Music boxes took many shapes, sizes

Mid-19th century French Palais mother-of-pearl music box in the form of a sewing casket, containing numerous mother-of-pearl utensils, the top layer being removed to reveal a music movement, 16 cm x 11 cm, realized £6,500 in 2017. Image courtesy of Hannam’s Auctioneers Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – The earliest automatic music boxes were ornate 18th century gentlemen’s pocket-sized watches and snuff boxes. These prestigious, “hi-tech” items contained minute, key-turned movements featuring strategically placed pins on revolving discs that plucked individually tuned metal combs. Because of their small size, however, their tunes tended to be tinkly.

Wooden music boxes, handcrafted luxuries created in Switzerland, Bohemia and Germany for nobility and the wealthy, appeared a decade later. Today, these rarities, which primarily played hymns and operatic excerpts, are valued not only for their rich, resonant tones, but also for their rare, “hidden” automatic orchestral movements. Charming, highly ornamented French Palais Royal music box necessaires and sewing caskets (above), some shaped like miniature grand pianos, were desirable as well. Langdorff , LeCoultre, Mertet and Paillard of Sainte-Croix were also noted early disc music box makers.

Swiss amboyna and ebonised free-standing music box in the manner of Nicole Freres, late 19th/early 20th century, the top with raised superstructure, with hinged lid opening to reveal a glazed door, with 11in. cylinder movement, with two drawers below containing spare cylinders, on turned legs, 12 cylinders in total, 101cm high x 89.5cm wide x 58cm deep, realized £2,000 in 2016. Image courtesy of Roseberys London and LiveAuctioneers

Later models, instead of discs, featured permanent, revolving brass cylinders, most powered by spring-wound, precision Swiss clockworks. Each offered a selection of prepicked airs. In 1862, Paillard introduced sensational music boxes featuring interchangeable metal cylinders. From then on, music lovers built personal libraries by purchasing new cylinders.

As cylinder libraries grew, fine, hand-carved wooden music boxes evolved into larger, more resonant, more ornate, tabletop and furniture-size home models. In 1871, for instance, Dwight’s Journal of Music (Boston), touted imported: “Music boxes! Music Boxes! Not only the little sweet-toned little Music Boxes, but larger and larger ones, up to immense instruments that produce sounds as powerful as those of a Pianoforte, and fill a house with melody.”

Regina bow-front upright music box in a mahogany case featuring carved crest with clock, a stained glass bow-front door, above one drawer, including twelve 15½-in. discs; 69in. high, 26½in. wide x 21in. deep, realized $24,000 in 2011. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

In addition, increasingly complex mechanisms allowed extended listening periods on single windings, as well as more elaborate musical renditions. Some were quite creative. Standard classical works, for example, sometimes featured unexpected, improvisatory percussive effects like plinking bells or clicking castanets. Others “choraled” strident musical snippets from beloved marches or gallops.

Large Nicole Freres Grand Overture creations, some measuring nearly 2 feet long, were the finest music boxes of their day. Most, adorned with marquetry, or inlaid with rare woods or mother-of-pearl, were custom-made in limited editions. These utilized “fat” cylinders, each with room for over 30 complex melodies, like arias from Haydn, Handel and Mendelssohn oratorios.

Costly “fat” cylinders fell from use in 1885, however, with the introduction of the innovative German-made Symphonion. The horizontal, mass-produced music box, unlike its predecessors, used flat metal discs which, like phonograph records, produced bell-like tones while rotating on turntables.

Nicole Freres Orchestration music box, featuring five interchangeable cylinders and matching storage table, containing a drum, six bells, castanets, and a 31-note reed organ, 26in. x 38in. x 28in., excellent working order, realized $7,500 in 2016. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Its discs were not only easy to store, interchangeable and easily accessible, they were also affordable. So for the first time, members of the middle class could “attend” concerts of popular polkas, waltzes, hymns, folk songs and orchestral excerpts in the comfort of homes.

In addition to tabletop and floor models (some as tall as grandfather clocks), Symphonion also produced coin-operated, free-standing, sturdy vertical models for public venues like restaurants, fairgrounds, ice-cream parlors and train stations. Those that survived are ardently sought by enthusiasts who have space to spare.

Coin-operated Polyphone music box, featuring double comb, takes 15½in. discs, with six discs, excellent working condition, realized $2,900 in 2010. Image courtesy of Prozzo Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Additional European disc manufacturing music box companies, including Baker-Troll, Britannia, Polyphon and Kalliope, created their own versions of the Symphonion. Some also incorporated music box mechanisms into dancing dolls, hall clocks, birdcages and jewelry boxes.

Realizing their great potential, several American music boxes companies, including Olympia, Crown and Criterion, jumped on the bandwagon. Reginas, however, were most popular of all. Even the 1895 Sears and Roebuck catalog extolled them: “So novel in action, so wonderful in perfect and accurate mechanism and so exquisite in its music producing qualities … that they are an instrument for the wealthiest homes and just as popular and desirable for those who are less able to invest in luxuries.”

Ornate Kalliope disc music box featuring a marble top, takes 18in. discs, coin-operated (takes 5 pfennings), in working order, 36in. x24in. x12½in., realized $3,700 in 2017. Image courtesy of Milestone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Besides designing music boxes for home use, Regina, like European makers, produced sturdy, coin-operated, cabinet models for public spaces. They also promoted Regina/Herzog Art Furniture/Columbia “inside horn” hybrids in the early 1900s – just as phonographs and player pianos were edging music box manufacturers toward extinction.

Collectors often prefer earlier, hand-crafted, cylinder-type music boxes over factory-made disc models. Scores, in addition, seek the largest, most ornate cases they can afford. Others are passionate about the essence of antique music boxes – their music. They seek models in working order, offering rich resonance, an abundance of complex tunes, many-toothed combs, along with multiple chimes, drums, castanets, triangles, and other bells and whistles.