“Magic”Johnson’s Aladdin caves: where to find out more about the great music inventor

By Carey Fleiner

For a man who is not well-remembered outside of specialist circles, Eldridge Johnson has left behind a lot of physical material and resources. For example, if you’d like to read Johnson’s personal papers, you can visit the American Heritage Center in Laramie, Wyoming, USA; Johnson’s son donated 48 boxes of personal and business papers there in 1975. You can access copies of some of these papers, including Johnson’s diaries from 1901 to 1930 at the EMI Archive in Hayes, Middlesex, England.

One autumn day at the EMI Archive(author’s photo)

 The Victor factory became the RCA complex in Camden, New Jersey, until the 1990s, where it, along with the Campbell Soup Factory, was one of the principle employers in the area; the Camden Historical Society has a number of materials and artifacts related to Victor and RCA-Victor.

Edison has his own museum, of course, but so does Eldridge R. Johnson, the Johnson Victrola Museum in Dover, Delaware, a dedicated building housing lovely things related to the man and all things Victor. The Museum was founded by Johnson’s son in 1975; the mid-‘70s were a boom-time in the US for little Museums because of a huge interest in preserving American culture at the time of the Bicentennial.

Exterior of the Johnson Victrola Museum (author’s photo)

The Museum is a two-story building nestled in the center of historic Dover; the ground backs up to a small church whose cemetery contains the remains of the Fenimore family (Mrs Johnson was Elsie Fenimore, you see.) The Museum holds literally thousands of Victor 78s (the last count the archivist gave me was ‘somewhere between 50 and 80 thousand.’ Think of the weight alone!) There are over 100 Victor and Victrola models from an example of the  earliest improved gramophone model for Berliner to the huge orthophonic machines of the last years of Victor.

Display of Victrola models (author’s photo)

There is a reproduction set-up of a typical record shop of Victor products, and numerous Victor advertising, ephemera, and memorabilia.

Mock-up of a turn-of-the-century record shop at the Museum (author’s photo)

Johnson’s office has been reproduced with his desk and comfy chair and many of his personal possessions, including his posthumous Grammy. Upstairs are more machines and horns related to the whole history of recording, many of which donated by a private collector with an apparently very understanding wife – so you can see an Edison tinfoil machine and a couple of Bell’s graphophones; if you’re looking for anything to do with Zonophone, there is a photo of Mr and Mrs Frank Seaman in one of the cabinets. The other Victor celebrity roosting in the museum is Nipper in lots and lots of forms.

One of many displays of Nipper toys and memorabilia at the Museum (author’s photo)

The pride and joy of the museum is one of the autograph Barraud paintings sent to Johnson from Barraud himself (and the third painting the artist made after the original ‘His Master’s Voice’ and a second one for the Gramophone Company).

Since Johnson secured use of Nipper ‘as he saw fit’ Nipper is more prevalent in the US, whereas in the UK, he is very strictly licensed by HMV. So keep in mind, these are Victor and RCA-Victor flavoured Nippers.

The museum is an Aladdin’s cave of wonderful machines and memorabilia – and while the Museum was closed down in 2009 due to budget cuts in response to the recession in 2008, the State of Delaware has re-opened the museum (as of May 2011) almost to its full schedule. The Museum’s holdings are also kept by the State Archives in Dover in a state-of-the-art facility – while you have to make a formal request to see things kept in the Archives, the Museum is free to the public.

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Ladies get the horn with nasty big gramophones & consign them to the closet! Victrola explained

By Carey Fleiner


The majority of record buyers at the turn of the twentieth century were women, and the record player, while an interesting, new technology, was also an invader into the tasteful sanctuary, that was, their home. Men’s literature, such as Scientific American or The Gramophone, touted the tech specs of talking machines – which needles to use, what was the latest in tone arm technology, and how, in terms of talking machine horns, size really does matter. But the open-horned, table-top gramophone was an awkward beast perched in a sitting room or parlour – they took up a lot of room, and the horns were vulgar dust-catchers.

Model from the Johnson Victrola Museum; volume control was literally shoving a sock down inside the horn (hence the expression, ‘Put a sock in it’) (author’s photo)

Thus the advent of disguising the gramophone as furniture. It was after all women who made the decisions about what furniture was or was not coming into their home at the turn of the century. The gramophone and its cultural advantages on the one hand and its awkward shape on the other posed a real dilemma for the modern woman: she had aspirations towards creating a charming parlour to serve as a sanctuary and private refuge for her family away from the outside world, but she also wanted to be a part of the new, progressive world.

Johnson spent the first few years of Victor drawing in women buyers with advertisements on the one hand, and the creation of the Victrola on the other – if women didn’t like the sight of the horn, no matter how beautiful or decorated they were

Loads of horns at the Johnson Victrola Museum, Dover, Delaware, USA (author’s photo)

(after all, this is the era where special covers were made to hide the naked legs of pianos), then the horn would have to be tucked away. It wasn’t an entirely new idea to camouflage the phonograph – there’d been, for example, a short-lived fad to disguise gramophones as table lamps!

A brief, interesting experiment in phonographic camouflage

And ladies were already accustomed to utilitarian machines doubling as furniture, especially considering the beauty of Singer Sewing Machine cabinets. Alexander Graham Bell, in fact, had devised a graphophone model that was married to the treadle of a sewing machine, albeit less for aesthetic purposes and more to find a solution to the problem of handcranking the record player.
One of Bell’s treadle-powered graphophones at the Johnson Victrola Museum, Dover, Delaware (author’s photo)

Hence the Victrola: beautiful cabinets which doubled as tasteful pieces of furniture. The model names – the Gothic, Louis XVI, Jacobean, Chinese Chippendale —  conjured up images of old world sophistication; they also hid the horns behind cabinet doors (which might also conceal convenient shelves for record album storage as well.) Victrola is wordplay on the part of Johnson, combing the words Victor and pianola, another middle-class source of entertainment popular at the time.

Victrola models at the Johnson Victrola Museum (author’s photo)

Johnson was no fool, and while any horizontal surface was fair game for the myriad knickknacks beloved by Edwardian women, one will notice that most Victrola cabinets have rounded tops – it’s impossible to pile on top of them the vases, lamps, and assorted essential tchotchkes that would have made accessing the machine an annoyance.

Notice one can still place stuff on the sideboards, but the critical lid to the gramophone is rounded; Johnson did this deliberately as he figured once women started piling stuff on top of the machines, it would be too much trouble to have to clear them to use (author’s photo)

So now the fine lady – or middle or working class lady with aspirations – now had the perfect hostess’ companion.

The Victrola was beautiful and unobtrusive – in some advertisements, it’s barely in the picture.


Notice the Victrola tucked off to onside, and the cosy scene around it

Johnson’s relentless advertising campaign of the new design meant that ‘Victrola’ became a generic term for any sort of wind-up talking machine.

So when is it a Victrola? When it is a Victor machine, of course, but when the horn is concealed in a cabinet.