The first coin-operated phonograph made its debut at the Palais Royale in San Francisco in 1889. The brainchild of Louis Glass and William Arnold, it featured a coin slot that activated an Edison Class M Electric Phonograph. There were no speakers (customers held a tube to their ears) but despite this limitation, the contraption earned its entrepreneurs $1,000 in just six months, one nickel at a time.

The Glass/Arnold/Edison machine was not really a jukebox in the way we know them today, but it did lay the groundwork for the Gabel Automatic Entertainer in 1906, which was. The hand-cranked Entertainer played 10-inch discs instead of wax cylinders, offered customers more than one selection (usually a Souza march), was amplified, and could tell slugs from real coins. Though primitive by today’s standards, the Entertainer was the state of the art for more than two decades.

In 1927, the Automatic Music Instrument Corporation (AMI) introduced the first electronic jukebox. Suddenly every place where people gathered — be it a roadhouse, café, or house of ill repute — had to have its own “automatic phonograph,” as the devices were then called. During Prohibition, no self-respecting speakeasy would be without one.

After Prohibition, sales initially soared, but jukebox manufacturers had created a problem for themselves — their machines were too well built and the technology was not changing rapidly enough to justify their replacement. One company, Wurlitzer, tackled this dilemma by offering healthy trade-in credits to customers. Once an old model was turned in, it was destroyed, creating the scarcity that has made some of these early jukeboxes so valuable.

Seeburg was another early manufacturer, launching its jukebox division in 1935. To differentiate its products from AMI and Wurlitzer, Seeberg hired Nils Miller, who incorporated new, tough, moldable phenolic resins into Seeburg’s Art Deco era designs. Not to be outdone, Wurlitzer also created a string of eye-catching models. In 1939, its round-cornered, wood-and-metal trimmed Model 600 was the most popular jukebox in the country. Translucent Italian onyx was used on the Model 700. And the Model 850, known as the Peacock for the birds that adorned its ornate case, used spinning acetate Polaroid discs to create a mesmerizing mini light show for its listening customers.

Another important player in the pre-war era was David Rockola, who purchased the Gabel patents and started Rock-Ola, the only surviving independent manufacturer today. The Rock-Ola machines of the post-war era (particularly the MAGIC GLO boxes with their wooden grilles, molded plastic pilasters, and gleaming chrome) are some of the handsomest ever made, although fans of the iconic Wurlitzer Model 1015 would probably have something to say about that.

By the 1940s, jukeboxes had become elaborate, almost ceremonial public objects, altars to music, if you will. Outside, their wood, glass, and plastic forms frequently echoed the prevailing aesthetic of late Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. Inside, the machines were color blind to the racial inequities that plagued the public airwaves, playing such artists as Bessie Smith and Muddy Waters (or whomever its owner thought customers would like), who were largely excluded from the radio. Thus, jukeboxes were an important part of our social culture, as well as drop-dead gorgeous machines that made people want to get up and dance...

Key terms for Vintage Jukeboxes

Phenolic resin: The principle material in Bakelite and other high-density plastics.

Pilaster: A column built into, and projecting from, a wall. In the case of jukeboxes, the pilasters are the vertical elements, be they wood or plastic, at the corners of the box.

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