History of the Music Box

It is not possible to give a name or date for the development of the music box mechanism in Europe. Rather, people in the course of time toyed with certain separate elements which in the end came together to produce the music mechanism as we know it. Already in the 15th Century in Flanders a cylinder with pins operating cams was invented to regulate the ringing of bells, a necessary step in the development. But it is generally accepted that the first known “music(al) comb” was used as a gadget by the swiss clockmaker Antoine Favre in 1796 and incorporated in watches, snuff-boxes and other objects.

The musical comb is made from steel, hardened and tempered in a certain way so that no bending of the comb will occur and consists of a number of teeth in varying lenghts. By plucking teeth, usually by a pin on a cylinder, a note is produced that will vary depending on the length of the tooth. The pins on the cylinder are placed in such a way, that by rotating the cylinder at a certain speed, a melody or song is produced. The number of teeth can vary from 8 or 9 to several hundred. The music boxes in this collection have generally 9 to 30 teeth, with a concentration around 18/20 teeth. The cylinder is powered by a spring, to be wound by a key or similar device and the speed is regulated by a governor. All components are fixed to the bedpan, usually metal as well. But copper is and has been used for music mechanisms also.

Although the first music boxes used metal disks, the switch to cylinders was made in the very early years of the 19th Century and this is still the method of choice for most music boxes and musical toys from this collection.

The development of the music box took place from the beginning of the 19th Century till the early 20th Century and therefore reigned, in various forms, as the mechanical music of choice for just over a century. By the early 20th Century the gramophone and mechanical piano took over, due to their better and louder music. They are also more programmable.

Still, a much smaller industry survived to this day for people interested in this type of mechanical music and the more complicated Items it could produce. Other firms went out of business or switched their business model, back to watches and clocks for some.

Around the 1880’s, starting in Germany first, music boxes progressed from working with cylinders to metal disks, increasing the properties of the mechanical music. Another development was the wooden or hardboard “books” as used in street organs. Some music boxes were developed with only bells or a combination of bells and comb. Music boxes became larger and more complicated. Another development was to incorporate a bellow or bellows, with a modified wind instrument, to produce the melody of a bird “singing”. The mechanism for a singing bird was first developed in Switzerland in 1780 and improved upon in 1848 in Paris, France.

By using more than one spring, the time of playing could be extended, sometimes to one hour or more. Also, by tilting the cylinder at the end of a song, accessing a different set of pins, more than one tune could be played on the same comb in the box. And a further development in the 1860’s enabled users to exchange cylinders, each playing a different melody on the same comb, specially for larger cylinders/boxes.

All these mechanical music boxes were relatively costly for the general public and therefore limited to the higher society of the times. For the amusement of the general public though, coin-operated machines were developed and put in public places as railway stations. These machines were built very sturdy to take some abuse in use and therefore quite a few of the coin-operated machines survived and can be found now in museums and private collections.

If one thinks of museums for music boxes, they will collect and exhibit the mechanical music boxes and contraptions from mainly the 19th Century to the early 20th Century and maybe some examples of later date, but the emphasis is on the 19th Century.

Just after WW11 Sankyo (Seiki) started making the music box mechanism as a smaller model, 9 to 30 teeth, in an industrial way; and with its low production cost at the time, it opened up a new market for music boxes, as in jewelry cases and many novelty and gift Items. Sankyo themselves used them early in musical key rings and later in figurines. A whole new industry developed around this.

But also some of the surviving music mechanism makers in Europe, as Reuge and others in Switzerland revitalized the market, with still affordable but more up-market objects, in the case of Reuge, many based on wood carving and wood inlay, carrousels, etc.

What happened after WW11 is the basis for my collection.