A Brief History
On November 23, 1889, the Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco became the home of the first public jukebox, a coin operated contraption that played records on demand. Once found in malt shops, bars, restaurants and even strip joints, the big chrome and glass machines were a great part of Americana and were celebrated in song and prominently featured in many a movie or television show. A big manufacturer of juke boxes, Rock-Ola, even made M-1 carbines for the US military during World War II. With the passing of the vinyl record, jukeboxes turned to playing CD’s, but most of those have also disappeared, and today you only rarely find one of these former hallmarks of American living. We have frequently talked about things that we either do not see anymore (or at least rarely) and things that did not exist back when the author was born (January 1957). Today we will stick to those things that have become obsolete or even relegated to museum pieces.
Questions for Students (and others): What items would you add to the list? Can you think of anything that was common when you were born that is pretty much gone now? What by-gone items do you miss the most? What items or practices would you like to see go away?
Rock-Ola, Wurlitzer, Seeburg, these brand names were once as common as Indian Motorcycles. (Hey, those disappeared, too, but have come back as a new company.) Here we are discussing the real deal, record playing juke boxes and not the poser units that play CD’s! Joan Jett sang about “Put another dime in the jukebox, Baby,” Foreigner sang about “Juke Box Hero,” and Ernie Maresca shouted “Put another dime in the record machine!” Cultural references to juke boxes were once quite common. In 1977, the Rock-Ola brand geared up for a run of “nostalgia” machines playing vinyl records for private ownership. During World War II Rock-Ola built over 228,000 M-1 carbines and those carbines bearing the Rock-Ola name are the most highly collectible. Today most pay to play type of music devices you may find in a bar, restaurant or the like is most likely a digital machine. Do you remember Fonzie (Henry Winkler) getting the jukebox at the malt shop (Arnold’s) to play with a strategic rap of his fist?
2. Nurse Caps.
Nurses used to be overwhelmingly female, and female nurses used to be required to wear a specific uniform that included a specific “nurse cap” that was unmistakable and used for no other purpose. Today, nurses generally wear scrubs (as do a lot of civilians bumming around town) and the hats are gone, left to those dressing up for Halloween. Nurse caps go back, waaaayyy back! Back to the early Christian period when nuns performed nursing functions. Those early nurses were known as “deaconesses.” (Trivia: The author was born in Deaconess Hospital, a now defunct Cleveland hospital.) The modern nurse cap became well known with Florence Nightingale in the 19th Century with an eye toward keeping the nurse’s hair out of her eyes and off the patients. During the 1970’s American nurses began protesting the requirement to wear the familiar nurse hat that once symbolized a nurse passing all required classes and testing to earn her license to practice, and by the late 1980’s the nurse cap was virtually extinct in the United States (except for Halloween costumes). They really did look nifty, but we understand why nurses did not want to wear a sexist and dated symbol anymore.
3. Stewardesses and stewardess hats.
Much like the nurse’s hat and uniform, once upon a time virtually all “Flight Attendants” were young women. Airlines hired young, presentable women dressed in smart, sexy outfits with neat little caps, kind of like the cigarette girl at a casino (another bygone thing!). Stewardesses could be fired for gaining too much weight and were forced out for getting old. (The nerve of them!) When men started encroaching on the Flight Attendant occupation, those males were not force to wear short skirts and smart caps, and of course the name of the job changed from the gender oriented “Stewardess” (the male equivalent would be “Steward”) to Flight Attendant. Arbitration, negotiation and lawsuits finally led to the (mostly) disappearance of stewardess caps and sexy uniforms. Today while you are getting patted down and harassed before boarding, being charged for every bag you bring, and being crammed into a seat considerably narrower and with less legroom than back in the Stewardess days, you will be lucky if you even get a free little bag of peanuts.
4. Mailman hats and uniforms.
Men and women alike that carried mail used to have a very specific uniform, including only the approved brand and model of shoes and a regulation cap, similar to that worn by a police officer, milkman, and even taxi driver back in the day. Today, part-time postal employees do not have to wear the uniform, and all sorts of uniform exceptions (shorts, etc) are available to letter carriers. The much reviled hat is no longer forced upon the letter carriers, either. With the tremendous decrease in paper mail (snail mail) today one has to wonder if the mailman (or mailwoman) himself is an endangered species. As the reader can readily determine from this list, hats used to be a Big Thing! Men would automatically wear a dress hat anytime they went out in a suit, and women were required to wear hats to church. Hats and caps have become much more casual in nature and mostly optional. (We wish neckties would disappear…)
