“While we are waiting, Lizzy, this is from all of us Bennets. We pooled our resources.” Kitty placed a smallish, but heavy gift on her lap, stooping to kiss her cheek. “Merry Christmas.”
The wrapping hid a roughly cigar box–sized, highly glossed, cherry wood musical box! The glass panel in the ornately carved lid displayed the copper cylinder and shiny mechanical devices required to turn the cylinder and elicit the sounds. Lizzy gasped, hand instantly over her heart in awe and delighted expressions of thanks pouring forth. It was a stunning piece of workmanship, instantly drawing the attention of most in the room, especially the ever invention-fascinated Darcy.
“Incredible! Where did you acquire one so large, Mr. Bennet?” He was already lightly touching the internal springs and motor.
“One of the advantages to having a brother in trade,” he answered with a smile and nod toward Mr. Gardiner.
“I have an associate who deals with various Swiss manufacturers of timepieces. He occasionally acquires musical boxes as well. These are new, Mr. Darcy, created by Recordon and Jundon. This one plays a compilation of Mozart’s sonatas.”
“I have two musical snuff boxes purchased in Paris and London, one of which I gave to Elizabeth to listen while at her desk. I dismantled a third in an attempt to figure how it worked, failing miserably as I was unable to completely fathom the mechanics nor reassemble properly.” His voice dropped to a tone of inner musing as he intently investigated the visible parts, Lizzy playfully batting his hands away with a laugh.
“Get your own musical box to dissect, Mr. Darcy! This one is mine.”
He straightened with a faint blush. “Of course, dearest. I was merely looking.”
The excerpt above is from In the Arms of Mr. Darcy, this particular gift to Elizabeth inspired, as many scenes were, by random research into objects from the Regency period. I especially loved adding unusual trinkets that were new or in some way an innovation over what already existed. Music boxes fit into the both categories.
There may be other people who tried to create devices to play music, but all the sources I found give the credit to Antoine Favre (1743-1840) in 1796.
Favre was a Swiss watch maker in Geneva who was inspired by the carillon bell towers of Europe. These instruments consisting of numerous bells attached to levers, wires, pedals, and hammers had evolved over the centuries from bells for warning to musical instruments found in churches and town squares. Favre sought to invent a way for those sounds to be reproduced in a smaller form. He utilized a watch’s mechanisms and replaced the bells with steel combs consisting of numerous teeth in varying shapes and lengths so that a different note was produced each time a tooth was plucked by tiny pins set into a revolving cylinder. He even inserted tiny drums and bells in some of his creations. He called them carillons à musique, French for “chimes of music.”
Naturally, since he dealt with small objects, he placed his “musical comb” into pocket watches, perfume bottles, cane heads, pendants, snuff boxes, powder cases, and so on. The desire was to allow people to carry the treasure on their person to be shared and enjoyed anywhere. These original miniature marvels are extremely rare now, but a few examples remain, such as the one to the left.
It was not long before the idea was expanded upon into larger items and self contained boxes. The technology also rapidly advance into enhancing the musical range. The desire to recreate more complex tunes led to the creation of multiple cylinders and much larger cases to house them in.
Gradually, over the first decades of the 19th century, the musical box became an instrument all its own, beautifully designed in elaborate cases that were a centerpiece in parlors everywhere. Whole orchestral effects and classical compositions were possible. The boxes themselves were decorated with spinning ceramic dancers, jeweled inlays, lush fabrics, exotic woods, and more. The smaller, carrying type musical boxes went out of style, although they were produced here and there as novelty items.
In 1885 Paul Lochmann of Leipsig invented the metal disc and it would revolutionize the industry as it was cheaper and easier to make. It replaced the cylinder although it seems from what I read that the music produced by the disc was never as crisp and pure as that from the cylinder. Whatever the case, the advances in music reproduction from other instruments, such as the phonograph and player pianos, caused a decline in grand music box production.
INTERESTING SIDE NOTE: In 1892, Gustave Brachhausen left his music box firm in Germany, immigrated to the US, and opened a shop in Rahway, New Jersey. He named it the Regina Music Box Company and it fast became a leader in musical box manufacturing. Brachhausen and his partners diversified into other mechanical devices over the subsequent decades, which proved to be fortuitous when the musical box industry collapsed. As it happens, one of the machines the Regina Company also produced were vacuum cleaners, of which they are still a leading maker of to this day.
The larger music box faded into memory but this oddly lead to a resurgence in interest for the smaller wind up boxes. What girl didn’t have a ballerina jewelry box? Once again, compact varieties became the norm and are essentially the only type still made.