Few things in the media preservation world tend to inspire more disbelief than cardboard transcription discs. The concept that sound waves could be written in spiral grooves, in a thin coating of varnish, on flimsy cardboard—in much the same manner as they are on vinyl, shellac, aluminum, or steel records—seems almost impossible to wrap one’s head around. And yet, the media format exists anyway, and it thrived from approximately the 1930s through the 1960s. How and why?
In the Michigan State University Robert G. Vincent Voice Library (VVL), the Wilcox-Gay collection consists entirely of these cardboard transcription discs, which were manufactured close to home in Charlotte, MI. As you might expect, what is most immediately apparent about these recordings is their fragility. They are printed on cardboard, after all, and prone to all the same condition issues that you would anticipate with such a material: if exposed to excess heat or humidity, the records have an annoying tendency to stick together and become impossible to peel apart without damage to the varnish; cardboard is also prone to bending and tearing; the coating crazes. All of these conditions are readily apparent in just about every collection of cardboard transcription discs surviving today. So why were they manufactured and used at all?
The same things that make cardboard a liability as a sound recording medium also present it with some significant advantages: namely, that it is incredibly cheap, and incredibly lightweight. This meant that these sound recording discs were easy for the general public to afford and record sound onto, at a time when such technology might otherwise be prohibitively expensive. Additionally, because the discs were so lightweight, it meant that individuals could easily send them in the mail, making cardboard transcription discs some of the first voice messages ever sent.
The cardboard discs in the Wilcox-Gay collection illustrate a different use case scenario: transcription discs in general (including glass discs—yes, glass. These will be covered in a separate post) were often used to record broadcast programs directly off the radio, including news and music. Recording quality was often quite poor, particularly for music—cardboard discs in particular were only ever intended for voice recordings alone—but this format remained an affordable option for private citizens who wanted to build and retain their own collection of programs preserved from their public radio. In many cases, such recordings are of interest to preservationists because radio broadcasters often did not retain their own original recordings, meaning that these “citizen recordings” are, in several cases, some of the only records we have of public radio programming, particularly from the 1930s and 40s. Such is the case with the Wilcox-Gay collection.
Going beyond MSU’s Wilcox-Gay collection, if you are familiar with cardboard transcription discs at all, you may know them more as collectibles from the 1950s and 60s: specifically, as musical records you could conveniently pop out from the same cardboard as your cereal box, and play on your record player.
These little wonders that came with your breakfast cereal typically contained (extremely poor) recordings of individual songs. On eBay, you can find examples of everything from commercial jingles to songs by The Archies included on these discs. Once again, the benefits of cardboard show themselves: it was easy to include them as a promotional item quite literally built into product packaging.
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