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Johnson Victrola Museum

375 S New St, Dover, DE 19901 • 302-739-3262

Just off New Street in historic Dover, Delaware you will find a two story brick building with a large lot and a very familiar, almost iconic, image of a dog along the side wall.

The dog’s name is Nipper and he has been linked with a device that fundamentally changed the way humans allow themselves to be entertained.

Nipper was a real dog who lived in England and enjoyed chasing rats (who doesn’t?), "nipping” at the backs of people's ankles, and listening to music.

Nipper was doing just that when artist Francis Barraud thought the scene would make a great painting and created Nipper listening to "His Master's Voice" in 1899. The painting and copyright were purchased by Emile Berliner for use as the trademark for The Gramophone Company in London. The original painting featured Nipper listening to a cylinder phonograph, but that was changed to a Berliner Disc Gramophone as a condition of the purchase.

Now enter into this story one Eldridge Reeves Johnson.JVM1

Johnson had been born in Dover, but after learning a trade as a machinist went to work in Camden, New Jersey.

Back in these days you needed to crank Berliner’s Gramophone to make it work, but it had to be done at the correct speed lest your music be too slow or too fast or wobbly.

There was a “Goldilocks” zone and it was hard to perfect.

Berliner approached the young Johnson to create a way to make listening to disc records easier and more enjoyable. E.R. Johnson went about this task and eventually came up with a spring motor that needed to be cranked tightly only once to play a disc.JVM2

Johnson's spring motor invention was a huge success and a new industry was born.

By 1901, Johnson had bought Berliner's patents, combined them with his own, and founded the Victor Talking Machine Company. The company grew to encompass ten city blocks in Camden, grossed millions annually (back in the early 1900s), and produced some of the most famous recording artists in the world. Johnson's international sales offices were located worldwide in countries such as Australia, Buenos Aires, Japan, and Milan.

Johnson's innovation led to the sale of thousands of Victrolas with interior horns, to ornate and electrified credenza units, and brought recorded music to people around the globe as well as catapulting a small dog, Nipper, into world history.

E.R. Johnson became one of the most successful and richest men in the United States and Nipper one of the most famous and recognizable dogs.

After nearly 30 years in the industry, Johnson retired in 1927. The Victor Talking Machine Company was later sold to RCA in 1929. And all this is now part of the mega-company Sony.

When we arrived at the museum we were delighted (maybe) to see a large group of 4th

graders piling out of a bus and heading to the door.

We made our way in there first but quickly became part of the kid’s group and tour. That worked out just fine for we understand things better when it is explained to us like a 4th grader.JVM4

In truth the look on the kids faces when they were asked how many liked music (they all did) and what they listened to their music on (mp3 players and phones were the high call here). And, it was worth the price of admission (which is free by the way) for all the smiles when introduced to how people listened to their music back in 1901.

Our guide wound up the first year Victrola and placed the stylus on the disc.

The squawky and scratchy sounds of the disc had some giggling and others dancing. The second disc, Irving Berlin’s ‘How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning’, had them laughing out loud. It seems this is a universally loved and very related to song - especially for 9 year olds.

For the hardest blow of allis to hear the bugler call

Ya gotta get up, ya gotta get up, ya gotta get up this morning.

The museum is extremely well done and offers a great look at how music, entertainment and technology made a huge stride forward with E.R. Johnson’s innovations.

A few other things were learned this day as well. In particular two phrases that we use all the time, usually for the same thing, came from the Victrola.

You see these “Talking Machines” had no volume control and they played one way – LOUD!

But, if you wanted to turn it down a bit you would simply “stick a sock in it”. The next generation of Victrolas had doors and lids to muffle the volume and if your mother were to complain of that wild music the kids of the 1920’s were listening to they would yell… “put a lid on it!”

Now you know.JVM3

In 1985, Johnson received a Grammy Award presented posthumously, now proudly on display at the Johnson Victrola Museum in Dover, Delaware.

We stayed around for the 4th grade presentation both on the first floor and then the second, where Nipper was the star.

If you think about it this little dog was the first real logo. Nike’s ‘Swoosh” and McDonalds Arches came way after Nipper and we were reminded of this and this pup’s popularity with the amount of Nippers found at the Johnson Victrola Museum in Dover, Delaware.

If you are a lover of music, trademarks and history, the Johnson Victorla Museum will entertain all aspects. You’ll walk away with some knowledge and have a great time learning it.