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Romance Of The Music Box
( Article orginally published December 1944 )
A lad could have a bit of innocent, though prankish fun at the expense of his lass in the late 18th Century, and so could the periwigged gentlemen to the delight of his elegant lady.
All he had to do was to snap open his little snuff box, and low and behold! It made music. Tinkling little tunes barely identifiable at first evolved into genuine music, and there was even a hit song called "The Snuff Box. Waltz" along about 1830.
Not unlike our own Tin Pan Alley, which can grind out music to meet any fad, the little musical boxes built up their own musical genre. Probably the best known piece of the type is Liadof's "Tabatiere a Musique."
The little boxes could bring their embarrassing moments, too. It is related that in 1837 a distinguished gentleman who had a snuff box that played the then popular "Drops of Braxidy" and "The Glasses Sparkle on the Board" had it in his pocket at church.He accidentally touched the spring, to the consternation of some worshippers and to the delight of others.
Then, of course, there was the patent automatic "bustle" music box presented by an ingenious inventor to music loving Queen Victoria in 1887, the year of her Jubilee.
This was so designed as to provide a performance of the naticnal anthem of Britain, "God Save the Queen" whenever the wearer sat down. Apparently the Queen liked the idea, for she often carried her "bustle" music about with her.
Our modern music box is an elaboration and refinement of the elegant toy musical snuff box. If you have a box of some rarity or special design, you should take care to keep it well! It is worth its weight in gold.
The application of the barrel-and-pin mechanism to a comb of metal of which the teeth, being of different lengths yielded different notes, appears to have been developed toward the end of the 18th Century. And the music box remained in vogue throughout the 19th Century.
At any rate, it is the first automatic instrument of wide use. Boxes of the barrel-and-pin type were mostly manufactured in Switzerland, where it was invented, and the industry was fostered by the great Swiss watch and clock makers, who brought designs to the peak of perfection.
Our own United States protected and encouraged improvements in design through the patent system. Thus the two first federal republics of the world collaborated to bring music into the home for the first time.
Sometimes the spring is disengaged by opening the lid of the box, And there are chairs which strike up a tune when sat upon, or wine decanters which startle a guest by offering him musical as well as liquid refreshment. Fanciful devices - all variations of the original principle, still are to be found in the shop windows of Swiss tourist resorts.
The music box, incidentally, has given its name name class of simple piano compositions which, by the of the upper part of the keyboard, imitate its effect.
Just who produced the first musical box of the metal comb type remains a mystery. The last of them were turned out in the early 1900s, although the mechanisms still can be purchased today.
It was just a step for the great Swiss watchmakers, who excelled in the making of solar time measuring instruments, to the mastery of a rhythmic instrument that would turn out music. But unlike watchworks, music works produced up to 1833 were pip-squeaky indeed, with only a small volume of sound. Efforts to increase the volume of sound and range of tone resulted in the so-called cartel, or large sized music box, also first made in Switzerland.
A later improvement was the "piano-forte" music box, which could play both forte and pianissmo, as required by the music. About 1855 the "flute" music was introduced. Later reeds were added to some music boxes. A still later additional of wooden or metal whistles to the piece gave an orchestral effect.
In 1869 Franz Friedrich Kulbrich submitted his "illustrating" invention. He claimed it was a new combination (with a music box) of an apparatus for displaying a series of pictures in succession.
While details as to the actual inventor of the musical box remain obscure, two sources attribute it to Louis Favre.
L.J. Jaccard says the music box was born in the Vallee de Joux, in Switzerland near the French border. And that an inventory taken in 1789 at Geneva indicated the musical watches and musical bottles playing two airs already had been manufactured; that the development of the music box took place at two points secretly, and finally, that in an old report of an exposition, one Salomon Favre was the first Genevan to introduce music boxes in watches.
Be that as it may there are hints that the ancients knew more than a little of the possibilities of automatic music. Benson credits Plato with the original idea for the hydraulic organ through his invention of the clepsydra ( ? ) , or water clock. The ingenious device played upon flute the hours of the night when darkness precluded their being shown by the index or indicator of the clepsydra.
If, indeed, Plato's clepsydra played three or more pipes or flutes, and all the different possible combinations of these pipes, causing six "changes", we could call it the first automatic musical instrument. However, there is no evidence yet that Plato did invent a water clock with flutes producing all the changes possible.
Similarly, centuries later, the tower clocks could have been tagged the first automatic instruments if they were equipped with enough bells or gongs to produce at least six changes.
Perhaps there are but few modern collectors interested in early machinery. But with music boxes there's a difference. They are now plainly regarded as antiques. Delicate antiques. Treasures for the home and fireside.
All the cabinet making artistry the old and the new worlds could summon went into the woods, finishes, inlays and designs of the old music boxes.
A rare antique makes you think, and wonder. An antique that can play music can be a joy as well. "Sempre la musica!"