Eldridge R. Johnson and the Cooper Library
Michael Brunken

The Cooper Library and Johnson Park were both gifts bestowed on Camden by Eldridge R. Johnson. Both the park and the library are memory works in that they shape how we in the present think about Eldridge Johnson. The messages embodied by the library and its environs nudge us toward certain conclusions about his character, his interests and his morality. The question that this paper will explore is whether that perceived image corresponds with what we know about Johnson himself.

What we know about Eldridge Johnson comes from histories written about him and his biography written by his son and his wife. Accounts of Johnson depict him as a peerless entrepreneur. He was born in Wilmington, Delaware to Asa and Caroline Johnson on February 18, 1867 (Barnum 13). After Caroline’s death in 1869, Johnson was sent to live with his great aunt Elizabeth and uncle Dan on their farm in Kent County (Eldridge). Eldridge attended Wesley Conference Academy from 1878 to 1882. Approaching graduation, a teacher at Wesley discouraged Eldridge’s parents from sending him on to higher education, saying that he was too dumb for anything but trade work. In 1882, he moved to Philadelphia where he was an apprentice at the firm J Lodge and Son at 103 South Hudson Street (Barnum 13). There, he worked 60 hours a week repairing wire stitching machines. The work itself was hard and extremely monotonous. Johnson learned to do nothing but build and repair stitching machines. After 4 tortuous years, he moved across the Delaware to the Standard Machine Shop headed up by foreman Belford G. Royal. The Standard Machine Company was purchased in 1886 by Captain Andrew Scull. The Captain wanted a business for his son John, who had recently graduated from Lehigh University with a mechanical engineering degree. In 1888, while working working on the design for a new stitching machine, John died. Distraught and without interest in the repair business, Captain Scull offered the work of finishing the book binding machine to Johnson. He assumed the role of shop foreman and finished the machine in 1890 (Barnum 14). After a brief stint in Washington state, Johnson returned to the Delaware Valley to find Captain Scull unable to market the stitching machine. The Captain offered half of all future profits to Johnson in exchange for retooling the machine. After two years of intense labor, Johnson sold the machine and set up The New Jersey Wire Stitching Company to market it. In 1894, Johnson bought out Scull’s remaining share in the shop and renamed it the Eldridge R. Johnson Machine Company.

In 1896, now with his own shop, Johnson was introduced to Emile Berliner’s gramophone by Belford G. Royal, the shop foreman who had hired him when he was starting out (Barnum 14). Immediately, he began tinkering with the Berliner-Gramophone. To Johnson, the machine sounded like, “a partially educated parrot with a sore throat and a cold in the head” (Barnum 14). He added a spring motor and an improved sound box to improve the quality of reproduction. In the same year, Johnson began developing a different recording process. In place of the wax cylinders, he used pressed wax discs made from a master record . In 1897, Emile Berliner ran into trouble with New York advertising agent Frank Seaman. Seaman had recently signed a deal with Berliner for the exclusive sales rights to Berliner’s products in most of the United States (Barnum 16). While Seaman had this exclusivity, he was not happy with his markup. In order to turn a greater profit, Seaman set up the Universal Talking Machine Company and began marketing his own version of the Gramophone, the Zonophone. To protect his investment, Johnson set up the Consolidated Talking Machine Company and began producing his own commercial recordings (Barnum 21). On October 3rd, 1901, after extensive legal battles and maneuvers, the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, NJ was incorporated with Eldridge Johnson as President (Barnum 23).

In 1901, Victor’s sales totaled $500 dollars. In 1902, Fred Gaisberg heard Caruso sing in Milan and offered a contract to record with the Gramophone Company. Caruso agreed for the sum of £100 pounds. In 1903, Caruso made his debut at the Met, and sales of Victor machines started to rise. By 1903, Victor sales had climbed to $500,000 dollars and continued to rise. From 1912 to 1917, the Camden plant underwent enormous expansion. Buildings 6, 7, 18, and 17 were expanded to accommodate increased activity. Upgrades were made to the power plant in building 4. Buildings 11, 13, 1, 5, a second power plant, new coal yard and the Nipper windows were all installed during this period. According to Barnum’s history of Victor, the growth in sales was driven in part by Johnson’s tinkering and his ability to respond to customer demands. The Victrola horn, while iconic, was not a welcome addition to most homes. In response, Johnson built the victrola, a gramophone with the horn concealed inside a wooden cabinet (Barnum 40). In 1917 alone, the Victor company sold 573,000 instruments and over 47 million records. It was in this time of prosperity for the company, that Johnson began planning the Johnson library.

