Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The jukebox debuted: November 23, 1889

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Photo from Caption said, “For a nickel apiece a thrilled group tunes in on a screechy jukebox in the 1890s.” Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

The jukebox became popular in the 1950s, but its origins actually go back more than 50 years. The first jukebox was installed in the Palais Royale Saloon, although some accounts say the Palace Royal Hotel. The saloon, on 303 Sutter Street, was owned by Frederick Mergenthaler.

The Pacific Phonograph Company constructed the jukebox from an Edison Class M electric phonograph in an oak cabinet. The machine had no amplification, so four patrons at a time could listen via stethoscope-like tubes. A phonograph could only handle one song at a time, so it was only changed every day or so. At a nickel per play, the machine made $1000 in its first six months of operation. Incidentally, a nickel in 1889 would be more like a dollar today.

Louis T. Glass, the entrepreneur who patented the device, originally called it a nickel-in-the-slot player. In 1879, Glass left his job as a Western Union telegraph operator. He turned his interest to being a general manager and investor in telephone and phonograph companies.

The device eventually spelled doom for the player piano, or self-playing piano. As for the term jukebox, its origins aren’t clear, but it appeared in the 1930s in the southern U.S. and may derive from music played in a “juke house”, or brothel. The term “juke” was black American slang for dancing and brothels were some of the first places to install jukeboxes.

Meanwhile, the phonograph grew through 1920 to become a mass medium for playing music. In the mid-‘20s, the radio became prevalent and during the 1930s the jukebox became a popular means for sharing dance records. For more about the development of the phonograph and gramophone, check out the Dave’s Music Database blog entry “Thomas Edison Invents the Phonograph: August 12, 1877”.

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