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Classification of Music Boxes

Classification of Music Boxes

Music Boxes, "Origin and Classification of Species"


The pioneer work of collector Etienne Blyelle-Horngacher from Geneva, Switzerland - entitled La Classification des Boîtes à Musique (The Classification of Music Boxes), 1975 – was the first to provide a comprehensive and systematic technical approach to the classification of the music box.

Blyelle-Horngacher thereby demonstrated that, despite the myriad of designs, uses and implementations that have characterized music boxes since they were first produced by Geneva watchmaker Antoine Favre in 1797, one of five main "Types" (plus two subcategories) of mechanisms have served in each and every one:

Stacked Teeth (Type A)

Typical of the earliest very small music boxes, these have been found incorporated into finger rings, watch keys and seals. In fact, this is the type of music box movements produced by Antoine Favre in his effort to miniaturize the carillon. Additionally, these mechanisms are found in watches, animated snuff boxes, singing bird boxes, cases, cane handles, perfume bottles and other precious objects.


All of these stacked teeth mechanisms were entirely hand crafted; and examples continued to be produced upon special order until the mid 19th century.

Despite the timid sound and musical quality which characterizes this type of music boxes, they are aften the most costly pieces, collected variously for their great age, magnificence as objects of art and very small physical size.


Tabatiere or Snuff Box (Type B)

The two determinant characteristics of this type of mechanism are that i) they always are wound from below the unit’s base plate and ii) the main spring and its surrounding casing (barrel) therefore lay horizontally on that base plate, with their axis perpendicular to the mechanism’s rotating cylinder.


In general, the cylinder in these mechanisms measures between 2 and 12 cm in length, with a diameter ranging from 1 to 4 cm, but most often around 2 cm. The name Tabatiere, French for snuff box, is said to owe its origins to the use of these mechanisms in such objects, alongside the compartment reserved for tobacco; however, Blyelle-Horngacher points out that, already during the 18th century, these boxes often were not equipped to hold tobacco; but rather received this name because their external appearance approached that of snuff boxes. Nonetheless the term tabtiere for this type of mechanism persists until today; and it is the only type of music box mechanism still in production - without interruption - since it first was invented in the early 1800s.


From there, the popularity of tabtiere music boxes grew rapidly; and by the 1820s, often cased in molded black boxes with a mythological scene or tourist site on the cover, had become a typical tourist souvenir. In parallel, these mechanisms also found their way into sewing kits, clocks and even behind framed pictures, until by the 1870s they had become a prime gift used to express affection, a role they preserve to this day. As such, they also were incorporated into an ever increasing number of objects, including photo albums, cigar stands, trivets, and countless more. Yet, although with that the music box had become a “gadget”, none the less it’s in this form, states Blyelle-Horngacher, that “Without  imitating any musical instrument it provided its purest and most poetic sound… On occasion even attaining the level of veritable artistry”.

The tabtiere mechanism also gave rise to a subcategory referred to as “Auxiliary Musical Movements”. That is mechanisms without any winding spring or system to control the speed (governor). As such they are driven by the automat, alarm clock or other mechanism which they accompany, either directly or through gears to which they were linked.

A further variation on this category consists of small stand alone items without winding spring or governor, but activated by turning a small handle. Referred to as Manivelles, the French term for winding-crank, and produced largely as toys, it is thought that they were invented by the firm l’Epée in Sainte-Suzette Montbeliard, France in around 1860. The mechanism of these music boxes is reduced to its most basic form. The crank is connected to an endless screw, which in turn meshes with a gear placed on the end of the cylinder, and thus makes the latter turn as the crank is rotated. Various systems were also applied to prevent the crank from being turned in the wrong direction, which would if it occurred damage the teeth in the comb and the pins in the cylinder. Manivelles represent the least expensive type of collectable music boxes; but, because they also can be of musical interest, they nonetheless are sought after by collectors… especially those models which also are decorated with attractive nostalgic imagery.


Cartel (Type C)

Owing its name to the French term for bracket clock, in the early days of their existence this type of music box mechanism almost invariably was housed inside clocks or within the base on which these clocks were poised. However, it did not take very long until these mechanisms were “weaned” from their bracket clock origins and housed in wooden boxes to become a standalone piece.


The two determinant characteristics of this type of mechanism are that i) they always are wound either from the side by key, or from the top by lever, and ii) the main spring and its surrounding casing (barrel) are vertically positioned in relation to the base plate, that is parallel to the rotating cylinder.


