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Larry Epstein's Culture Watch

The Birth of the Jukebox (by Larry Epstein)

1950s_Wurlitzer_juke_box Ah, the jukebox. Bob Dylan once said that in his youth he had been a "Woody Guthrie jukebox." The metaphor is telling. All of us have whole songs or partial lyrics stored within us that we can recall with the push of a mental button.

It's appropriate to remember the jukebox, in part because 2009 marks its 120th birthday. It was on November 23, 1889 that the Nickel-in-the-Slot machine made its debut. The setting was the Palais Royale Saloon at 303 Sutter Street in San Francisco. Louis T. Glass--generally considered the father of the jukebox--operated the machine. Fred Mergenthaler, the Palais Royale's proprietor, was willing to let Glass experiment with the new device. Glass, after all, was the general manager at the Pacific Phonograph Company just two blocks away on Pine Street. It was there that Glass, working with his business partner William S. Arnold, had built the machine.

Glass used four listening tubes that looked like stethoscopes and attached them to an Edison Class M electric phonograph. The whole device was put inside an oak cabinet that was altered to have a coin mechanism. Customers could listen to the music using any one of the four tubes. They could only listen to the same single song which was on a wax cylinder. The songs were changed usually once a day. Each tube was activated by inserting a nickel so that, in theory, four separate people could listen to the song at the same time. Customers could tell others about the song, but without amplification no one else could hear the music. Of course, that made people more willing to put the nickel in the slot themselves. When customers finished listening, they wiped off the end of the tube with a towel that was supplied. And what songs were available for the customers? Perhaps they heard "The Rip Van Winkle Polka" or "Down Went McGinty," or, sadly, the popular saloon songs that mocked various racial and religious groups.

The good people of San Francisco loved the device. Within six months 15 more machines were installed, and not just in bars. The Oakland-San Francisco ferries had them as well.

Glass, who was 44 when he first displayed his device, died in 1924 at age 79. He didn't, that is, live to see the repeal of prohibition in 1933. That event was crucial in making the jukebox popular. Once the ban on selling liquor was lifted, the jukebox dealers made a proposition no cocktail lounge or bar owner could resist: if the owners put in the jukeboxes the customers would get cheap entertainment, and the owners would get a new source of revenue.

The term "jukebox" became popular a few years later, perhaps at the beginning of the 1940s, and evidently derived from the popular "juke joints." The slang word "juke" meant disorderly and had sexual connotations as well.

Louis t. Glass has been forgotten, but, a nickel at a time, he accumulated a lot of money and changed the way Americans listened to music.

December 11, 2016

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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