Making Noise and Selling Ice Cream

Put the bumpy, sour, off-key sound of a mobile ice cream vendor on repeat and play it loud, and you’ve got an infectious earworm

Brian Wolly

The third in a series on sound and food. Read the first here and the second here. Stay tuned for the strange synethesia of high-pitched tunes.

An excerpt from New York city’s noise code (PDF):

Ice cream is a refreshing summer treat and ice cream trucks traveling on city streets are important summer traditions, but their repetitious jingles create a community nuisance and disrupt the lives of nearby residents. To alleviate this problem, the new noise code prohibits the playing of jingles while any type of food vending vehicle is stationary. Jingles may only be played when vehicles are in motion, traveling through neighborhoods.

Street criers shrieking and whistling to attract customers to their edible wares—popcorn and peanuts and hokey pokey—have long battled with the din and commotion of cities. Indeed, among the first “sound records” cut for the purposes of urban reform were made by Victor Hugo Emerson, whose open-air recordings captured the calls of the strawberry crier and the man selling live crabs. By 1905, Emerson had helped Julia Rice’s influential Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise convince the city to establish quiet zones. (Playing obnoxious street noises by phonograph at public meetings proved a rather effective political strategy.) Then, of course, the horseless carriage rolled into town (ironically, Rice’s husband rode one of the first motorcars and liked passing through Central Park) and now, a century later, on top of the noxious rumble of street and highways, the automobile is a vehicle for that ever-present jingle announcing the availability of ice cream.

What makes sound so annoying? I called up Hillel Schwartz, a cultural historian and author of Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond. Schwartz says because a mobile vendor’s instruments bump around on the street, much like the traveling street crier’s hurdy gurdy and organ grinder, the resulting tunes often turn grumpy or sour. “It gives you the earworm, but it gives it to you in a bad, off-key form, right? So you couldn’t shake it, but on the other hand, you didn’t enjoy listening to it.”

Put that on repeat and play it loud (thanks in part to the loudspeakers developed during World War II for military purposes), and you’ve got either an infectious earworm, a reminder to ask mom and dad for a nickel or a quarter or a dollar or two—or a reason to pick up the phone and call 311. Schwartz argues in his book: “Distinctions between sound and noise, or noise and music, or music and sound, can only be provisional—not because they are matters of taste but because they are matters of history and histrionics…” Which is what makes the legal precedent for limiting noise nuisances to specific hours so interesting. The law predates the invention of the term “noise pollution,” noisy leafblowers and idling food trucks.

“There was legal precedent, strangely enough, from limitations that places across the world had established for when church bells could ring,” Schwartz says. “People who were living in nearby apartments or running businesses protested that these church bells were either too loud off off-key or both, and they realized that church bells might be necessary to call people to a certain service, but they certainly didn’t have to ring for half an hour and they certainly didn’t have to ring at six in the morning on Sunday and the certainly didn’t have to ring in the darkness when people were trying to sleep.” One person’s cacophony can sound like another’s higher calling; a call for the sweets can just as easily turn sour.

Photo: Library of Congress

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