His Master’s Voice: The Johnson Victrola Museum

Long before there were CDs, .mp3 players, and iPods, there was the Victrola. The Johnson Victrola Museum in Dover DE displays the antique music machines and “Nipper,” the little dog with the cocked head listening to “His Master’s Voice.”

At the turn of the 20th century, the Victrola was the entertainment technological wonder of the times. Early record players required someone to continually crank the machine. Eldridge Reeves Johnson invented a spring mechanism which allowed people to wind up the machine and let the record play. Records ran about 3 minutes and turned at 78rmp (revolutions per minute).

Johnson was a marketing genius who convinced consumers that their lives would not be complete without one of his machines.  The museum shows how far and how fast the fad caught on. The early models were small tabletop affairs with a small metal horn about 8 inches across to broadcast the sound. Status being what it is, models developed with horns growing in size until they were two feet wide and made out of mahogany and oak. A stylish model in 1920 cost about $60, about $680 in 2011 dollars. Johnson opened stores with listening booths for customers to compare the sound quality of different models. In towns too small to support a store, he franchised dealerships, but only with those who had professional occupations.  Early models had no volume control. People dropped a rolled up sock down the mouth of the horn to soften the noise; hence the phrase “put a sock in it.” Later models had louvered doors which could be open or closed to control the volume.

At the height of the Victrola’s popularity, the factory in Camden NJ covered 10 city blocks with over 30 buildings and 10,000 employees. There were recording studios and facilities for pressing records – including a line of educational records that taught music appreciation and handwriting – woodworking shops, and production lines. Artists hand-painted custom-designed cases with Japanese or Chinese accents or in furniture styles of Louis XV or Queen Anne. They were the height of interior decorating.

The museum has over 55,000 records in its collection. Many of them come from families cleaning out attics and knowing the artifacts shouldn’t be thrown away. Docents cheerfully crank up some of the machines and play songs that have long since been forgotten. Ragtime, classical, even opera and novelty songs delight listeners.

Nipper, the little black-and-white dog who sits beside a Victrola listening to His Master’s Voice, is one of the most recognizable icons in advertising. It was the first time an animal had been used to promote a product. His popularity made advertizing acceptable. Before that, advertising was considered to be in bad taste. The Nipper Corner has dozens of images and models of the dog: statues, salt-and-pepper shakers, pictures, posters, and painted on coasters and serving trays. Most were the collection of Dr. Lynwood Heiges collected all things Victrola for 65 years, storing them in his basement until it overflowed.

The Johnson Victrola Museum is located at 375 S. New Street in Dover. It’s open Wed-Sat 9-4:30. Admission is free (so is parking), but donations are welcome.  302-744-5055.  More information on Delaware Museums.

Photos: ©Fran Severn

Read another article by Fran Severn on Delaware museums:

Biggs Museum of American Art: Where the Walls do Talk



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