Retired insurance salesman William Raith drifted around the Baltimore Art Museum's new exhibit of vintage jukeboxes on a cloud of memories.
The jukeboxes and their old song titles took Raith, 69, back to World War II, when he and his Coast Guard buddies stationed in South Baltimore would spend weekend evenings at a USO club dancing with young women from surrounding towns. In those days, he said the other day at the exhibit, it seemed as if the music never stopped.
"You can associate each song with someone you knew or an episode in your life," he said. "This brings an awful lot home."
Jukeboxes, for decades the heartbeat of American nightlife, are enjoying an encore of sorts in the exhibit that opened during the weekend. Twenty-eight jukeboxes made between 1934 and 1952 and in mint condition are on display until Nov. 17. They are on loan from Richmond art collectors Sydney and Frances Lewis, the founders of Best Products.
"They're here because we consider them part of 20th-century decorative arts," said assistant museum director Brenda Richardson. "They are interesting in the way they look and in the way how the look evolved."
Museum officials said they believe three decades of social and cultural changes are chronicled in the evolution of jukebox design. There are spare wooden boxes from the Depression era; lavish art deco designs of the pre-World War II period; simple, utilitarian models from the lean war years; and garish, high-tech machines from the exuberant postwar era.
Few museum visitors could be more enthusiastic about the jukebox show than Dorothy Brown, a 41-year-old security guard assigned to the exhibit. For her, it brings back vivid memories of the 1950s.
"Oh, it was exciting. It's an exciting time of life, when you're a teen-ager," she said. "As soon as you saw the box sitting there with those lights, you felt you had to move, to swing."
The number of collectors of vintage jukeboxes is growing, said Richardson, adding that she does not know of any previous extensive jukebox exhibit at an American museum. She estimated the value of the machines on display at $5,000 to $20,000 each.
The early jukeboxes, simple wood cabinets, gained popularity in Prohibition-era speak-easies that could not afford to hire live orchestras. The style of music offered on a nightspot's jukebox set the tone of the place and determined its clientele. In the mid-1930s, jukebox design entered its "golden era," influenced by art deco and using illuminated plastics and fancy grillwork.
During the war years, according to Richardson, shortages of plastic and metal forced manufacturers to return to glass and wood as jukebox materials.
But by the late 1940s, some of the most garish designs returned in full flower.
A question that has been asked about jukebox tunes in every era -- from jazz to rhythm and blues to country -- must be asked about the jukebox itself: Is it art?
"I think one could look at a jukebox the same way one looks at a sculpture by [Jacques] Lipchitz . . . you look for the same line, color and form," said Richardson. "Our museum thinks design is art, and in some ways industrial art is of greater importance to people than fine art."
William Raith's wife, Anna, reading song titles from one of the 1930s jukeboxes, did a little two-step and struggled to remember the lyrics to "All of Me."
"I think they're art definitely, as much as some of the pictures in the museum," she said. "They bring back memories that it's hard to touch back to."