Automatic record players activated by putting a coin in them were one of the earliest methods of making money from Thomas Edison's phonograph invention. The juke box really came of age in the 1930s and 1940s when the Great Depression almost eliminated the sale of records to individuals and made the coin-slot record player an important source of musical entertainment. These machines brought specific kinds of music to the public and played a part in the ascent of swing and rock 'n' roll as mass movements of popular culture.
The failure to develop a long-playing record in the first half of the twentieth century put a premium on technology which could automate the process of playing several records one after the other. The first automatic record changer was patented in 1921, and it was followed by many different devices that could pick and play discs; some could even play both sides of a record.
The first coin-slot machine with electronic amplification and a multi-record changer was produced in 1927 by the Automatic Music Instrument Company. AMI was joined by J. P. Seeburg, Rudolph Wurlitzer, and the Rockola Manufacturing Company in devising coin-slot machines with advanced record-changing mechanisms that could select from 20 or 24 discs.
At the end of the 1920s, only around 50,000 of these machines were in use, but the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 brought about a dramatic change in social life as Americans flooded back to bars and clubs. No popular drinking establishment was without one. The name juke box originated from the lingo of the South, where dancing or "jooking" to records was a popular pastime. Small drinking establishments with only recorded sound as their musical entertainment were called "juke joints." Here patrons would dance to blues or country music that they selected from the discs stored in the juke box. In the hedonistic atmosphere of these bars, loud dance music, comedy routines, and raunchy songs about sex were popular choices on the juke box. Dancing was a very important part of social life, and swing records on a juke box were the next best thing to attending (and paying for) a live concert. The juke box made the most of the technological development of amplification and loud speakers. It could project sound to every corner of a bar or soda fountain. The very loud volume of the playback made it possible to hear and dance to the music above the noise of a crowded bar. For listeners during the 1930s, juke boxes gave them the highest volume of sound reproduction outside the movie theater.
The Great Depression drastically cut back the sale of records, which many considered to be a luxury good. Radio became a major source of music in the home, but listeners still wanted to pick the music they wanted when they wanted to hear it. Instead of buying a record for a dollar they paid a nickel to hear it on a juke box. During the 1930s the number of juke boxes in use rose to a high of 500,000, and they could be found in taverns, pool halls, restaurants, hotels, cafes, bus stations, and even beauty parlors. More than half of the nation's juke boxes were in the South. The store of records in the nation's juke boxes required changing every week, and by 1936 over half of all record production in the United States was destined for them. The demand for records for juke boxes provided valuable work for musicians during the Depression, especially for jazz and blues musicians, whose livelihoods were most threatened by the bad economic times. Many of the classic jazz and blues records of the 1930s were made for juke boxes.
The customers' choices of recordings provided valuable information in the marketing of recordings, and juke boxes were fitted with indicators that displayed to the operator which of the discs were the most popular. Returns from juke boxes were an important indicator of the growing popularity of rhythm and blues records in the 1940s and then rock 'n' roll in the 1950s. Independent record companies often had to resort to bribery to get juke box operators to use their records, and there were allegations made that this lucrative business was often in the hands of organized crime. In the postwar years juke boxes became larger and more ornate; the modernistic designs of Wurlitzer made the coin-slot machine stand out in a bar or restaurant. But the days of the juke box were numbered as a booming economy allowed consumers to buy their own records. Attempts to produce video juke boxes in the 1960s and 1970s were technically successful but could not return this machine to the dominant place in public entertainment it enjoyed in the 1930s and 1940s.
Chapple, Steve, and Garofalo, Rebe. Rock 'n' Roll Is Here to Pay. Chicago, Nelson Hall, 1977.