Where do cultures go when they die? The story of Codfish, the Indian, and the phonograph.

When the Edison phonograph was first made in the 1890s, people used it to
record their own voices. It later became one of the first commercially produced
machines when it was used to play music. It worked by vibrating the stylus up and down
while moving across the wax cylinder (Hill & Dale method).
Image credit: Museum of Technology. Via.

Assistant professor of English at Georgetown University

Meet Jesse Walter Fewkes, one of the most influential anthropologists of the late nineteenth century. His colleagues at Harvard University, and later at the Bureau of American Ethnology, called him Dr. Fewkes. But behind his back they liked to refer to him as “the Codfish,” a nickname that I’m willing to bet has a great story behind it.

In March of 1890, Fewkes traveled to Calais, Maine, in order to visit several members of the Passamaquoddy tribe. According to Fewkes, the Passamaquoddy were fated to die out. All that seemed to make their culture authentic and unique—the patterns of their language, the sounds of their music, even the distinctive look of their clothes and art—seemed in danger of disappearing. Their culture needed to be preserved before it vanished into obscurity.

Scores of American ethnographers, amateurs and professionals alike, made trips like Fewkes’s as the nineteenth came to a close. Most were acting on the assumption that the world’s indigenous cultures were destined to be left behind and lost forever as history progressed. But Fewkes differed from his contemporaries in how he wanted to solve this longstanding problem.

On his trip to Calais, he brought along a cylinder phonograph. He wanted to put the Passamaquoddy on wax, so that the sounds of their culture could survive long after the tribe itself had vanished.

In hindsight, this seems like an eminently reasonable thing to do. If you want to record a dying language or a sacred song, what else but a phonograph would you want to bring with you? But this line of thinking obscures just how audacious, just how strange, his actions really were in context. The cylinder phonograph had been perfected only a few years prior, and the unwieldy model that Fewkes wanted to use in the field was ill-suited for traveling to remote locations. At the time, moreover, wax cylinders were notoriously prone to physical deterioration, occasionally wearing out only after a few uses. Fewkes’s contemporaries in the field of anthropology had even dismissed the machine as too unreliable to be of any scientific value.

In short, the cylinder phonograph had all of the promises—and all of the pitfalls—of a new medium. Fewkes’s trip was a technological experiment as much as it was an ethnographic errand. He wanted to harness the power of sound recording to preserve the remnants of the Passamaquoddy, but doing so required a leap of faith.

So why did he do it? Why would Fewkes lug a fragile and unproven machine to Calais, rather than simply rely on a more established method of documentation? And why did so many Americans—anthropologists, explorers, photographers, and filmmakers alike—go to similar lengths in this period, turning to newfangled technologies to fulfill the age-old dream of permanent cultural preservation?

These were some of the questions that inspired my work on Savage Preservation. The more reading and research I did, the more I came to realize that men like Fewkes were motivated by something other than a naïve faith in technological possibility. I came to see that Fewkes and many others in this period believed that cultural differences actually determine our ability to hear and see the world around us. It wasn’t that new devices like the phonograph and the motion picture camera were somehow more accurate or more permanent than other forms of documentation. It was that they were mechanically neutral, untainted by the inborn cultural biases that limit our faculties of perception. Fewkes was thus motivated by racial worldview.

This surprised me. Scholars are accustomed to thinking that audiovisual media mostly work to “construct” ideas about race. But here, in 1890, the reverse was equally true. Fewkes’s ideas about the Passamaquoddy were helping to construct the phonograph. His sense that Indians were irretrievably different, and thus naturally doomed to disappear, enabled him to imagine a social role for the device that wasn’t all that obvious at the time.

Fewkes’s worldview haunts the history of modern media technology. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, anthropologists like Garrick Mallery turned to serial photography—and later, motion pictures—to document Native American sign languages. Filmmakers like Robert and Frances Flaherty experimented with new film stocks in order to capture the tattooing rituals of indigenous Samoans. Photographers like Fred Payne Clatworthy and Franklin Price Knott capitalized on popular interest in the world’s “vanishing races” to pioneer the autochrome, the world’s first commercially viable color photography process.

In short, efforts to preserve disappearing cultures helped to shape audiovisual technologies whose social functions we typically take for granted.

* * *

Was Fewkes right in March of 1890? Were the Passamaquoddy actually dying out, and were the spiraling grooves of the wax cylinder actually their final resting place?

Fast-forward 120 years and decide for yourself. The Passamaquoddy live on, and they have actually had a hand in keeping Fewkes’s old recordings alive.

Brian Hochman is author of Savage Preservation: The Ethnographic Origins of Modern Media Technology. He is assistant professor of English at Georgetown University.
Savage Preservation is an eye-opening account of the mutually entangled origins of ethnography and the meanings of modern media: recorded sound, color photography, documentary film. Not only does Brian Hochman enrich his readers’ sense of culture as a concept available to historical change, he demonstrates convincingly that North American media studies remains haunted at its core by the racial ‘science’ of earlier generations.
Lisa Gitelman, New York University 

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