The cylinder’s length can vary from 10 - 60 cm, with diameters ranging from 2 - 12 cm, although the latter most often falls into the 4 – 6 cm range. Hence, cartel music boxes vary in appearance between small portable boxes, all the way to pieces of furniture for models with interchangeable cylinders. Additionally, exceptions proving the rule, there is a magnificent coffin sized cartel in Etienne Bleyelle-Horngacher's ollection on the one extreme… and on the other extreme, the perhaps smallest cartel in the world; the “Chalet Music Box” which first came to light right here at atQuid (see the @Quid Appraisal Request by clicking here).


Cartels represent the principal music box genre, not only in terms of stereotype, but also by diversity of appearance, musicality, tone, sound, features, etc.


Most cartel music boxes were industrially manufactured, as compared to on an individual basis strictly by artisan means. This goes for Genève by 1840 and especially so after the time of the war of 1870, by which time the same holds for all the other production centers as well. None the less, the production was not always in industrial quantities. Product assortment rationalization as later promoted by industrialists like Henry Ford was not in the Zeitgeist of the day. Manufacturers very much competed by offering the widest possible product range in order to entice customers. Indeed, the approach – identical to that practiced in the watch making industry – consisted of buying “raw” music box movements and then “finishing” and personalizing them to yield numerous variations issuing from these basic mechanisms.


Therefore many and even most, of the big manufacturers such as Billon in Geneva and Paillard in Saint Croix Switzerland also supplied such raw mechanisms to other establishments. These workshops’ role in turn was to choose and arrange the tunes the box would play, layout the pins on the cylinder in consequence, tune the comb, finish off the mechanism, assemble the parts and case the unit, etc. Here it is worth adding that, although industrial in conception and organization, all of these operations essentially were carried out by hand. To this consideration must be added those pieces entirely custom built to satisfy special customer orders, unique showcase models and prize entries for one of the competitions in national or international exhibitions.


Musically speaking – and indeed that’s what music boxes are all about – the above mentioned tunes essentially could be classified into six main types. These were: Classical Masterpieces, Opera Overtures & Arias, Romantic Songs, Hymns, Marches, Waltz & Dance Music or Lullabies & Children’s Music.


Following production as highlighted above, the completed music boxes entered established distribution channels. While the big manufacturers and “finishers” alike often had their own retail outlets wherever they were implanted, most also had agents or representatives elsewhere, including overseas, whose trade names often appeared on the tune sheet instead of the veritable supplier’s. Therefore, considering the many “hands” which shaped the nature and “personality” of most finished music boxes, it is difficult and often irrelevant to attribute a given piece to any single manufacturer.


Disk (Types D, d and d)

When considering the disk music box, a distinction must be made between two types. The first and most ancient consists of a rotating metal disk set with vertical pins – usually on both sides of the disk -  that, as they pass, set steel teeth vibrating to produce musical notes.

Thus, the pin set disk in this type of music box is functionally the equivalent of the pin set cylinder in a cartel music box. From a design point of view, the steel teeth are laid out in hand-fan fashion, each with a perpendicular projection at the vibrating end which descends to make contact with the disk’s pins.


Referred to as “rigid disk”  or platform music box movements (Type d), their principle application was in musical pocket watches, or else incorporated into particularly flat surroundings.


The idea of laying out the pins on a disk instead of on a cylinder was invented by the company Piguet & Meylan in Geneva, Switzerland at the beginning of the 19th century. The goal was to reduce the size of the mechanism and, in particular, render it flatter. This was successfully achieved; however, the difficulty, complexity and skill required to produce these pieces considerably exceeded that of the cylinder movement. Thus, they were always entirely crafted by hand, rather than by industrial process, and are amongst the rarest music boxes to be found in any collection.


Produced only over a brief time-span of some 25-30 years (with some rare exceptions none the less), the disk music box like a phoenix, was reborn towards the end of the 19th century, but along a significantly different concept.

This new generation of disk music boxes, was fitted with a thin flexible sheet metal disk that also was interchangeable. Now instead of pins, the disk had projections punched directly from it in such manner as to make them fold and point down perpendicularly. Also, rather than striking the music box’s teeth directly to set them vibrating, these projecting metal tabs pushed against star shaped wheels as the disk turned, thereby rotating them a notch to strike the comb with their points.


The invention of this system is generally attributed to Paul Lochmann who founded the  Symphonion Music Box Company in Germany, 1886. It enjoyed immense success, finding its way into the most divers forms from hand turned Manivelles to massive break front furniture units. Disk sizes varied from 10 cm to 70 cm.


