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A Short History of the Jukebox

It is not certain where the term ‘jukebox’ comes from, but it has been suggested that it comes from the American South where bars playing jazz and blues were called ‘jook joints’. The name ‘Jukebox’ was not commercially adopted until 1937, before then they were referred to as phonographs.

Although Thomas Edison developed a coin-operated phonograph in the late 19th century, the automatic record player was not introduced until 1906 and it was not until the 1920s, when electronically recorded records became available that we saw the kind of jukeboxes that we would recognise. The newly developed changer system was able to pick out the records, play them on the turntable and then return them to their holding place.

The early jukeboxes would have been found in the speakeasies during the Prohibition, they were heavy veneered cabinets with fabric-covered speakers. By the late 1930s they had become quite flashy, with light-up, dome-topped cabinets in bright colours and plastic would have been used for the first time. The models of this period would have been around until about 1948 and they are considered to be part of the golden age of the jukebox.

How did they become so popular?

Part of the popularity of jukeboxes can be laid down to World War II and the fact that the US armed forces took their American music with them wherever they went and left a trail of jukeboxes wherever they had been stationed. With the advent of the rock ‘n’ roll craze in the 1950s the demand for jukeboxes went through the roof and companies such asWurlitzer ande Seeberg exported their machines worldwide.

As the technology advanced jukeboxes were able to store up to 100 discs and the cabinet designs became more and more elaborate, heavily influenced by the 1950s American motor car and its bodywork. The look was sleek, streamlined with flashy chrome fins, dashboard style consoles, gleaming bumpers and glass windscreens. The age of the jukebox had arrived.

The Main Manufacturers of Jukeboxes

There were five main manufacturers of jukeboxes throughout the 20th century:

AMI started production in 1909 as the National Automatic Music Co. They had designed a mechanism that allowed music rolls to be selected and this was first used in automatic player pianos and then adapted for record selection in jukeboxes, the first of which was produced in 1927. This mechanism was the first that could play both sides of ten records – it was used for the next thirty years. The company was re-named Automatic Musical Instrument Company (AMI) after World War II. During the 1950s licensed manufacturing agreements created BAL-AMI, which was the largest British manufacturer of jukeboxes in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s 1957 Model H jukebox was heavily influenced by popular automobile styles of the time, complete with chrome bumpers and tail fins.

Seeburg was one of the first manufacturers to have a multi-select jukebox. In 1949 it developed a mechanism that could play both sides of fifty records and it was so reliable that few other manufacturers could compete. Seeburg introduced the M100B in 1950 – it was the first jukebox that could play 45rpm records and this was followed by the V200, the first 200-select jukebox. They continued manufacturing jukeboxes throughout the 1970s and 1980s until they were bought by Seeburg Satellite Broadcasting.

Wurlitzer is the one everyone will have heard of and that is the name we think of when someone mentions a jukebox. They were initially known for their large theatre organs and they then went on to produce highly decorative, illuminated jukeboxes that played 78rpm records and they dominated the market during the 1940s. Through their use of wood, veneer, chrome, plastic, coloured lighting and animation the jukebox was as entertaining as the music it played. With the onset of the 45rpm record in the early 1950s Wurlitzer lost a great deal of market share and as demand faded so did the Wurlitzer name and they finally went out of business in the 1970s.

Rock-Ola was founded in 1927 by David C Rockola, they manufactured coin-operated scales and pinball games. In 1939 they introduced the successful Luxury Lightup series of jukeboxes, followed by the Magic Glow range in the late 1940s. The company was sold to businessman Glenn Streeter in the early 1990s and he revived the brand and again made Rock-Ola one of the leading jukebox manufacturers in the US.

NSM was founded in Germany in 1952 and was quick to conquer the European jukebox industry. It was successful into the Nineties with its CD mechanism and miniature, wall-mounted jukeboxes.

Why did Jukeboxes go out of Fashion?

The popularity of the jukebox began to decline in the 1960s when diners were replaced by fast food chains and jukeboxes were replaced by television sets. Also, teenagers began listening at home to long-playing records and transistor radios.

However, with the current interest in anything vintage and the timeless appeal of rock ‘n’ roll there has been a revival in the interest in jukeboxes and they have become very collectable. You can have them adapted to play your own music, you should contact a major jukebox dealer to arrange this. If you buy a vintage jukebox that needs restoration you should get a qualified restorer to do this for you.

If you are interested in collecting jukeboxes, they are not cheap. While at the lower end you might get one for around 1,000 a classic Wurlitzer can cost anything between 6,000 and 10,000.