The Wurlitzer family had a reputation for purchasing and making very fine instruments dating back to the 17th century in Saxony (a German-speaking region that became part of Germany in 1945). In 1853, 22-year-old Franz Rudolph Wurlitzer emigrated to the U.S. to make his own way, rather than joining the family business as was traditionally done. Starting out in New Jersey and travelling to Philadelphia, he was unable to find employment until he found a job in Cincinnati as a door-to-door salesman. In 1854 he got a cashier job at a bank and was able to save enough money to contact his family back in Europe and request they send him some of their high-quality instruments. He sold a selection of woodwind instruments direct to local retailers that had previously gone through a succession of middlemen to import their instruments.
In 1856 Wurlitzer officially founded The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company in Cincinnati, Ohio as a musical instrument import business. He started out operating out of 3 small rooms on a part-time basis while still working at his job as a cashier at the bank. Wurlitzer’s import business grew quickly and moved to a new building in 1858. He opened a retail store with a showroom in 1860. He supplied drums and other musical instruments to the U.S. Army during the Civil War and by 1865 he was the largest supplier of band instruments in the country.
Wurlitzer made the transition from importing to manufacturing, and in 1880, Wurlitzer built and sold the first American-made Wurlitzer piano. The manufacturing took place in a factory located in North Tonawanda, New York. In 1889, Wurlitzer’s son, Howard joined the business. In 1896 they introduced the first coin-operated electric piano, called the “Tonophone”. In 1901 the Tonophone won the Gold Medal Award at the Pan American Exposition. The next major innovation produced by the Wurlitzer Company was the Mighty Wurlitzer. This was an organ that was used in cinemas and theaters during the silent movie era, supplying some background music.
The combination of “talkie” movies and the onset of the Depression of 1929 created very hard times for Wurlitzer. Their stock had fallen from a high of $119 a share in 1928 to $10 in 1933 and the company was in serious debt. The Wurlitzer Company convinced Homer Capehart to join their company to serve as their general manager and bring with him his rights to the Multi-Selector record-changing system that he had bought from the Simplex Manufacturing Company. This device allowed customers to insert a nickel and select a particular record to listen to on a phonograph, rather than only being able to listen to the records play in the order in which they were stacked. The Wurlitzer Company knew that Prohibition would soon be coming to an end and there would be a huge demand for coin-operated music. By 1937 Wurlitzer had sold over 100,000 phonographs and they dominated the phonograph market. The jukebox became known as the “small man’s concert hall” and today the Wurlitzer jukebox will always be associated with the Big Band Era due to its great success during that time period from the 1930s to the late 1940s. This is referred to today as the Golden Age of jukeboxes.
In 1946 the model 1015 Wurlitzer jukebox was introduced and they sold 56,000 units in less than two years. But Wurlitzer lost their edge in the jukebox market with the creation of the 45-rpm record. Their chief competitor, Seeburg, released a phonograph that was able to hold 50 records as opposed to Wurlitzer’s 24. Also, Seeburg’s jukebox was capable of playing both sides of a record, making it the first 100-selection juke. Wurlitzer was not able to come out with a competitive mechanism and Seeburg succeeded in dominating the jukebox market throughout the 1950s.
By the early 1970s Wurlitzer had virtually given up all jukebox production. They had some success in the 1980s with a return to retro and the re-release of the Wurlitzer 1015 jukebox. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1015 in 1986, it was released once more and called the “One More Time”. It was a unique juke, with 1946 styling and state-of-the-art music technology. The Gibson Guitar Corporation bought the Wurlitzer Jukebox Company in 2006 and they continue to produce jukeboxes today in their manufacturing plant in Hullhorst, Germany.