In 1915, Johnson made the proposal to give Camden a free library. The only two catches were that Johnson would personally oversee the planning and construction of the library and that the city would pay for the upkeep of the building and the grounds (Sepanic). In 1918, the library building was completed. Built in the neoclassical style, the library featured a mosaic frieze made by D’Acenzo studios, the same studio that produced the stained glass nipper windows. The title of the piece is “America Receiving the Tribute of Nations.” It depicts America as Columbia, a popular personification of the nation at that time, flanked by cherubs and eagles seated in front of the Great Seal of the United States. The nations personified include Japan, Babylonia and India. Japan offers ceramics while Babylonia offers textiles. Several famous figures from the history of printing and poetry also make appearances. Gutenberg, the German inventor of the printing press and the first to print the bible appears next to Tyndal, the first to translate the bible into English. Famous writers including Palestrina, Longfellow, Shakespeare and Whitman appear next to to Mozart and Washington (Sepanic). The mosaic was composed of 100,000 pieces and was two years in the making (New Jersey). The light fixtures on the front of the building were made in the style of 1920’s featuring a flower that erupts into a corinthian column. The interior of the building is richly decorated, with columns made of pink marble.  Greek symbols, including the Rod of Asclepius (the symbol of healing and medicine), and gold leaf adorn the ceiling. The total effect of the building is to recall ancient Greece, the first democracy and the intellectual history of Western Europe. 

In 1921, Johnson donated the land surrounding the library to the city as a park under the condition that he would supervise the landscaping. Johnson’s idea was to give the park a child friendly  atmosphere. To that end, he commissioned a statue of Peter Pan from sculptor Sir George Frampton . The dedication of the statue was itself a momentous event. a Peter Pan pageant committee organized over 3,000 schoolchildren from Camden, Merchantville, and nearby towns to depict scenes from the story of Peter Pan. Schools closed early, and over 10,000 people from across the region attended. Surrounding the statue is a gate designed by Otto Schweitzer featuring geese, herons, fish and turtles (Sepanic). Other ornaments in the park include a statue of the god Pan designed by Albert Laessle which was placed to represent spring and rejuvenation. Embedded around these statues are smaller stone mosaics depicting characters from nursery rhymes, including Tom Thumb, Little Bo Peep, and Humpty Dumpty. The story goes that Johnson planned to fill the wading pond with lilies. However, when the children began to play in the pool, he cancelled the lilies and installed bathhouses instead (Sepanic). During the hot summers, children and adults flocked to the pools to bathe, even if they never set foot in the library. Jim Blessing, a former resident of Camden, recalled days in the city during the summer, “In the heat of summer in the City, Johnson Park (or actually Cooper Park, as most North Camden kids called it then) was a place where a lot of kids gathered to romp in the fountain and climb on all the statues that surrounded the center area” (Sepanic). Indeed, the fountain with its bridge are ideal for climbing and play.

The construction of the library and the appointment of the grounds occurred during what is perhaps the apex and the decline of Camden. In 1915, during the beginning of construction, Camden was known as the “biggest little city” in the country. In 1920, neighborhoods in Camden were demolished to make way for the construction by the Ben Franklin Bridge (Cammarota 188). Around the same time, apartment complexes were built in suburbs like Haddon Heights and Merchantville. By 1926, Johnson was ready to sell his stake in Victor and retire. he sold his share to the investment banking firm J.W. Seligman. Seligman in turn sold the company to the RCA Corporation (Eldridge). RCA was looking for an existing manufacturing plant to produce its radios and the sprawling Victor complex in Camden fit the bill perfectly (Cowie 14).In the same year, construction finished on the bridge. In 1929, the stock market crashed and tolls collected on the bridge exceeded $3 million dollars. Over the next several decades, Camden would retreat from its position as a cultural leader in South Jersey as the suburbs rose to greater prominence (Cammarota 213).

Johnson’s approach to donating the library differed from Andrew Carnegie’s, a steel tycoon who built libraries across the country. Carnegie would donate the seed money for a library. But, he would only donate to communities that petitioned him directly. He insisted that the majority of the funds for construction and upkeep of the library come from the community receiving  the library. By contrast, Johnson donated his library wholesale, asking only for control over the construction of the library and park and that the city pay the cost of upkeep. The library functions as a way to control the perception of the Johnson legacy. While collective memory changes through a process of constant reconstruction, a monument is an attempt to ensure that an impression of the builder endures (Gillis 3). Even though Johnson lived most of his tenure as president in Merion, PA, the impression conveyed by the library is that of a grateful philanthropist giving back to the city and the people that had allowed him to amass his fortune (Eldridge). An aura of intelligence attends one who donates a library. It might have been important for him to be perceived as a cultured person. One might also think that he enjoyed children from the subject matter of the statuary and the layout of the grounds .

