The Jukebox Story: Rise and Fall

In the first half of the 20th century the jukebox industry grew by fits and starts, influenced primarily by the political and economic factors of the time: two world wars, Prohibition and depression among them. But by mid-century technical innovation and changes in American culture, most notably the emergence of a teen culture and the growth of rock and roll, set the jukebox up for its two-decade long heyday.

While some of the earliest jukeboxes, those that were invented in the late 19th century, were placed in bars, the lack of broad amplification proved limiting in that setting. So initially jukeboxes were largely used by the curiosity seeker in arcades. While we are acc;ustomed to the idea of jukeboxes playing pop music, the early versions included classical and orchestral music, something that early 20th century listeners could otherwise only hear through live performances.

Prohibition was enacted in the U.S. in 1920. That meant the closing of saloons and the illegal speakeasies that replaced them were subject to closure at a moment’s notice, not something that made their owners eager to invest in a jukebox. New types of entertainment, the radio and the movies, were gaining in popularity and record sales were declining. But technology changes positioned the jukebox for growth in the next decade. In the late 1920’s new models were introduced that both increased the number of musical choices and provided the electrical amplification that brought the music to an entire room of people.

Prohibition ended in 1933 and with it bars reopened and new establishments were created, expanding the potential market. During the Great Depression, few individuals had the resources to buy their own phonograph equipment so nickel-a-shot coin-op players were an attractive alternative. There were musical influences as well. Jazz and swing music found their way onto jukeboxes, as did the African-American artists who were often not played on white-run radio stations. In 1934, 18,000 jukeboxes were produced. Three years later, in 1937, that number was 210,000. (Source Dead Media Archive-NYU Dept. of Media, Culture and Communication.)

Soda fountain jukebox
Soda fountain jukebox
Fort Bragg jukebox
Fort Bragg, N.C., 1942

The now-defunct web site Toms Zone tracked jukebox production from 1935 to 1979. The research showed that more jukeboxes, 291,000 of them, were produced during the period 1935-1939 than any other half decade. In the first half of the 40’s, that number slipped to 112,000 as jukebox manufacturing plants were repurposed to produce war supplies and materials. 

Wurlitzer, the company that would be the leading producer of jukeboxes until 1950, got into the business in 1933 when Farny Wurlitzer, the youngest son of founder Franz Rudolph Wurlitzer, acquired a patented jukebox machine. By the end of the decade Wurlitzer was turning out 35,000 a year. 

The fortunes of the jukebox makers often mirrored those of the record industry. As America began to emerge from the Great Depression, record sales picked up. And a significant portion of those sales were for use in jukeboxes. 

The late 1940’s saw another round of technical innovations that would position jukeboxes for a new growth spurt. The wall box was invented. A way to remotely access and play a jukebox, the wall box was perfect for restaurants, diners, soda fountains, ice cream parlors and any place else that had booth seating. By 1949, the smaller and lighter 45 rpm record was replacing the 78 rpm. Seeberg led the way in developing the 45 rpm based jukebox and the company produced a model that offered 100 choices, 50 45’s played on both sides. These innovations vaulted Seeberg into the lead among jukebox manufacturers.

50's jukebox
(Image by Alex Holyoake)

But there were other things happening in America that had an even more profound influence on the popularity of the jukebox. Rhythm and blues and later rock and roll replaced the jukebox standards of 1940’s swing music.  At the same time, teenagers were emerging as the country’s cultural trendsetters. Rock and roll was the music they listened and danced to and the jukebox happened to be planted in the very places they would hang out. That is something that record companies were keenly aware of. It is estimated that 75% of the records produced during that time went to jukeboxes. Often they went to jukeboxes first as the companies saw jukebox users as a test market. Since jukeboxes could record the number of plays per individual song, Billboard started an index based upon jukebox plays, something that would continue until 1959.

Depending on whose numbers you go by, there were between 700,000 and 750,000 jukeboxes in operation by the mid-1950’s. By the 1980’s that number was down below 300,000 and some estimate it to be as low as 175,000. What happened?

(Image by Alex Antropov)

For one thing the number of options for accessing music was growing. The transistor was invented in the 1950’s and by the 1960’s, most teenagers walked around with a transistor radio. Portable cassette players, aka boom boxes, were popular by the 1970’s and at the end of that decade Sony introduced the first Walkman. Also by the 60’s rock and roll was no longer just for the plugged in hanging out at the diner or soda shop. It had gone mainstream, there were all kinds of rock and roll radio stations and TV shows. On top of that teenagers were to be found more often in different venues. Live music was back in vogue and there were numerous concert halls and converted old theater spaces offering up rock bands. The 70’s saw the rise of discotheques and DJ’s took precedence over jukeboxes. Wurlitzer stopped producing jukeboxes in 1974. Seeberg went bankrupt in 1979. The company division that made jukeboxes was subject to a number of acquisitions and mergers, but by the mid-80’s it too was gone. 

An AP story published in the New York Times on July 21, 1982, described it like this:  “It was found almost anyplace people gathered to eat or drink — in soda shops and pizza parlors, diners and truck stops. For a nickel, then a dime and now a quarter, people could play if they were willing to pay.

“Those days may be over. Beset by rising costs, declining profits, video games and even Muzak, the coin-operated music machine, or jukebox may soon be a distant melody.”

The jukebox never again achieved the penetration it had in the 50’s. But the AP’s doomsday forecast didn’t come about either. Since the 90’s there have been about 250,000 jukeboxes in operation. CD’s and later video DVD’s offered new options and eventually they became digital, with much greater available music selections and much less commitment in terms of space and operating expenses for the establishments that housed them.

Two companies still make classic jukeboxes. Rockola in the U.S. was one of the original “big four” jukebox producers. There’s also a UK company, Sound Leisure, building the classic style models. A market has emerged among collectors as well as the nostalgia eateries like Johnny Rockets. Those guys need a jukebox almost as much as they need the burgers and shakes.

Sussex County retro restaurant
The Chatterbox, Augusta, N.J., 2018

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8 Responses to The Jukebox Story: Rise and Fall

  1. 250,000 jukeboxes still in use. That’s a lot, and that’s good. Take care, Ken.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Sandra says:

    Mel’s diner out this way still has jukes at each table.

    Nice work on this part of our history! Thank you

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I think the Wall Box was the beginning of the end … if you could just hide in your private booth and pick whatever you wanted to listen to, the sense of community was lost. A jukebox song is meant for the community. It was like the office water cooler, a gathering place, and a place to help create the mood for everyone. If you’re just sitting in your booth, aren’t you mostly just thinking of what you want to hear? But, when you had to walk over to the jukebox, there was maybe a small feeling of responsibility for the entire place as you chose your songs. (Plus, maybe, just maybe, that cute boy over there would notice my uber-cool taste in music.)

    Liked by 2 people

  4. What fun to read about jukeboxes. I was fascinated with them as a child–not sure that ever actually wore off. Like drive-in movie theaters, you have resurrected some great growing up memories with your jukebox series!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. bballscholar says:

    Ken, this is good information. I had no idea that jukeboxes we’re still around.

    Liked by 1 person

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