Nearly one and a quarter centuries ago two men named Louis Glass and William Arnold introduced San Francisco’s Palais Royale Saloon with a coin-operated phonograph.
Before this, the only type of coin-operated mechanical music available was limited to inventions like the player piano and music boxes.
However, the idea of automated devices that played music traces back for centuries. A good example is the bells found inside of a clock tower that are synchronized with the interior workings of the clock to set the bells off at specific times, such as each day at the strike of noon.
Over the next six months after introducing their creation to the saloon, it earned the pair more than $1000 in profits.
Dance spots were called “juke joints” back then, and because this box provided the music, it earned the name “jukebox” which stuck.
While the 1890s saw similar machines in public places gain popularity, it didn’t really reach a large-scale medium for another three decades. But at that time the economy was still booming and people could play their own records on phonographs at home.
Music and the Great Depression
During the mid-1920s, the radio industry took off, providing people with free music – but they could still hear their own records at home, any time they wished, as long as they could afford to buy them.
And buy the latest record albums to play on their phonographs they did, right up until the Great Depression threw the world into a severe economic decline.
The music market was on a downhill slide as far as phonographs and record albums were concerned. Young people in America still wanted to hear their favorite dance tunes, and jukeboxes provided them an affordable way to do that without letting the phonograph companies succumb to financial fates like bankruptcy.
Another thing that helped boost the popularity of the jukebox was the creation of the first electrically amplified multi-selection phonograph.
Unlike original versions limited to playing just one song on a single cylinder, the new models could compete with any brass band or even a large orchestra, playing one of any number of tunes on record albums contained inside the jukebox for the low price of a single nickel.
Because taverns were smaller than large dance halls, their owners often purchased jukeboxes to help draw in crowds.
Color Blind Music
Radios at the time did not play the diverse selections they did today.
It was nearly impossible to hear lower class music, like blues or rockabilly themed hits, over a radio broadcast. For artists creating this music, jukeboxes were the perfect medium.
Patrons who heard the music had no way of seeing the album covers, and therefore no way of knowing that many of the musicians were people of color.
Many Caucasians would have rejected the music based upon that one tiny bit of information, but without it they accepted and even enjoyed the music. Up through the 1950s, jukeboxes provided a way for music from different races to blend in an America that was still very highly segregated.
After the depression, people once again had spending money and, unwilling to learn from the mistakes of a past generation, began buying up vanity items right and left.
Manufacturers such as Wurlitzer and Rock-Ola designed more modern, trendier jukeboxes created from a blend of wood, metal, and resins. Flashy lights created a colorful display that added to the newer, faster paced rock and roll hits from performers like the Beatles and Elvis Presley.
Tabletop jukeboxes manufactured by Seeburg allowed diner patrons to hear the hits of the day as they enjoyed a meal, without ever having to leave the comfort of their booth. Besides that, the little coin-operated machines were a nice complement to the chrome and neon exterior design of the popular eating establishments.
A Halt on Jukebox Production
But then for four years during World War II, in an attempt to conserve as much labor and materials as humanly possible for the war efforts, the United States government called a halt on the production of American-made jukeboxes.
Once the war was over, production started back up. Fortunately, we humans are creatures of habit. We still like shiny things, especially when they’re playing our favorite tunes. Thanks to modern technology music enthusiasts can purchase their own iTunes Digital Jukebox and play their own mp3 files for personal or professional use.
While modern jukeboxes are popular as novelty items among younger generations, some collectors of all ages still prefer the vintage versions of these music-making machines.
They not only produce the unique sound of music as heard by a record needle lightly scratching the surface of vinyl, but they are a tangible memory to an earlier, simpler time. Not to mention, they’re a priceless piece of American history, along with items like your grandmother’s blue canning jars, a retro Coke machine, or a vintage Gibson guitar.