Visitors to Dover, Delaware can escape the world of smart phones and tablet computers for a while and experience a bit of the “good old days” at the Johnson Victrola Museum.
Housed in a neat old red brick building, the museum showcases the work of Eldridge Reeves Johnson, who founded the Victor Talking Machine Company, the manufacturer of the Victrola. For those not familiar with these great old entertainment devices, they were the forerunners of modern day record players, tape decks, and CD players.
While there is no doubt that Eldridge Reeves Johnson was a genius in terms of both mechanical abilities and business acumen, not everybody saw him that way in his younger years. He was only 15 when he graduated from the Delaware Academy in 1882, and one of his professors made it a point of telling him he should enroll in a trade school because he was too dumb for college. Johnson followed his advice and spent the next five years as an apprentice machinist. When he finished his apprenticeship he went to work for an established company, and within just a few short years he bought it, renaming the business the Eldridge R. Johnson Manufacturing Company.
What followed was a series of inventions and products, among which were upgrades to the gramophone, a device that played recordings from a wax cylinder. The sound coming from the machines’ huge horn-type speakers was often scratchy and distorted. Johnson described it as “a partially educated parrot with a sore throat and a head cold.” By replacing the original crank used to turn the cylinder with a spring-loaded motor he invented, and improving the sound box, as well as switching from wax cylinders to records, Johnson was able to produce a much better sounding machine.
By 1900, Johnson had formed the Consolidated Talking Machine Company, which sold both gramophones and records. He registered the Victor trademark, renamed the business as the Victor Talking Machine Company and began marketing phonographs he called Victrolas. The company was an immediate success, but Johnson was not content to just make and sell phonographs. He created his own recording studio and signed many of the most popular singers of the day, including the great Italian operatic tenor Enrico Caruso.
In 1929 Johnson’s company was bought by RCA and renamed RCA Victor. As gifted at marketing as he was anything else, Johnson invested heavily in newspaper and magazine advertising. The company’s mascot, Nipper, the RCA Victor terrier, became famous worldwide. Recognizing yet another opportunity, Johnson began marketing Nipper products, everything from small ceramic statues to salt and pepper shakers, all looking just like Nipper.
Today the Johnson Victrola Museum displays an impressive collection of Johnson’s inventions and products dating back from the 1890’s through 1929. Here you will see all kinds of Victrolas and learn how the young man who was told he was too dumb for college changed the world of sound recording and entertainment.
The museum even has a replica 1920 record shop. And all the while you are touring the museum the sounds of early-day entertainers accompany the impressive displays. If you are anywhere near Dover, be sure to add the museum to your must see list.
The Johnson Victrola Museum is located at 375 S. New Street in Dover and is open Wednesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call (302) 739-3262.
It’s Thursday, so it’s time for a new Free Drawing. This week’s prize is a four-book set of audiobooks from my pal Carol Ann Newsome’s popular Dog Park mystery series. To enter, click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.
Thought For The Day – Another fine day ruined by responsibility.