"jukebox" and "nickelodeon"

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri Jun 30 16:26:47 UTC 2000

Victoria Neufeldt at Merriam-Webster writes (inter alia):
>Just for the record, here are the results of my quick check in our old
>citation files (didn't have time to do this earlier):
>The Dec 25, 1939 issue of Time had a couple of interesting letters to the
>1)     "Sirs: Perhaps I am getting behind in my knowledge of slang, but
>where did you get the name "juke box" for nickel phonographs in your article
>about Glenn Miller? (Time, Nov. 27).  In Michigan, Indiana and Ohio,
>everyone calls them "Groan Boxes" and the expression, "Flip a nickel in the
>groan," is generally understood.  Have you any other nicknames on file?
>G. Carlton Burandt    Coldwater, Mich."

The 1939 reference to the jukebox as a 'nickel phonograph' above reminds me
of a term that for a while overlapped with it, NICKELODEON (yes, for you
youngsters, before the cable network appropriated the name).  It's hard for
anyone of a certain age not to think of 'nickelodeon' in the jukebox sense
without that old (c. 1950?) ditty popping up--

Put another nickel in,
In the nickelodeon,
All I want is lovin' you
And music, music, music

--but the OED makes it clear that the 'jukebox' sense of "nickelodeon" was
a transfer from the original, and it's that original that underlies the
network's appropriation.  But note that this transferred use of
'nickelodeon' evidently slightly predated the appearance (in attested
print) of 'juke box' itself.  And the role of Florida jook houses is
reinforced by that '38 cite.

1. A theatre or motion-picture show for which the admission fee is a
nickel; a place containing automatic machines to provide amusement, which
can be used
for a nickel. Also attrib.

       1921 Ladies' Home Jrnl. June 79/1 It is this class which first
patronized the old nickelodeon, and undoubtedly it imposed its tastes and
its traditions
       on the picture makers.

       1927 F. Hurst Song of Life 292 The nickelodeons and the gewgaw shops
of the most terrific city in the world.

       1930 Time & Tide 27 Sept. 1206 The film was..handed over by the
scientists to the `nickelodeons' of America.

       1938 Encycl. Brit. Bk. of Year 422/2 The old nickelodeon programmes.

       1939 C. Morley Kitty Foyle 68 A dance floor and a nickelodeon piano.

       1955 G. Greene Quiet American 188 It must have belonged to the same
era as the nickelodeon.

       1973 Publishers Weekly 10 Sept. 45/2 The development of American
movies from nickelodeon days to the 1970s.

2. A `jukebox'; a machine that automatically plays selected gramophone
records on the insertion of a coin. Also attrib.

       1938 Florida Review Spring 25/1 The requisites of a place entitling
it to the name jook are..presence of the nickelodeon, and..of the

       1949 Sat. Even. Post 15 Jan. 88/3 A nickelodeon at the end of the
street emits a tinny piano tinkle.

       1957 J. Frame Owls do Cry 76 Putting money in the nickelodeon.

P.S.  There's a very interesting thread the Mechanical Music Digest (from
January 1997) archived at
on the subject of whether "nickelodeons" were not true juke boxes but only
nickel-operated automatic pianos; the consensus is that term was indeed a
generic encompassing what we now call juke-boxes as well as the automatic
pianos played at movie theaters and elsewhere.  Principles of lexicography
are batted back and forth, and the term "orchestrion" is also touched on,
as well as "honky-tonk".  Amazing what you can find on the web.


More information about the Ads-l mailing list