There is reason to distrust this impression. First of all, Johnson had full control over the planning and building of the library. This means that he could sculpt his message without oversight and set it in stone (one of the most permanent building materials). There is also reason to think that the handsome gift of the library was meant to cover up past atrocities committed by a very rich man against his poorly paid workers. The master narrative of the bourgeoisie versus the proletariat pervades our collective memory and it asks us to scrutinize Johnson’s motives for building the library (Connerton 1). Also, feminism has made us skeptical of seemingly benevolent patriarchs. In my opinion, the library was not a way to expunge a sordid past. Unlike the robber barons of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Johnson seems to have distinguished himself with his lack of guile. According to Fenimore Johnson, Eldrigdge’s son, Mr. Johnson was a great fan of Alice in Wonderland. In fact, he bought one of the original manuscripts for Alice which he ordered in 1928. He enjoyed reading even though he was denied the opportunity to pursue higher education in his own life.  Also, it doesn’t appear that Johnson was trying to cover up crimes against his workers with a gift to the people of the city. According to what I can find, working conditions at Victor during Mr. Johnson’s tenure were adequate. There are no incriminating pictures of children assembling victrolas on the factory floor. The pictures that I have been able to find feature men working in tolerably clean conditions in the cabinet assembly facilities. In 1913, Victor offered a life insurance policy and a pension plan to its employees (Barnum 90). Provisions for worker’s safety were made in the construction of the new buildings. Fireproof stairs and exit doors were accessible so that the entire cabinet factory of 5,000 workers could be evacuated in 15 minutes (Barnum 56). On the other hand, the electronics industry, of which RCA was a part, was infamous for employing women almost exclusively for the assembly of their machines. RCA used women because management could pay them less than they would a man. Assembly work was advertised as “women’s work” requiring fast and sure hands needed for an activity like sewing (Cowie 18). While this legacy was absorbed into the Victor history after the merger of the two, this tactic wasn’t a part of Victor Talking Machine Company under Eldridge Johnson’s tenure.

The gift of the library might have been the result of Johnson’s  ennui. According to his biography, after the sale of his stake in the company, he was casting around for activities in which to invest his time. He started a collection of precious gemstones, but grew bored and paid another collector to finish it for him. In fact, most of his biography is devoted to patent battles, yachting, hunting expeditions, and yet more yachting (Johnson 55). However, the donation of the library was part of a broader philanthropic initiative throughout the Mid Atlantic region. In addition to the library, Johnson established  the Johnson Foundation for Research in Medical Physics at the University of Pennsylvania along with several other foundations to funnel his money to charities. He also built a community center in Moorestown, New Jersey where he lived out the remainder of his years. As a an industrialist, Johnson does not get as much attention as his near contemporaries Andrew Carnegie, and Andrew Mellon though he was one of the richest men in America. His philanthropy was not as trumpeted as Carnegie’s because, as his son attests, he did not seek recognition for his good deeds (Johnson 65). Most of them were done on the sly, without his name attached. Originally, no one knew the name of the donor who funded the construction of the community center in Moorestown (About). He did not cast as wide a net as Carnegie. There are nearly 2500 Carnegie libraries across the United States, all with the name Carnegie attached to them. Johnson only built one library, and it’s official name is the Cooper Library. Also, unlike Andrew W. Mellon (financier and later Treasury Secretary) , Johnson did not seek a political career after he retired (About). According to his son Fen, he detested the political machine that controlled Camden in the early twentieth century (Johnson 37). Johnson receded into the background so thoroughly that he has almost disappeared from memory along with Camden’s glory days.

Rather than cover up a contemptible past, the Cooper Library and Johnson Park seem to be examples of a good deed quietly done. As we see from Jim Blessing’s account, the Johnson name began to disappear even from the park. Johnson’s hand would be almost invisible now that the overwhelming presence of Victor has been significantly diminished, except for a small plaque at the library entrance. 

Works Cited

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Barnum, Fred. “His Master’s Voice” in America: Ninety Years of Communications Pioneering and Progress : Victor Talking Machine Company, Radio Corporation of America, General Electric Company. Camden, NJ: General Electric, 1991. Print.

Cammarota, Ann Marie T. Pavements in the Garden: The Suburbanization of Southern New Jersey, Adjacent to the City of Philadelphia, 1769 to the Present. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001. Print.

Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. Cambridge [England: Cambridge UP, 1989. Print.

Cowie, Jefferson. Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-year Quest for Cheap Labor. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1999. Print.

“Eldridge R Johnson.” Eldridge R Johnson. Phonojack, n.d. Web. 13 May 2013.

Gillis, John R. Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1994. Print.

Johnson, E. R. Fenimore. His Master’s Voice Was Eldridge R. Johnson: A Biography. Milford, DE: State Media, 1975. Print.

“New Jersey, a Guide to Its Present and Past;.” Google Books. The New Jersey Guild Associates, Inc., n.d. Web. 10 May 2013.

Sepanic, Mike. “Johnson Park Restoration.” Johnson Park Restoration. Communications Office of Rutgers University, n.d. Web. 11 May 2013.