History, Victrolas and Village Greens … A Visit to Dover, Delaware

 Delaware's old state house on the Green in Dover - On this site, the Declaration of Independence was read for the first time on July 29, 1776 to the citizens of Dover.

Delaware's old state house on the Green in Dover - On this site, the Declaration of Independence was read for the first time on July 29, 1776 to the citizens of Dover.

On our recent trip north from Chesapeake to Boston, we took the opportunity to stop for a day in Dover, Delaware. Why, you ask, Dover, Delaware? Well, first, because it’s there; and, second, we’ve never stopped there … only driven through. Delaware is that kind of state. It’s small and doesn’t seem to be a destination in itself. Delawareans, however, might disagree.

Delaware has some claims to fame. It proclaims itself “The First State”, i.e. the first state to have signed the new Constitution of the USA in 1787. The state insect is the ladybug and the state bird is the blue hen chicken... that’s kind of unique, even though the blue hen chicken isn’t actually a specific chicken breed. The first log cabins in the U.S. were built in the state and Delaware was home to the annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event until last year when a local television producer was severely injured. Another amazing fact … the state has the world’s largest concentration of spawning horseshoe crabs. It’s also a no-tax state … and as my friend Melanie pointed out … “A dollar really costs a dollar!” All in all, these are kind of interesting and unusual aspects of the country’s second smallest state.(Rhode Island is the smallest in case you were wondering.)

 The Johnson Victrola Museum was the initial incentive to visit downtown Dover.

The Johnson Victrola Museum was the initial incentive to visit downtown Dover.

I was not initially drawn to the state capital of Dover for any of these reasons, however. Rather, I read a small article about the Johnson Victrola Museum and since we tend to enjoy rather obscure, offbeat, unusual museums, I convinced David it was worth a stop. We wondered how an entire museum could possibly be devoted to the Victrola. In case any Millennials, Gen Xs, Ys or Zs are reading, Victrola was a brand of phonograph (music playing device) that played 78 RPM records (before CDs were invented).

We were soon to learn more about Victrolas than we thought humanly possible to know. Our docent, Susan, was knowledgeable and friendly and, since there was no one else in the museum, we had her all to ourselves. Eldridge R. Johnson is the unlikely hero of this story.

 Johnson created a multi-million dollar company which was later sold to RCA Victor.

Johnson created a multi-million dollar company which was later sold to RCA Victor.

From a humble beginning in a ramshackle workshop in Camden, NJ, this 29-year-old machinist developed, manufactured and promoted a phonograph which he labeled the Victrola because he thought Victor was a strong word and lots of things during that period were “-olas” … payola, Motorola, Crayola, Coca-Cola. He built the company into a multi-million dollar enterprise which he later sold to RCA.

 Nipper - mania - We learned about Nipper, the iconic terrier that posed for the company’s trademarked logo and “His Master’s Voice” painting.

Nipper - mania - We learned about Nipper, the iconic terrier that posed for the company’s trademarked logo and “His Master’s Voice” painting.

 We saw huge collections of 78 RPMs and Susan played a few tunes for us on antique devices that were enclosed in ornate cabinets built by fine woodworking carpenters of exotic woods.

We saw huge collections of 78 RPMs and Susan played a few tunes for us on antique devices that were enclosed in ornate cabinets built by fine woodworking carpenters of exotic woods.

 Older devices had no volume control and on occasion socks were used to muffle the sound. We wondered if the common expression “Stick a sock in it” had its origins here.

Older devices had no volume control and on occasion socks were used to muffle the sound. We wondered if the common expression “Stick a sock in it” had its origins here.

An hour and half later, we emerged from the museum and walked a couple blocks to the village green. Being from New England, I’m used to “town commons” where folks used to graze their livestock, hold public events and the local militia practiced. The Dover Green was lush and open, surrounded by stately historic buildings like the old State House and the Court House. On a perfect summer’s day, it was a pleasure to wander around and take it all in.

 The historic green - Dover, Delaware

The historic green - Dover, Delaware

 The Biggs Museum of American Art is considered world class, but we felt we didn’t have enough time to do it justice, so we left it for another visit.

The Biggs Museum of American Art is considered world class, but we felt we didn’t have enough time to do it justice, so we left it for another visit.

Delaware_Dickinson plantation.JPG

We did manage to visit the John Dickinson Plantation for an hour or so. A Quaker, Dickinson was an early abolitionist and statesman and his plantation home is a national landmark. Barbara was our docent and gave us a thorough, albeit brief, tour of the family plantation house.

As usual, the day waned before we explored all that we wanted to explore … an excuse for returning to the First State. We hear that Lewes (pronounced Lou-ess) is quite a nice little town. Who knew?