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Musical Boxes

Martin McIlroy (Head of the Works of Art Department) investigates the development of musical boxes from their origins in the 1800s through to their decine by the First World war.

A standard 19th century Swiss musical box.

A standard 19th century Swiss musical box.

The musical box appeared around 1800 and evolved from clocks with chiming bells and gongs - little wonder that the main music box industry was based in Switzerland.

Musical boxes were divided by their movements, all of which were driven by spring mechanisms. There was the Barrilet movement, the Sur-plateau movement and finally the most common movement, the cylinder movement. The cylinder would have tiny pins in it and would flick against a comb with different length teeth producing different musical notes. By placing the pins in the correct order and timing, a tune was produced. Combined with this, some musical boxes had extra instruments such as drums and bells, which were often struck by hammers in the form of bees or butterflies.

A typical musical box with tune indicator.

A typical musical box with tune indicator.

Fitted in attractive cases of walnut, rosewood or satin wood they came in various sizes, some for use on the table top others with their own stands, which often included drawers containing extra cylinders. The movement originally would have been key wound but this was later replaced with a ratchet lever. They would play anything from four to twelve airs on one cylinder. They were capable of repeating the same song over and over or passing on to the next air. To help the owner, some musical boxes were fitted with a tune indicator showing which air was playing. Also, there would be a song chart applied to the inside of the lid.

A double wound musical box with tune indicators.

A double wound musical box with tune indicators.

One of the most important makers of musical boxes was Nicole Freres of Geneva who exported their boxes worldwide. However, the popularity of musical boxes declined through the later part of the 19th Century and, like any music system, they were superseded by the disc musical box. The discs were easier and cheaper to produce than the time consuming cylinders. Certain examples of disc musical boxes were installed in pubs and were coin operated; yes, an early form of juke box! To bring the tale full circle, some disc musical boxes were incorporated within clocks. The popularity of these "penny-in-the-slot" machines declined after the First World War.

A musical box movement with bells-in-sight action.

A musical box movement with bells-in-sight action.

A substantial Nicole Freres musical box.

A substantial Nicole Freres musical box.

Prices for cylinder musical boxes can vary widely from as little as a couple of hundred pounds to thousands of pounds depending on their maker and how complicated their mechanism is, how many cylinders there are and of course the condition of the musical box itself.

A table top disc musical box.

A table top disc musical box.

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  • Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood
  • Musical Boxes

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About the Author

Martin McIlroyMartin McIlroy
Collectables and Toys
Silver
Works of Art and Clocks

Martin McIlroy is the Head of the Works of Art and Silver Departments at Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood.

Martin McIlroy was educated at Exeter School in Devon and took a gap year before continuing his education at Teacher Training College. He subsequently worked at The Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter, cataloguing reserve collections before spending seven years working for a local auction room gaining further experience.

He joined the internationally renowned auction house Philips in 1982, where he catalogued sales in Exeter, Cornwall and London for sixteen years. He then joined Bearne's in 2000 to catalogue silver and works of art and subsequently became Head of these departments.

His favourite subject is bronze sculpture, church silver, toys and collectables.