A music box is a small box containing an automated musical instrument which plays a melody when the box is opened, or the mechanism which powers the instrument is wound.
Music boxes feature a steel comb with teeth individually tuned to different musical notes, which are plucked by the pins on a revolving drum or wheel in a sequence which plays the melody.
Some boxes feature a fixed drum or wheel, whereas others feature replaceable parts, allowing the melody to be changed.
Smaller music boxes are sometimes found in the form of wooden inlaid keepsake or jewellery boxes, containing a small musical mechanism which plays when the box is opened.
Other earlier, more elaborate boxes can vary in size from table-top boxes to large pieces of furniture and feature other instruments such as bells.
Boxes from the 19th century are considered among the scarcest and most esoteric types of antiques in the marketplace, and there is a large community of music box collectors with numerous organisations and societies such as the Musical Box Society International and the Music Box Society of Great Britain dedicated to the area.
There are also publications and websites which offer advice for collectors and tips for restoration.
Early music boxes
The music box has its roots in the large musical mechanisms found in steeples during the 15th and 16th centuries known as ‘carillions’. They consisted of massive rotating wooden cylinders with projecting pins, which triggered large bells to ring in sequence.
This concept was first miniaturised by Swiss watchmaker Antoine Favre in Geneva in 1796, when he replaced the bells with pre-tuned metal strips. Switzerland became the home of music box production, and from the early 19th century the industry was centred in the region of Sainte-Croix.
By 1811 music boxes represented 10% of Switzerland’s exports.
The mid-1800s saw music boxes become a staple of many wealthy households across Europe.
As the technology developed the musical arrangements became almost unlimited, and many cylinder boxes could hold between six and 12 individual tunes.
In 1865 watchmaker Charles Reuge settled in Sainte-Croix and quickly became associated with the finest quality musical boxes and pocket watches which the company continues to produce to this day.
In 1870 boxes which used discs instead of cylinders, known as symphonions, were developed in Leipzig, Germany. The discs were easily changeable and the boxes became the primary form of music box sold in Europe until the time of World War I.
A number of manufacturers were operating during this period, including Myra, Regina, Porter, Symphonion, the Imperator and Polyphone Company and the F. G. Otto Company of New Jersey. The increase in wages and growth of the middle class caused by the Industrial Revolution meant music boxes were no longer merely for the incredibly wealthy, but they still remained luxury objects for the majority of people.
However, Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877 led to the development of cheaper methods of bringing music into the home.
By the 1920s phonographs were affordable and records were far cheaper than music box discs.
A small number of manufacturers survived, but hand-made music boxes became high-end luxury items once more as they were surpassed by modern technology.
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