Monday, 15 October 2007

Antique music boxes are a joy to the ear

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I ASSURE you that listening to music as I write this is purely as an aid to concentration.  The fact that the music is being beamed to my desk via the Internet and coming from stereo speakers connected to my computer is purely incidental.

Click here for a music box slideshow

But it is worth stopping for a moment to consider the technological advances we’ve seen, even during the 20-odd years I’ve been writing this weekly column.

Time was when I wanted to listen to my favourite artist, I’d select the appropriate 12-inch plastic disc, place it on an electrically driven turntable, and set a needle on it. Talk about the dark ages (though I still cannot bring myself to part with my collection of plastic discs!).

When our grandparents and great-grandparents wanted the pleasure of having music in

their homes, they probably produced it themselves. Singalongs around the piano was a part of everyday life, nowadays sadly replaced by the TV set (or computer).

But there was mechanical innovation even then. Thanks to the quality of craftsmanship, it's still possible to listen to a whole medley of Victorian music hall tunes on the very same machines that were playing them when they were in the hit parade.

For the uninitiated, the term mechanical music machine covers such gloriously eclectic inventions as barrel organs, Polyphons, music boxes, phonographs, pianolas, organettes and Symphonions.

However, that delightful tinkling sound from a music box or Polyphon can have a ruinous effect on your bank balance, unless your pocket is particularly deep.

It's unlikely there'll be much change out of about £1,200-£1,500 for a reasonable Swiss-made music box from the late 1800s, while a small Polyphon could be yours around £1,000.

Miniature musical movements were probably invented by Geneva-born Antoine Favre and had been in existence since about 1796.

The cylinder music box first appeared in about 1820. In these, a clockwork movement causes a brass cylinder to revolve. The cylinder is set with tiny projecting steel pins which pluck a metal “comb”, each tooth giving a different note.

Sound reproduction was crude, but advances including the use of tiny feather quill dampers and, in 1838, the introduction by important makers Nicole Freres of a two-comb machine - one playing louder than the other for a more dynamic sound - soon set the music box on the road to success.

Further innovations turned the "machine" into an orchestra. In about 1850, miniature beating drums, castanets and chiming bells were added and from about 1860, these were positioned in full view. Today this adds greatly to the value of a music box.

STEPHEN KEMBER is a specialist dealer in mechanical music boxes and he pointed out some of the things to watch out for when making a purchase.

Importantly, careful inspection of the revolving cylinder will reveal any bent pins. The bass end or any sections that drive accessories such as bells or drums are especially vulnerable. An excessive number of damaged pins will impair the music and repinning the whole cylinder is the only expensive solution.

Look also for excessive pitting to the surface of the comb, missing teeth and tips and badly repaired sections. Corroded tuning weights (suspended beneath the comb) will be indicated by a fine white deposit around the affected area.

Should a whisper, click or grating noise be heard whilst playing,the likely cause will be a worn comb or dampers that are out of alignment or missing. Dampers are small pieces of fine wire fixed to the underside of a comb that curl up to meet the comb tip. In the case of a disc box, the damper, in the form of a delicate leaf spring, will emerge from between the tips of the comb.

Said Stephen: “Listen to and observe as many musical boxes as possible before making a commitment. Protect yourself with experience.”

Stephen Kember can be contacted on +44 (0)1959 574067 or by email at

Another important development came in 1854 when interchangeable cylinders were perfected. This meant the end of problems over limited repertoire.

Previously cylinders played only six to eight tunes which soon became tiresome. However, later boxes were sold with up to 36 cylinders, each one carrying eight tunes, although they were extremely expensive then as now.

In 1875, music boxes with four springs were developed which would play non-stop for up to three hours with a single winding.

The above will go some way to helping date a box, the type of tunes it plays is another pointer.

Until about 1835, operatic themes predominated. Ballads and folk songs took over until 1850 and music hall tunes dominated more cheaply produced boxes from 1850-1875. Classical music was reserved for the rich.

Finally, styles of cases can help with dating. Earliest were in plain oak or mahogany,  followed in the mid-1820s by polished rosewood. By 1835, mechanism controls like the winder and change/repeat levers were hidden inside under a hinged lid.

From about 1843, this flap was likely to be in glass, as was that covering the mechanism to keep out the dust. Beautifully inlaid cases first appeared in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition.

All manner of exotic woods were used for the inlay, as well as silver, mother of pearl, ivory and brass. Marquetry decoration featuring trumpets, tambourines and sheets of music was popular.

The beginning of the end for the music box came in 1885 when circular card discs were introduced which did the job of the costly to produce brass cylinders. These had perforations which caused tiny levers to pluck the comb in an adapted box called a Symphonion.

Metal discs were introduced in 1887 which were both cheap to produce and gave clear reproduction. This meant an almost unlimited supply of up to the moment tunes were available for the masses. The forerunner of today's LPs if you like. Cylinder boxes had no answer and went into decline.

The other great name in disc music boxes was Polyphon, formed by two breakaway Symphonion workers. However, the competition was not without its legal problems. Lengthy court battles over patents continued throughout 1896, but both companies survived to continue production and become the market leaders.

Both also produced massive floor standing machines intended for use in cafes and bars. These were coin-operated and in 1897 also featured a self-changing device so that customers could choose tunes from a number of discs. Hey presto, the forerunner of today's jukebox!

Of course, if all this is too rich for your pocket, you could always opt for the forerunner of the hi-fi, the good old wind-up gramophone, and you can still buy one for less than £50. There are more expensive ones, particularly those with horns, special mechanisms or beautiful cabinets. But the run of the mill wind-up is still well within the reach of the individual.

That, coupled with the ready availability of old 78 rpm records - despite children's attempts to turn them all into plant pots (remember, you used to poor boiling water over them so they'd melt) - make them a natural target for the collector, particularly youngsters.



Anonymous Jeanine Thompson said...

hello-Can you give me an estimate of a music box that has been in our family for a very long time. Maker: Conehon-Geneva, Switzerland -1875
wind up
repaired by:G.A. Vidden, Barrington, R.I.
Thanks, Jeanine Thompson

21 March 2010 at 17:13  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

Difficult question to answer without more information. Number of tunes, size, case details etc etc. Send me some images and I'll see what I can do.

22 March 2010 at 03:39  
Anonymous Kathie said...


I am trying to date a Music Box, and find out the value. Do you know how I can find this information out?

I an send you pictures, it is small approx. 3x3x1.5 inches. It is ornate and looks like brass, it has a decorative clear cover over the mechanism.

Thank you,

25 May 2011 at 15:13  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

Thanks for your post. Yes please, do send me images and details of any maker's marks or inscriptions. I'll see what I can do.

26 May 2011 at 04:20  
Anonymous Brenda said...

I have what i believe is a 1800's wind up music box .It is in working condition , has 4 songs on it great ..Has an autograph in pencil on bottom but hard to read . Has a Swiss emblem on top( you can feel ) it ..Is not a stamp or wood piece... I can fwd pics if I can get an address to fwd them to. Hope you can help me, to find out more info & value on this piece .Thank you!

11 August 2012 at 14:45  
Anonymous Graeme Power said...

I bought a Music Box from a Garage Sale, it is quite old, very plain and missing its lid along with other issues like teeth missing from the comb, I guess to someone it is absolutely worth restoring and I am happy to move it on to that person but I would like to know if it is really worth (to me) the trouble of restoration, i.e. would restoration cost more that its shop value? some people enjoy the process of restoration immensely, I do to but don't want this to become a black hole for my wallet.

29 August 2012 at 15:27  

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