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

In the 1930s and '40s many people sent love letters to each other by sending their voices on records.
In the 1930s and '40s many people sent love letters to each other by sending their voices on records.

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.

These audio letters were small, lightweight records, made in recording booths scattered all across the world and sent through the mail. It was literally voice-mail.
Thomas Y. Levin / Phono-Post Archive at Princeton University
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These audio letters were small, lightweight records, made in recording booths scattered all across the world and sent through the mail. 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 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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