Within the category of flexible disk music boxes, collectors distinguish between two general types: “vertical disk” music boxes (Type D) as found in standing furniture cases… and “horizontal disk” Music Boxes (type d), also referred to as table top disk music boxes.


With the advent of the flexible disk music box also came a fundamental change in production concept.  From the initially artisanal - and later for the most part only semi-industrial - approach which until now had characterized music box production, the flexible disk music box’s advent also coincided with implementation of more or less fully industrial production methods.


Whether this occurred due to the particular design concept of the flexible disk music box, or vice versa is a mute question, as the process certainly was interactive. Clearly, certain new challenges marked the design and production of flexible disk music boxes, and the tooling investment to produce them was significant; but, at that point, some 75 years after the progressive introduction of steam power into manufacturing had begun, the manufacture of mechanical products in general had for the greatest part become industrial… and industrial production meant that many mechanical products formerly impossible to “mass market” suddenly could be manufactured economically, albeit in industrial numbers!


Clearly this industrial approach was less “esthetical” than that of former times. However, what it lacked in quaint beauty was compensated for by its usually far more rational design and organization. In any event, flexible disk music box manufacturers – turning out the mechanisms in big production runs - individually produced a far narrower range of different mechanism models than before. Instead, product range diversity focused on the choice of a wide range of wooden cases within which any particular mechanism could be delivered.


And for some 30 years which marked the heyday of flexible disk music boxes, this business model worked marvelously well; indeed to such an extent that a multitude of German, and then Swiss and American manufacturers too, went into business… Each with their own proprietary disks which played exclusively on their own brand of music boxes!


None the less – as mentioned above – the investment necessary to set up production was so great that far less companies produced flexible disk music boxes than had ever made the cylinder type. Indeed, what amounts to a full inventory of these manufacturers has been compiled… an unimaginable task for the cylinder music box. Therefore, even if collectors today do still have at least the hope of discovering a hereto forth undocumented model or variation, this exhaustive guide of just over 150 mechanisms exists for reference, The Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments, by David Bowers… almost analogous to what can be found in the philately collection area.


Finally, even if most collectors agree that the “ingenuity” which characterized the cylinder music box’s development was never attained in flexible disk units, the latter did offer numerous musical as well as “user comfort” advantages. In the present day context they’d probably be referred to as “more user friendly”, even going so far as to incorporate automatic disk changers!


Musically speaking, flexible disk units produced a more frank and virile sound with increased bass. The repertoire also was different, having shifted in emphasis from more “refined” music to marches, hymns and folk tunes. Simultaneously, the custom of dancing to music boxes, which had timidly begun with cylinder units, continued to increase and develop, since disk music boxes clearly were better adapted to this use.


What’s more, while the presence of special effects is reduced in flexible disk music boxes, the facility for manufacturers to stamp out new disks… and for the customers to add them interchangeably and inexpensively, produced a breadth of variety which far exceeded the “engraved in stone” choice offered by any cylinder music boxes, even those with interchangeable cylinders. And in the latter case, the additional cost that customers had to pay for their purchase was light years beyond that of flexible disks.

Perforated Band or Book (Type E)

A final category of music boxes are those for which the “preprogramed memory” was neither in the form of a cylinder or a disk, but instead a perforated belt or a band fan folded into what is referred to as a “book”.


Limited in number and consequently rare today, examples of this particular “memory solution" first appeared shortly before the turn of the 19th/20th century.


They employed an ingenious system of “sensors” to “read” the perforated media, and of course offered at least one enormous advantage. This was to do away with the “one full rotation limit” of cylinder or disk that characterized the vast majority of the latter type of units.


Suddenly the length of a tune was limited only by the length of the “book” or band into which the music was perforated; that is to say, it almost was without limit!


Of course, complex and costly solutions had been invented to overcome this problem in cylinder music boxes. These included: arranging opera overture music on oversize diameter cylinders and arranging the music so that, following each full rotation, the cylinder’s shift to align a further set of pins in front of the comb  corresponded to a “natural” pause in the music; or multi cylinder revolver like mechanisms; and even  two-part cylinders where, repeatedly, one part continued to play while, after each full rotation, the other shifted to align a further set of pins in front of the comb and then idem for the second part. However these were hardly or never adapted by the mainstream of music box production, and therefore represent rare, and for certain ones even incredibly rare, collectors’ pieces today.


There are also reports of a belt music box on which the media was in the form of a thin metal perforated band rolled around a spindle and fed from one side of the music box to a similar spindle on the other.


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Added by:  Nicolefreres

Date:  11th Mar 09

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