5. Milk Delivery.
The milkman (we are sure there was a milk-woman out there somewhere, but in my entire life I never saw one) used to drive up and down residential streets in a slow moving van type of truck and walk to the side or back door of each house on his route to take the empty milk bottles and replace them in the milk chute (built right into the house by the door) or into an insulated metal box with full bottles of milk. Customers could leave a note to have the milkman leave other dairy products (cottage cheese, sour cream and the like) or chocolate milk as well as regular milk. Of course, in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s the milkman wore a uniform and a hat. This door to door service pretty much disappeared in the 1980’s. (If you know of anywhere that still has such service, let us know.) Cleveland, Ohio, had the last of the horse drawn milk trucks (in larger cities) into the 1950’s, disappearing by mid-decade.
6. Ice Cream trucks.
Yes, there are still some of these purveyors of cold treats still plying neighborhood streets, but certainly not like before. These white trucks (almost always white) would slowly go up and down residential streets playing the tune to “Do Your Ears Hang Low.” (Trivia: The ice cream truck tune has racist origins.) The driver or his assistant would sell to the eager children (sometimes adults) that would come running to the truck from an opening in the side, often to a throng of pushy, shouting, grimy kids desperately clutching their coins. Unfortunately, over and over again little kids that ran toward the ice cream truck were run over by oblivious drivers of cars that did not see the kids. The eager children, desperate to get to the truck before the other kids, often ran right into the path of oncoming vehicles without looking. In many towns the use of the loud and familiar jingle was prohibited because of pedestrian fatalities blamed on rushing to the ice cream truck. Today, you rarely find ice cream trucks going up and down residential streets, and instead find them safely parked in parking lots adjacent to playgrounds, little league fields and similar places. Part of the reason for the drastic decrease in residential prowling of ice cream trucks is the fact that there are considerably fewer children in neighborhoods today than there were in the baby boomer era of the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. Oh, and the ice cream guy usually wore a white outfit with a white hat. (Of course!)
7. Cap guns.
Yes, we know these toy guns still exist, but nothing like before. Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s just about every boy (and plenty of girls) owned multiple versions of cap guns in the guise of (mostly) revolvers, pistols, and long guns. Roll type caps were the most prevalent type, but green or red little round paper caps were also pretty popular. Later a plastic variety was marketed that made a significantly louder report. Sensitive people today would be aghast at the non-stop banging away at each other kids used to do. Playing “Cowboys and Indians,” “Cops and Robbers,” or “Army” may have sent a social message that would be unacceptable today but at least the kids got physical exercise playing those games! (Unlike the blob children of today glued to their seats playing video games.) For that matter, those named games are largely gone, too. Once upon a time the smell of burnt black powder from several (or more) rapidly firing cap guns permeated neighborhoods. Today a kid would be expelled from school for bringing a cap gun to school. Times change.
8. Smoking in Public Places.
Restaurants and airplanes used to have smoking and non-smoking sections that were a joke because the smoke went wherever it wanted to go. Your meal or flight could be ruined by being seated directly next to a smoking section. Not only has smoking disappeared from restaurants and airplanes, but smoke filled bars and work places are also pretty much a thing of the past. Fewer Americans than ever are smoking, and even sports stadiums have mostly gone smoke-free or allow smoking only in designated places. I well remember sitting directly behind people smoking cigars at baseball games and darn near passing out from the fumes (as a young lad). Even doctors smoked! Now most government buildings and schools do not allow smoking, often not even in outdoor areas. In June of 2010, the small Himalayan country of Bhutan totally outlawed all tobacco products. Can we be next? Bonus comment: One thing we wish would never have been invented is “vaping.” Perhaps the practice of “smoking” E-cigarettes is not as harmful to the user, but we really do not know that yet. The practice is definitely not a good thing, though time will tell just how bad it is. Then there is legalized marijuana… a whole other subject.
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For more information, please see…
Coontz, Stephanie. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. Basic Books, 2016.
Leigh, Peter. The Nostalgia Nerd’s Retro Tech: Computer, Consoles and Games. Ilex Press, 2018.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Joe Mabel of a Seeburg Select-o-matic (1949) at “The Stables” behind Full Throttle Bottles, Georgetown, Seattle, Washington, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. You are free:
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Joe Mabel, the copyright holder of this work, published it under the following license: Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled GNU Free Documentation License. This jukebox handles up to 100 LPs and presumably dates from the 1950s.