The first mechanical music boxes would have been produced in the early 1800s. The early ones, known as cylinder boxes, played no more than four tunes. The cases would have been made from plain fruitwood or rosewood, with the control lever protruding through the side of the box. By the mid 19th century lever-operated cylinder boxes could play ten or more tunes and keep going for up to three hours before having to be rewound. The cases became more ornate, reflecting the the Victorian taste for French 18th century furniture.
During most of the 19th century the mechanical music box industry was centered in Switzerland, mainly in Geneva and St Croix. The Nicole and Lecoultre families were the main producers and their mechanical music boxes were soldall over Europe and America. In London you could find mechanical music boxes in large music emporias with the pianos and other musical instruments. The tunes they played were often on a hand-written sheet insde the lid and they ranged from folk tunes to dance music. By the end of the 19th century mechanical music boxes were mass produced in cheap, transfer-printed cases, playing popular music hall songs. It didn’t stop there – the movements were sold to retailers who would fit them to manicure or sowing necessaires or other household items, such as chairs. Just try to imagine the chair playing a tune every time you sit on it.
As much fun as mechanical music boxes might have been they did have their limitations. The problem with cylinder machines was the fact that you were limited to the tunes on the cylinder and the cylinder could not hold that many tunes. In the 1880s the first disc player was produced in Leipzig, Germany. The earliest commercially available disc machine was the Symphonion and Polyphon and it could play hundreds of tunes and there was a constant supply of new discs with the latest tunes. Some of these musical boxes were produced as pieces of furniture in beautiful walnut cases. Some were the precursors of jukeboxes, with penny slot attachments to be used in cafes and other public venues.
Another version of the 19th century mechanical music box was the barrel organ. These were first seen in the 17th century when wooden barrels operated by a crank were first used in churches. Some of these were quite expensive, but there were also cheaper versions, such as the table top ‘Celestina’ organettes made by the Mechanical Orguinette Company. These were cheaply made and sold in vast quantities and played music punched onto paper rolls. With the onset of the early 20th century, the mechanical music box was overtaken by the phonograph and the gramophone and it is thought that only 5 – 10 per cent of all the music boxes made have survived to the present day.
Even after the mechanical music box had been eclipsed by more modern equipment there remained a nostalgic appeal for them. During and after World War I they were sent to the hospitals to entertain wounded soldiers. If you are interested in collecting mechanical music boxes you should be able to find mid-range boxes in reasonable condition from £500, better quality ones would cost upwards of £1,000. If you are after a rare example you will have to pay serious money – the record for an early Nicole Freres is £62,000.
A few tips if you want to become a collector. The maker’s name and the retailer can often be found on the tune sheet on the lid and on the comb. The sound of the box depends on the quality and condition of the movement. In cylinder machines, the larger the comb the more teeth it will have and the better the sound will be. In disc-playing musical boxes sound quality depends on disc size, larger discs produce better sound. Combs often become rusty or dirty and cleaning can bend pins or throw out the movement. Complete restoration is very expensive but usually worth it.