Edison phonograph and Gold Moulded records, from a 1909 advertisement

At the turn of the previous century, during the Porfiriato, Mexico lived through a time of technological revolutions that modified ways of perceiving time, distance, and sounds. Consider the phonograph, created by Thomas Alva Edison in 1877. The social and cultural uses of this device in the country were diverse, from mobile rentals to the signing of contracts in order to transform the postal service. While men were the main protagonists in these uses, Porfirian women were not relegated to the role of mere domestic consumers of the devices. In “Fonógrafos imperiales y voces nacionales: mujeres mexicanas entre discos, cilindros y mostradores (México, 1877–1910)” published in the current issue of Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos“, Dr. Jaddiel Díaz Frene shows how, during the days of the Electric Revolution, Mexican women also participated in the recording and marketing processes of phonograms and other reproducing devices, opening the doors to a new history of women’s relationship with acoustic technologies in Mexico. Díaz Frene tells us more about his research in a Q&A conducted via email.

Jaddiel Díaz Frene

What are your article’s main contributions towards understanding women’s relationships with sound technologies?

When I began my research, I noticed that certain historiographies addressed the impact of talking machines on everyday life at home and the changes they provoked in the dynamic of women in that context. The sources found in the Mexican archives showed a different story, in which Mexican women, far from being limited to being mere listeners of music and possible customers of phonograph stores and media playing devices, also played a leading role in public spaces and in corporate circles. Thus, I structured the manuscript into two themed sections. The first is dedicated to the singers who recorded their voices on different media. I selected two cases, the sopranos Ángela de Peralta and Esperanza Iris. I was surprised to find that those who had studied the life and work of these artists tended to pay little or no attention to the phonographic recordings they made. Upon researching, I became aware of the relevance of the letters and dossiers of businesswomen who had benefited from the talking machines in a variety of ways. Although in Latin American and American historiographies one could identify several examples of singers who recorded phonograph cylinders and records, cases of women who rented out devices on the streets were not well known. The second section is centered on the letters signed by the owners of commercial establishments, who decided to attract clientele through the use of audio clips that demonstrated an innovative use of the Edisonian invention in the capital’s commercial sector.

Besides Ángela de Peralta and Esperanza Iris, were there other women who recorded records and phonograph cylinders during the Porfiriato?

One of the most noteworthy cases is that of Miss María Lebrija. According to a witness of that period, the cylinders with her performances, whose voice was described as sweet and refined, were presented by Mr. Matton and Co. during the summer of 1892, in a salon located at 10 de la segunda calle de Plateros (second Plateros street) in Mexico City. The American engineers in charge of the performances decided to charge 25 cents to listen to three songs.

Other Mexican singers managed to enter the phonograph market at the beginning of the 20th century, due to the growing interest of U.S. companies in producing “ethnic” recordings. The National Phonograph is one example. In 1904, this company sent a technician from Edison’s laboratory, George J. Werner, to Mexico City with the mission of opening a recording studio that was established in a building in front of the American Consulate. According to an article published in The Edison Phonograph Monthly, the studio had begun recording “selections of Mexican vocal and instrumental music, executed by highest class talent in the country.” In January 1905, The Edison Phonograph Monthly published a list of the 71 recordings made by Werner in Mexico, of which 37 were included in the company’s new catalog of foreign recordings. The catalog included several female phonograms. Among the voices included was that of the sopranos Esperanza Dimarías and Soledad Goyzueta and mezzo-soprano Beatriz Franco. Other national artists, such as Franco and Herrera, also appeared in the list prepared by the company. It should be noted that other American companies, such as the Victor Talking Machine Company and Columbia Records included Mexican singers in their catalogs during the first decade of the 20th century. One of them, as we have seen in this article, was the soprano Esperanza Iris.

Regarding the female presences, the phonograms of these divas are not only useful to access the relationship between women and technologies from a gender perspective, but also to analyze how talking machines transformed the world of theater, opera, cordel literature, and popular music in everyday life. This is a story in the making that can be explored in future essays.

Could you list the issues that still need to be addressed regarding the use of talking machines by women?

First of all, I believe that the study of the impact of sound technologies in rural areas remains to be researched in depth. Although the research on ethnographic travel by Carl Sofus Lumholtz and Konrad Theodor Preuss has taken a major leap in this direction, little is known about the recreational use of the devices and commercial phonograms and their impact on the daily life of rural women. According to my research experience in Cuba, one of the ways to access this universe of unknown practices is fieldwork. On the island, interviews allowed me to recreate the way the devices functioned in rural households, the role played by women in parties and auditions, and the survival of the ten-line stanzas recorded at the beginning of the 20th century by “tenors with bandurria,” such as Martín Silveira and Miguel Puertas Salgado, among others.

I encounter a second historiographic gap in the evaluation of the experiences of popular female performers in relation to the divas of the theater, taking into account issues such as the relationships established with technicians and businesspeople, the salaries received, the distribution of recordings, and the types of censorship implemented at the border. This last problem was addressed in the article “Discos sediciosos y volantes prohibidos. La muerte de Obregón entre la censura y el ingenio popular” (Seditious records and forbidden flyers. The death of Obregón in the midst of censorship and mass ingenuity), published in the journal Historia Mexicana of El Colegio de México. Finally, I would like to point out the importance of scrutinizing issues that transcend female musical practices, such as, for example, the inventions patented by female entrepreneurs and the use of talking machines by female educators during the literacy campaign led by José Vasconcelos. To date, the quest to access these practices is still in its early stages, but the sources obtained prove to be revealing.

Read Díaz Frene’s article, Fonógrafos imperiales y voces nacionales: mujeres mexicanas entre discos, cilindros y mostradores (México, 1877–1910,” for free online for a limited time.