Eric Knowles Eric Knowles, Antiquarian

Music Boxes

About 30 years ago I splashed out the tidy sum of £40 and bought myself a large Victorian music box complete with five small bells struck by butterflies. I don't mind admitting that I have always regretted selling it on three months later for a £20 profit. Today that same music box would set me back nearer £600 that's if I can find one with a rosewood case sporting 'Bells in Vue'.

The choice of the French terminology can be traced to the earliest beginnings of the music box industry in Geneva. During the 18th century the city established its reputation for being Europe’s premier watchmaking centre. It was at that time that the standard of craftsmanship and technical achievment allowed for the inclusion of musical movements into watches.

During the early years of the 19th century a market was discovered for larger scale musical movements and the cylinder music box rapidly came of age. Swiss makers such as Nicole Freres rose to prominence during the 1850s.with auction prices starting at about £400 for a 9 ins cylinder, the longer the cylinder often the more tunes or 'airs' available to play. These early Swiss music boxes tend to be of relatively small size, key wound and make use of a polished brass plate to which the mechanism is secured.

As the century progressed so to did the demand for novelty. Music boxes steadily became larger and began to incorporate bells, drums, zither and even a seventeen key reed organ. Mechanisms increased in size accordingly and the drive spring was now wound using a side ratchet lever but the principal of a metal cylinder fitted with tiny teeth plucking a steel comb remained. By the end of the 19th century most cabinets also incorporated a hinged glazed window to help reduce the risk of dust clogging up the mechanism that was now secured to a gilt steel plate.

Mass production techniques meant that the once expensive now became within reach of most middle class families. The majority of these later boxes continue to represent reasonable value for money with auction prices starting at less than £120. When it comes to value condition is all important. So too is the size of the cylinder, good quality inlaid marquetry to the cabinet and retention of the original playlist.

The major problem was that despite the advances in mass production the cylinders themselves continued to be individually made. By the 1890s competition began to emerge from Germany in the guise of the disc music box with a number of makers operating in Leipzig. The great advantage enjoyed by the German machines was due to the interchangeable metal discs being cheap to produce.

Disc musical boxes come in all manner of form. The most standard made use of a low wooden cabinet with hinged lid designed to sit on a table or sideboard. The output up until the outbreak of World War One was enormous and so too appears to be the survival rate with the simplest selling today at about £250. The Disc boxes also found their way into public places such as pubs and music halls. Housed in elaborate upright cabinets of architectural fancy that command prices in excess of £5,000.

John Barnett of Sussex has been in touch about his disc music box which he tells me bought 25 years ago from his local second hand shop for £50. It bears the label 'Symphonion' and plays 11in discs of which he has about fifty. Like cylinders the size of the disc is relevant to both machine and value. Symphonion alongside Polyphon was one of the largest makers located in Leipzig and yours is known as a 'Style 25' type which usually commands about £200 at auction.


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