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The Musical Box Story
( Article orginally published December 1959 )
The early Swiss musical boxes played only operatic airs. The programme or tune sheet was a thin card, handwritten in French, pinned on the inside lid or stuck under the box. About 1840, patriotic songs, popular ballads, and folk songs were added to muisc box selections. Cards, more elaborately designed, were engraved from copper plates, the names of the tunes still handwritten in ink. From 1850 to 1860 programmes of six or eight waltzes were immensely popular. Cards grew fancier, lithographed in color or gilt with Swiss landscapes, opera figures, or portraits of composers. With their disc boxes German makers introduced music hall tunes, and could furnish the latest popular songs as well as the national airs for each country to which they exported their boxes. Hymn tunes were made in quantity. On the late cheap boxes of the 1880s and 1890s, elaborate colored program sheets, almost as large as the lid itself were fastened inside it with brass nails.
Below: No one knows for sure who invented and made the first musical box movement-it is most frequently attributed to Louis Favre, a watchmaker of Geneva, early in the 18th century. Certainly, the making of musical boxes gained impetus and was first developed into an industry in Switzerland. By 1770 Swiss watchmakers were setting musical movements into watch cases, using a tuned steel comb played upon by pins or pegs set in a cylinder or disc. By 1800 they were making tiny music boxes with 15 to 25 teeth tuned to scale, separately screwed into position on the comb, and played upon by steel pins set in a brass disc. These played only the simplest airs. Shown is a tiny playing unit, 1800.