The Johnson Victrola Museum

by Marilyn Buerkle

Occasional Almanac contributor Marilyn Buerkle takes us to Dover to visit the Johnson Victrola Museum.

Watch slideshow:

Eldridge Reeves Johnson perfected what Thomas Edison called his "talking machine." It was Johnson's Victrola that brought music into the homes of millions of people around the world.There's a small museum, run by Delaware's Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, which celebrates the accomplishments of the man behind the music.

Imagine hearing recorded music for the very first time. In the late 1800s, Eldridge Johnson was fascinated with the potential of what was known then as the gramophone. A dozen years after he improved the mechanics of the machine and began selling his version, the Victrola, he was a multi-millionaire.

In Delaware's First State Heritage Park in Dover, there's a museum that pays tribute to Johnson. Nena Todd, the site supervisor, says he was a man who delivered more than what was expected.

Nena Todd:
Eldridge Reeves Johnson was one of Delaware's native sons. Many people don't realize that, but he was actually born in Wilmington. At a very early age, his family relocated and moved down here to Dover. He went to school here in Dover at the Dover Boys Academy. Upon graduating from the academy, one of his goals was, and one of his desires was, he wanted to go to college, but at the end of his academic career, his family was given the bad news that he was, um-I'm trying to put this politely-he just really wasn't bright enough to go on to college. So they suggested to the family that perhaps you might want to just teach him a trade and cross your fingers and hope for the best. And, so they did, they sent him to a trade school in which he learned mechanics, and that was how he got his start.

He had a small shop in Philadelphia, doing mechanical repairs. When he went to work on a gramophone, he not only fixed it, he improved it. His spring-loaded motor eliminated the need to constantly hand crank the machine. But he wasn't just a whiz at mechanics-he was a savvy entrepreneur.

Nena Todd:
His motto for life was we seek to improve everything we do, every day. So he was constantly searching for new, developing new, inventing new things. He was an inventor, but more than an inventor, he was a better business man. He took actually selling items to new heights. He took manufacturing items to new heights. He was on the cutting edge of so many ideas that today are standard in the practice of manufacturing and even retail sale.

Here's one example. In order to drive demand for the sale of Victrolas, Johnson started his own record label. He signed the most popular musicians of the day: opera star Enrico Caruso, jazz great Fats Waller, even the renowned conductor and composer John Philip Sousa.

Tens of thousands of those early phonograph records are part of the museum's impressive collection of artifacts.

When Johnson adopted Nipper--the dog whose head was cocked listening to a Victrola--as his company's logo, he licensed its use. The museum has hundreds and hundreds of Nippers, stuffed animals, salt and pepper shakers, even a huge sculpture.

He recognized that he could attract customers at all income levels and developed a variety of Victrolas.

Nena Todd:
He came up with the concept that he would design machines that were inexpensive; there was a better end model, and then there was a high end model so that they could appeal to everyone, and he believed that everyone should have a talking machine in their home.

If you visit, there are tour guides who will walk you through the collection.

Nena Todd:
You'll learn that Johnson was well ahead of his time. His company provided daycare. There was a doctor on site. Workers could buy merchandise in a company store at discounted prices. He recognized more than one hundred years ago, that a successful company markets worldwide, and he established factories in Europe, South America, Asia and Australia.
Not bad, for a man who was labeled too dumb for college.

Nena Todd:
One of, I think, the greatest lessons that I hope that people will come away with in this museum is the fact that Mr. Johnson, in his childhood, didn't have a lot of support. There were a lot of people who did not feel that he was really very bright or really very promising, but he proved all of them wrong. And so, we do a lot of young people that come in here, we do a lot of school groups, we're part of Delaware history, we have a lot of 4th graders who come to our museum, and I hope that all of them-while they're in their youth-can realize that, okay, maybe there aren't a lot of people behind you, and maybe there are people who don't think that you are capable of doing a lot of things, but that doesn't mean that in your future, you're not capable, that you're not destined to do great things.

The Johnson Victrola Museum is located on South New Street in Dover. It's open Wednesday through Saturday. Admission is free.

Find out more at: