The Victrola Story

Well, my last day in Dover had arrived, and there was just one more thing on my to-do list: The Johnson Victrola Museum. This was actually number 1 on my list when doing my research for the Dover trip, but it’s only open Wednesday-Sunday, so I had to make sure I had time to get it done before I left Wednesday afternoon!

So, what is the Johnson Victrola Museum? Who was Johnson Victrola? Why is his museum in Dover? I can answer all of those questions for you!

The Johnson Victrola Museum is dedicated to Eldridge Johnson, sound recording pioneer and inventor. Have you seen the great big things they used to listen to records on in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the ones with the needle and the great big bell/horn that the sound was projected from? Let me give you a visual:

Yes, that’s a Grammy award, modeled after the phonograph or gramophone, or Victor machine. Mr. Johnson didn’t invent the machine, but he did make vast improvements to it and invented various accessories to it. His machine eventually became known as the Victrola because that sounded cooler than Victor at the time. (Like Crayola, lots of “-olas” were added to inventions back in the early 1900s.) 

This may not sound entirely exciting just yet, but here’s another detail that, for me, added an element of respect for Mr. Johnson: he was told  by his high school teacher that he was not smart enough to go to college. He learned to be a machinist as an apprentice in Philadelphia. A man by the name of Berliner had the idea to make a motor for the phonograph so that no one had to crank or pump it manually. Johnson was the one who did it! He eventually went to work at a machine shop in Camden, NJ, just across the river from Philadelphia. The man who owned it eventually sold it to Johnson, and that’s where he did the work to make Victrolas something everyone in America wanted to have. 

Now on to the fun sayings associated with Victors and Victrolas. In the early days of recorded sound, there were no volume buttons or knobs back then, but that’s ok. All you had to do to alter the sound was put a sock in it–literally! The ladies at the museum showed us how they used to do it, and it’s actually worked just like a mute in a brass instrument. Later on, the horns were put in the bottom inside the record playing machine, and you could alter the sound by opening or closing the cabinet doors. Have you ever heard a record play, especially on an old machine, and heard the scratchiness of the needle against the record groove? The way to avoid that is to… put a lid on it! The scratchiness would then be greatly reduced. 

Things continued to improve over the years, and eventually the Victrola machines became fancier and fancier. They had always been expensive, but the price really added up when people decided to start ordering them in ornate cabinets. They were quite beautiful, and one of the cabinet Victrolas they have is painted with pure gold! Of the 10,000 people who worked at the Victrola factory in Camden, NJ, 5,000 were artisans and cabinet makers, and they produced over 17,000 TONS of sawdust per day just to make these things! 

More interesting facts abounded throughout my journey into the inner workings of the Victrola. 

If that looks familiar, good! If not, no worries! This is Nipper the dog. He’s listening to His Master’s Voice (HMV). This is the Victrola logo, but it fell into Johnson’s lap because Edison didn’t like it! Nipper was a dog who lost his master. His master’s voice had been recorded, and when Nipper heard it, his ears perked up because he knew the familiar voice. People like dogs, they like familiar things, and they like new technology. Good marketing! =) 

Upstairs in the museum was a huge collection of Victrolas of all kinds–almost every model, many custom made, all incredible just to look at! I would highly recommend a visit to the Victrola museum if you like history, recording, music, or just want to be inspired by someone who “wasn’t smart enough” to go to college. 

Have you ever been to Dover? Or perhaps listened to a recording from a real Victrola?

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