The Timelessness of the Music Box

By Kes Murray, Registrar

Over the summer, I had the pleasure of leading tours. While in Henry House, I had multiple visitors, on different tours, ask about the music box in the parlour. Besides providing basic information that the object was a music box, I was left feeling that there was more to this music box than its appearance.

Henry House Music Box

The music box in Henry House is a pinned cylinder music box made by Langdorff & Fils. Langdorff & Fils were music box makers located in Geneva, Switzerland and active between 1850-1870. They made cylinder music boxes with their signature harp and music sheet decorated on top.

View of a closed, wooden box. There is a decorative motif of musical instruments and sheet music on top.
995.1.1 Top view. You can see the signature Langdorff & Fils stamp, although ours has wind instruments instead of a harp.

Cylinder music boxes, like ours, were the first music boxes to be widely used in homes in the mid to late 1800s. The first music box appeared in the late 1700s in Switzerland and is credited to Swiss watchmaker, Antoine Favre. Based off the advancements made in mechanical watches, early music boxes used the same movements: notes produced by a revolving disc with teeth around the edges.

Author Gilbert Bahl says, “The [cylinder] music box is actually based on a very simple principle: metal teeth which are tuned to scale in a variety of ways are plucked by pins projecting from a revolving cylinder. These pins are set in the cylinder in such a way that they pluck the teeth of the comb at precisely the right moment.”

The popularity of music boxes over the next fifty years led to many improvements, including its incorporation into decorative household items, longer and larger cylinders to play more music, and further mechanization that allowed simply pushing a button to play instead of having to hand crank the player.

Our music box is powered by hand, with a crank for the cylinder on the left side. On the right side of the box, you can see two switches. One is the stop and play switch, while the other is to repeat or change songs. As well, our music box is within a very stylish box that can be set up in any room, ours being in the parlour. The label inside the music box says the cylinder plays twelve songs, including waltzes, polka, and some opera songs, all in either French or German.

Overhead view of an open music box. It is made of dark wood, and inside the box, there is a gold coloured cylinder.
995.1.1 Inside top view.

A lasting history

As I researched music boxes, I realised that I, too, had music boxes in my parents’ house. Something that spoke to me that Bahl wrote was the timelessness of the music box. I was reminded of the ballerina music box my mom had as a child and still has today and, as Bahl explores, how hearing the music from a music box connects us to the past. We realise that we are listening to music that was also listened to and enjoyed by people many years ago. Mine are not that old, but I still adore them and think that maybe someone in some future will listen to them too.


Sources consulted

Bahl, G. (1993). Music Boxes: The Collector’s Guide to Selecting, Restoring, and Enjoying New and Vintage Music Boxes. Running Press Book Publishers.

https://www.britannica.com/art/music-box

https://obsoletemedia.org/music-box-cylinder/

Advertisement

One thought on “The Timelessness of the Music Box”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: