Let the music play...in the world of antiques

Our antiques expert Allan Blackburn takes a look at the history of jukeboxes.

This Rock-ola jukebox is in good working order and is on sale for 595 pounds
This Rock-ola jukebox is in good working order and is on sale for 595 pounds

With Covid restrictions on going, this week I’m thinking about what we‘ve missed the most over the last year. I think as humans, we’ve all just missed each other: being able to socialise, greet each other with a hug, eat a meal inside, host a party, have a dance or just be together.

Gathering together for a drink and a singsong has been part of our culture for centuries, and for anyone growing up in the 1950s, the sight of a jukebox like this is likely to generate a wave of nostalgia for classic Americana, rock ‘n’ roll, and the invention of the teenager.

The jukebox’s forerunner, the first coin-operated ‘phonograph’, debuted in San Francisco in 1889, with a coin slot that activated just the one Edison wax cylinder. Instead of speakers, customers held a tube to their ears, but it was an instant hit, earning its makers $1,000 in just six months, one nickel at a time.

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Technology developed, through the first electronic jukebox in 1927, to their 1950s ‘silver age’, when every place where people gathered had to have one. Ruled by the ‘big four’ manufacturers: Wurlitzer, AMi, Rock-ola and Seeburg, most collectors have their favourite, with heated debate over which manufacturer is king!

Serious collectors tend to restrict their investment to pre-1960s, which is why this fantastic later Rock-ola jukebox is on sale for £595. In great working condition, you would be very lucky to find much similar for less than £1,000, so this could well be a good starting point for a novice.

For many collectors, the fun in jukeboxes lies in their restoration, and the internet is full of enthusiasts sharing tips on renovating the display or looking after the mechanics. Most pre-1960 models in working condition will cost £5,000 upwards. Introduced in 1956 to mark the company’s 100 year anniversary, only 4,000 Wurlitzer’s 2000 Centennials were made, so one will set you back around £30,000 today!

The design of jukeboxes is an important element in their collectability. The early dome- shaped jukeboxes from the 1930s are triumphs of Art Deco design with lots of coloured plastics and lights, while the 1950s version glory in sleek chrome and clear glass.