Artifact Corner: Child’s Music Box

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at this adorable children’s toy. This toy is made from paper mache, with a whimsical scene of kid’s toys along the side of the piece. It is red overall, with a metal crank, topped with a red painted wooden knob. When you crank the handle, the box plays a song. Now, try as we might, none of us could figure out the small tune it plays. It has a paper tag attached to it, which states that this was a gift for a little girl named Ellen. This piece is early 20th Century in date, and was likely a Christmas present. Let’s learn a bit more about music boxes, and mechanical music making pieces.

So, how does a music box work? Musical boxes are mechanical musical instruments that produce sound when tuned prongs are plucked by a revolving cylinder. The deeper the teeth or tuned prongs are cut into the comb, the lower the pitch that is produced. The more shallow the teeth, the higher the pitch. The first mechanical musical instrument was invented by a pair of brothers in what is today Baghdad, Iraq, in the 9th Century. They invented a hydropowered organ which payed interchangeable cylinders. In the 13th Century in Flanders a bell ringer invented a cylinder with cams attached that would then move to ring different bells at different times. In 1665, a clockmaker in London designed a clock that would strike a series bell every quarter hour, again using a cylinder. He also made it so that the cylinders could be changed, so it would play a different tune.

The real heyday of mechanical musical boxes comes in the 18th Century. In the 1760’s watch makers in London began to create watches with a pinned drum playing popular tunes on several small bells arranged in a stack. This meant that you could literally carry a tune in your pocket. This might seem like a small and even rudimentary thing to us today, given that we carry a device in our pockets that allows us to play any song in the world. But, imagine how magical it must have been for someone 260 years ago to hear music coming from their watch?! In 1796 Antoine Favre-Salomon, a clockmaker from Geneva replaces the stack of bells by a comb with multiple pre-tuned metallic notes in order to reduce space. This combined with a horizontally placed pinned barrel produces more varied and complex sounds. Music boxes continue to grow in popularity straight through the 19th Century, until 1877 when Thomas Edison invents the phonograph. This invention allowed people to hear their favorite singers actual voices, or their favorite musicians as if they were in the same room. Edison’s amazing invention spelled doom for the music box. By the 1920’s & 1930’s most music box manufacturers had either gone out of business or scaled down their production dramatically as demand had dwindled.

Our little toy was created at the end of the craze for music boxes. Manufacturers stopped creating high priced items for adults, and decided to make far less complicated items for children. This piece is in lovely condition, with very little wear, which is rare for a children’s toy! Most of the time they were heavily used, and therefore in poor condition, and often discarded. It is a wonderful glimpse into the early 20th Century, and we are so lucky to have it in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,