Antique Musical Boxes
You want to buy a used car, but the task seems daunting. You are not a mechanic. You know how to rotate the ignition key, but the method by which the engine propels the drive wheels remains forever shrouded in mystery. Above the hideous clatter of the engine you discern something rattling in the rear. "Just the spare, " says the used car salesman.
Consider this article as the confessions of a used car salesman. Purchasing an antique music box for sale can be just as mystifying, and sometimes as expensive, as purchasing an automobile. I am going to walk you through the secrets of the trade. I am going to compare brands, from Chevrolet to Symphonion. I am going to look at what's under the hood. And I'm going to teach you how to estimate repairs, so that you will know whether that blue smoke coming out of your antique music box means an expensive overhaul, or just some excess oil on the spring barrel.
Seat belt on? Let's go for a spin.
First, a little history. You've probably noticed that antique music boxes are divided into two types, cylinder music boxes and disc music boxes.
The cylinder boxes begin to appear around 1840, although antecedents such as musical watches were seen the in 1820s. These boxes were manufactured in one small section of Switzerland, so collectors not unsurprisingly refer to them as Swiss music boxes. (To be 100% accurate a tiny number of these boxes were made in France and Czechoslovakia, but even the most devoted Francophile will still refer to them as Swiss music boxes.) Why Switzerland? Well, it isn't because the musicians of Switzerland were more talented than those of other nations, although many beautiful arrangements can be heard on Swiss boxes. It's because only Switzerland, home of the watch industry, was capable of doing the precision manufacturing necessary for these machines. Interchangeable cylinders were introduced in the 1880s. Swiss boxes are seen in Sears, Roebuck catalogues as late as 1910, although the quality was much diminished by this time.
Disc music boxes begin to appear in the 1890s. Easier and cheaper to manufacture than the cylinder boxes, they offered economy of production as well as interchangeable discs. Symphonion in Germany touted itself as the first to swing into production. Symphonion and Polyphon were the Big Two in Europe; Symphonion, Polyphon and Regina were probably the Big Three in the United States. The heydey of the disc music box was around 1895-1905. After 1905 changing tastes, and the success of the talking machine, conspired to drive many players out of business, although Regina was still shipping out music boxes as late as the First World War.
I now want you to look at what every antique music box has in common, disc or cylinder. It is the very essence of its musicalboxness, so to speak, the unknowable something that distinguishes a music box from an organette, or a penguin, or a '37 Ford. We're talking about the tuned steel comb.
Below is a picture of a comb from a 12 1/4" Regina. There are some important differences between the way a comb was cut for a disc machine as opposed to a cylinder machine, but for the moment I'm going to ignore them. By the way, I don't recommend that you pull the comb off any box you are thinking of purchasing. You probably won't be able to replace it.
I want you to examine the comb like a professional tire kicker, or perhaps more aptly like a professional auto body man. We're not looking for Bondo, but we are looking for the bane of the body shop: rust. In the words of one of the professional music box repairmen, rust turns the comb into mush. Have you ever heard beautiful music coming from a bowl of mush? I haven't either; the comb is robbed of all its brilliance. The lightest dusting of rust can be polished off and the comb can be retuned, but this isn't a project for an amateur. Look for pitting on the comb, a telltale sign that the body shop has been working it over.