Nothing sums up a decade more than when the Fonz bangs on the juke box to start it up, in Happy Days. The 1940s and 1950s were probably the highpoint for juke boxes but they were in wide use from the 1930s onwards. Original, early machines are valuable collector’s items today. Many people heard rock and roll for the first time when these records were dropped onto their turntable.
It’s ironic that it was a German company that came up with the accepted classic design, given that they are so associated with American popular culture. The Wurlitzer 1015-Bubbler machine is considered to be a work of art by enthusiasts. The first juke boxes were functional wooden affairs but more attention was paid to aesthetics later. Flashing colored lights, shiny chrome and curved cabinets were pleasing to the eye.
The first records used in the machines were the standard 78rpm of the day and were made from thick shellac. This continued until vinyl 45rpm records were introduced in 1950. The 1960s brought in psychedelically decorated designs to reflect the Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd songs they played. Sadly, juke boxes were gradually transformed back into the functional mode that they started with. The emphasis was on the number of records that the machine could play and design became a secondary consideration. Often, the grand piece of sculpture that graced the room was reduced to a box mounted on the wall. The glory days were over.
There are some machines that use modern technology but are housed in retro design. These are especially popular in the nostalgia market and themed 1950s diners. Real connoisseurs of juke boxes like to get their hands on the originals. Portable machines, with room for thirty or so records are quite rare and are prized items.
Technology has changed the way music is accessed and this has had an effect on juke boxes as much as anything else. CDs began to replace vinyl from the 1980s and digital machines are becoming commonplace. The digital versions simply download music from the Internet, resulting in a huge choice of songs. Video juke boxes are becoming more common too. In the MTV age we live in, fans like to see as well as hear their favorite artists. Even that old war horse, Wurlitzer is keeping up with the times and has produced an iPod version of an old idea. We can only guess what future innovations are in store.