(Jan. 24, 2018) Delaware is a wonderful example of that maxim stating even smallest of places can be found to harbor the greatest of treasures…if one will only take a moment to shine some light on them. I forget the man’s name who made this observation, but he’s one of the great sages of our time…
…Oh yeah, now I remember—he’s me!
Seriously, never dismiss a place as unimportant because it’s small. Never dismiss a person because they aren’t a celebrity. Everyplace and everyone has a story, and those stories are important. In fact, those stories might just be music to your ears.
After leaving the Old State House in Dover on Jan. 17, I did that crazy thing I do—walk. Winter snow and arctic wind be damned, I went walking to see what I could find, and I found a lot. I found the grave of Caesar Rodney, Patriot and signer of the Declaration of Independence. I found the Old Presbyterian Church, built in 1790 and one of the first Presbyterian church buildings in this part of the country. And I found a place that consumed a good part of my afternoon with a happy whirlwind of musical education.
I just happened to glance to my left at the intersection of North and New Streets…and that’s how I discovered one of the more wonderful places I’ve yet stumbled onto during my travels: the Johnson Victrola Museum.
Eldridge Reeves Johnson was born in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1867. His family moved to Dover when he was 10 and he finally migrated to Philadelphia as an apprentice in the machine shop of J. Lodge & Son in 1883. Two decades later he would be one of the great corporate leaders of the early 20th century. Johnson was so successful that, at one point, he owned the biggest yacht in the United States, and he endowed the Johnson Foundation for Research in Medical Physics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1929. He was a visionary in many ways, such as slapping his company logo on all products as a form of free advertising.
And yet…nobody seems to know his name even though everyone recognizes his logo! I’m sure you’ve seen it: a terrier-mix dog sitting with his head cocked, looking into a gramophone bell. The official name for the logo was “His Master’s Voice.”
You see, Johnson founded the Victor Talking Machine Company, manufacturing a gizmo he dubbed the Victrola.
Yep, that Victrola! The Victrola was Johnson’s version of the gramophone invented in 1877 which played back sound recorded on vinyl cylinders or flat, disc-shaped records. RCA would eventually buy Victor and incorporate Victor’s famous logo of the dog (named Nipper) onto RCA’s products. Prior to Johnson’s use of “His Master’s Voice” on everything (from records to the gramophone itself to the bell broadcasting the sound) manufacturers didn’t brand products as much we’re accustomed to in the 21st century. Johnson’s insistence that “His Master’s Voice” be put on every single Victor product helped ensure Nipper became an early member of the imagery that informs our pop culture. Today both the Victor Talking Machine Company and RCA are long gone, but Nipper and “His Master’s Voice” is still recognized around the world. This is one legacy of Johnson’s vision.
And now, from stage left enter the redoubtable Jackie Collins. No, not the novelist; Jackie Collins the historian and interpreter I had the very good fortune to meet her at the museum. Jackie is a bubbly woman who most emphatically loves what she does—perpetuate of the story of one of Delaware’s most successful (and least known) native sons.
Jackie explains Johnson dubbed his company the “Victor Talking Machine Company” for two reasons. The first was a means to crow his victory (victory = Victor, get it?) in a patent infringement lawsuit. The second reason hearkens to the visionary pioneer the man was in marketing. Johnson didn’t think a company named the “Johnson Talking Machine Company” would sell very well, but a powerful name like “Victor” was as sure-fire bet to gain public attention. Evidently, it worked.
Thomas Edison invented sound recording, but a number of inventors took his idea and ran with it, creating the music industry. Edison was all about cylindrical records, but the later inventors dabbled with flat, disc-shaped records (Edison always hated the flat record, even though he eventually sold them himself). Johnson threw his lot in with the flat records because they were easier to manufacture and store. The Victor company was one of the most successful entries in this new arena. However, Jackie will point out there were others. Victor may have dominated the market, but competitors nipped at Nipper’s heels. The Columbia Phonograph Company was one. Columbia’s later investments led to the founding of the CBS (Columbia Broadcast System) television network.
Jackie tells the Victrola story with real warmth. She is especially adamant visitors understand the Victor Talking Machine Company did not die out due to financial collapse or corporate mismanagement. Nope; it faded away for a much simpler reason: Johnson decided to retire and sold his controlling interest to a banking firm in 1926. The Victor company was then sold to RCA in 1929, including the rights to use the logo of Nipper in “His Master’s Voice.”
The museum has been in Dover for over 50 years, but the only reason I found it was by accidentally finding it. Lamenting the need for better publicity, Jackie did point out that it is a state museum, and you can find details about it on the Delaware state website. Just make sure you read all the entries on the Delaware state website!
The museum has several working Victrolas, each over a century old, and they will play these for you during the tour. Listening to a vinyl record from 1905 on a 1905 Victrola Monarch is a unique connection to the past. The only means of volume control on the old gramophones was to stuff a cloth into the bell if you wanted soften the music. Jackie told me socks were the item of choice since they were usually rolled into a ball for storage, and this is where the term “put a sock in it” comes from!
We take high-definition electronic sound for granted in our day and age. Well, in 1905, mechanical analogue recording was high-definition, and the quality of sound is rather remarkable when one remembers this was done with no electronic assistance. The microphone had not yet been invented; sound was captured through the use of a “sound bell” that channeled sound waves to a needle scratching grooves on a wax master. That wax master was later turned into a press that would stamp out vinyl records for the consumer to play on their Victrolas.
The Johnson Victrola Museum is on the corner of North and New Streets. Parking is available, and the museum is free. A historian will provide a guided tour. If you’re fortunate enough to have Jackie as your guide, you will emerge back into the sunlight smiling and humming as the music in your soul lifts your spirits.
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