The Department of Special Collections at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) – Donald C. Davidson Library has made available a collection of 5000 cylinder recordings made from the 1890s through the 1920s. It’s called the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project.
Cylinder recordings, the first commercially produced sound recordings, are a snapshot of musical and popular culture in the decades around the turn of the 20th century. They have long held the fascination of collectors and have presented challenges for playback and preservation by archives and collectors alike.
With funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the UCSB Libraries have created a digital collection of over 5,000 cylinder recordings held by the Department of Special Collections. In an effort to bring these recordings to a wider audience, they can be freely downloaded or streamed online.
On this site you will have the opportunity to find out more about the cylinder format, listen to thousands of musical and spoken selections from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and discover a little-known era of recorded sound.
The Library of Congress has further information:
Cylinder recordings, invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, were the first successful form for recording and reproducing sound. Made first of tin foil, then wax, and later celluloid, the cylinder was used until the late 1940’s.
Cylinders, like early disc recordings, were recorded acoustically: sound was picked up by a recording horn, basically an inverted megaphone, causing a membrane placed in the small end of the horn to vibrate. A recording stylus attached to the membrane etched or embossed the sound vibrations into the surface of a rotating cylinder or disc. “Styli” to play such recordings were made from a wide range of materials, including cactus thorns, precious and semi-precious stones, and steel.
If you are curious about what a cylinder recording is (and physically looked like), in addition to the Library of Congress page listed above, you can read about them at Wikipedia’s phonograph cylinder page.
Important: Do note that you may come across some recordings that would be considered offensive nowadays (mainly dealing with stereotypes that were held back in that time).