Musical mechanisms were first fitted in Swiss clocks and automata in the 17th century. However, the musical box, which was either powered by clockwork or operated by a handle, came into being in its own right in the 18th century. It comprised of a rotating cylinder that produced sound when raised pins plucked a row of fine steel teeth on a comb-like metal plate.
By the 19th century the musical box was firmly established as an affordable form of entertainment and was produced in large numbers. As techniques improved, seven or eight tunes could be set on one cylinder. The cylinders were housed in wooden boxes, often with plain sides and decoratively inlaid tops. The better the box, usually the better the mechanism was with more special effects like butterfly bells, cymbals and drums. Specialist makers like Nicole Freres also add value to a musical box sold in today’s mechanical market place.
The problem with the music box was that the cylinder could only hold so many pins and thus the number and complexity of the tunes, or “airs”, was limited. A simple, often rather basic model (like a car without satellite navigation) would have less pins in the cylinder and so play fewer and simpler tunes. These are today the lower value models which can be purchased for much less. A more complicated model with many multiple pin tunes together with bells, drums and cymbals by a maker like Nicole Freres will be at the other end of the money scale.
As a final thought, if contemplating the purchase of one of these beautiful boxes, which were the Victorian answer to Spotify, always view with your ears.
Senior Valuer Michael Dowse
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