“Phony-British ‘Announcer Speak'” and the Penn Museum

June 11, 2015

“Phony-British ‘Announcer Speak'” You’ve definitely heard it before. The style, colloquially known as “announcer speak” but categorized as Mid-Atlantic English by linguists, is characteristic of a past era when radio was the dominate medium and newsreels played before films in theaters.

Two recent articles posted to The Atlantic’s website asked readers about this “phony-British announcer speak” wondering “Who Was the Last American to Speak This Way?” and “Where It Came From and Why It Went Away.” The author, James Fallows, provides an informal history of the Mid-Atlantic English accent in the second post, where he draws on the Mid-Atlantic English Wikipedia page and comments from readers who responded to his first query with their own theories. One of the responses posits that the “announcer speak” style came about due to “primitive microphone technology” causing the announcers to speak in such a way so the microphones would pick up their voices more clearly. The commenter then offers the example of Lowell Thomas, a CBS radio announcer, remembered as a master of the “phony-British announcer speak.”

So what does any of this have to do with the Penn Museum?

Originally published in Expedition magazine Vol. 48:1, with the following caption:
This Week Magazine of The Sunday Bulletin featured Lowell Thomas and his “History of Civilization” fireplace, June 11, 1950. Courtesy of Urban Archives, Temple University. Used with permission.”

Well, while Thomas is better known for his long career in radio, film, and television, he was also on the Penn Museum’s Board of Managers from 1938 to 1946. And it just so happens, that earlier this week I was flipping through some images in the Museum Archives, when I came across the clipping to the right from June 11, 1950. Here we see Lowell Thomas posing in front of his “History of Civilization” fireplace at the Quaker Hill Country Club in Pawling, New York. Lowell’s “History of Civilization” fireplace contains stones from famous buildings or historic sites from around the world, with a row left open at the top for future civilizations. You can read more about this in Alex Pezzati’s article, “‘So long, until tomorrow’: Lowell Thomas and the ‘History of Civilization’ Fireplace.” Lowell acquired the pieces for his fireplace during his travels abroad as a war correspondent and film producer. Yet, one stone (an ancient brick from Ur) he received from the Penn Museum in lieu of payment for lending his announcer voice to two documentaries produced by the Museum.

Ah-ha, now we’ve come full circle.

The two documentaries, Ancient Earth: Making History Everlasting (1940) and Primitive Peoples of Matto Grosso (1941), both feature expeditions undertaken and filmed by the Penn Museum. They also prominently feature the “Phony-British Announcer Voice” of Lowell Thomas.

Ancient Earth: Making History Everlasting is perhaps my favorite film that we have up on YouTube. It begins with this grand music playing as scenes from ancient sites around the world flash across the screen. Then Lowell Thomas says “There has long been established in Philadelphia an extremely interesting institution, the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.” Intended as a promotional piece for the Penn Museum (then known as the University Museum), the film champions its early work as a research institution and as a world-class repository of archaeological objects. Moreover though, the film is an interesting source for the study of early 20th century research and collecting museums.

Thomas’ narration takes the viewer along on an excavation at Tepe Hissar in Iran. Following the dig, half of the artifacts and all of the expedition field notes arrive at the Museum for processing, conservation, and exhibition. While, many things have changed, it is neat to watch the Museum staff of 1940 perform tasks that we still do today in 2015. If you watch the whole thing, you’ll see some of our greatest objects highlighted in the film, as well as familiar looking rooms, like the Museum Archives, which was formally the Museum Library.

The film ends with a wide shot of the Penn Museum and Lowell Thomas saying:

“The work of a research institution, such as the University Museum, literally never ends, its expeditions and its detailed studies are constantly adding, though ever so slowly, to our expanding knowledge. Beneath the countless mounds of ancient earth lie buried untold centuries of history.”

And, of course, we know this to still be true 75 years later.

Lowell’s second narration for the Museum was for Primitive Peoples of Matto Grosso. According to our film archivist, it is “the first film recording of non-Western people containing sync-recorded speech.” Filmed in 1931, the footage was re-edited and re-released with Lowell Thomas’ narration in 1941.

So now you know what “announcer speak” has to do with the Penn Museum.