Before the TV network that defined the childhood of every 90s kid, “nickelodeon” was a word for a motion-picture theater or a jukebox.
“Nickelodeon” is composed of the elements “nickel” (like the coin) and the Greek oideion, a type of roofed-over theater in which music was performed. Thus, one could pay a nickel to see a show in a nickelodeon.†
The first use of “nickelodeon” was in 1888 in the name of the dime museum Austin’s Nickelodeon in Boston, owned by Colonel William Austin. Dime museums served as cheap entertainment for the working class, usually showing oddities and curiosities.
They were also, often as not, pretty scammy and lacking in real educational value, as the 1889 comic (above) from The Mascott New Orleans newspaper suggests. Austin’s was technically a half-dime museum, costing only a nickel to get in—hence the name.
The first motion-picture theater to use the name Nickelodeon was opened in 1905 by businessmen/political figures Harry Davis and John P. Harris in Pittsburgh. One could pay a nickel to see a show in the theater. It claimed to be the first theater to exclusively show “moving picture spectacles,” though theaters showing motion pictures had been around since the previous decade.
From that point it became a general term for a motion picture theater, usually one showing projection films.
This word was also, for a time in the early-mid 1900s, a word for a jukebox.
In 1949, writers Stephen Weiss and Bernie Baum used the word “Nickelodeon” to mean “jukebox” in the popular song “Music! Music! Music!”
Aside from the connection between music halls and a coin-operated music-playing machine, it’s not totally clear why they used this word, but the meaning caught on for a time.
On April 1, 1979, Nickelodeon became the first cable TV channel specifically for children, launched by Warner Cable Communications and named after the motion-picture theaters.
Next Steps: The Etymology of “Nickel”
The word “nickel” itself predictably comes from the metal element called nickel. The name of the element is a shortening of Swedish kopparnickel, meaning “copper-colored ore.” The Swedish comes from the German Kupfernickel, also the name of the element, but literally translated as “copper demon.”
Nickel in German was a shortening of Nikolaus, which was commonly used as a name for the devil. (Even in English, the devil has been called “Old Nick,” probably with influence from the Germanic/Saxon water spirit Neck.)
The element nickel was called a “copper demon” because often mistook it for copper, which was more valuable. The first U.S. coins called nickels were one-cent coins that were made from nickel in 1857 to replace copper pennies, which at the time were large and heavy (and obviously more expensive to produce).