phonograph records so that everyone can listen to what they just heard them say or sing. Wow! Sure beats those pot parties and orgies I went to in the Sixties! [Disclaimer: author never attended a pot party or an orgy in the Sixties.]
The ad text is filled with bizarre non-sequiturs (and the font size is weirdly variable). “No longer need the high price of recording machines or studio facilities prevent you or your family or friends from hearing their own voices or playing.” Wait, what? You can’t hear your own voice? If not, well, playing a phonograph recording isn’t going to cure your hearing disability, I’m afraid.
"Record a snappy talking feature"? I don’t know what that means, sorry. Is it something dirty? ("Snappy" was often a code word for "risqué” in the old days) "Record jokes and become the life of the party," because jokes are funnier when they’re on a phonograph record instead of, you know, just telling them to the other people at the party. (Unless it’s a “recording party,” of course.)
The Home Recordo ad does point out a few more or less legitimate uses for the device—“Great to help train your voice and cultivate speech,” and “record orchestras or favorite radio programs right off the air and replay them whenever you wish,” i.e., a precursor of the VCR (although, like me and my little reel-to-reel, you’d have to point the Home Recordo microphone “cone” at the radio speaker to pick up the broadcast, since this wasn’t a combo system like the Wilcox-Gay device).
The possibility of recording yourself singing or playing a musical instrument and subsequently getting “discovered” was a selling point not only for the Home Recordo, but also the higher-end devices (which really were, in certain instances, used by professional musicians to make demo records). The Home Recordo ad states “how often have you wished for an audition…with the help of HOME RECORDO you might be one of the lucky ones to find fame and success through this simple method of bringing your talents before the proper authorities.” The proper authorities?! Oh, right, the Federal Bureau of Talent Investigation, I forgot about them.
[Now, of course, one doesn’t have to follow such a strenuous and restrictive path to stardom, because we have YouTube. Record yourself singing, dancing, or playing an instrument, upload the video, and fame will surely follow. It worked for Justin Beiber and Rebecca Black, didn’t it?]
"Send No Money! Hurry Coupon! Start Recording at Once!" Yes, hurry coupon, hurry! But you might want to wait until your Home Recordo unit arrives before you start recording. Because otherwise you’re just talking to yourself.
The Home Recordo ad is a strange amalgam of odd phrasing, mis-matched font sizes, crudely hand-lettered dialogue balloons, and highly misleading claims about the technical nature of the product itself. Oddly enough, the thing apparently did work.