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Music Box Repair

"Old World Quality and Craftsmanship©"
BSR GROUP, INC.

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(See "How to Care for Your Music Box" - Below)

The Magical Music Box - A History   

Nothing is as irresistible as a music box.  Filled, as it is with the captivating charm of yesteryear, young and old alike know of its subtle, if not magical, powers and its ability to soothe, stir the senses, and evoke memories and emotions.

The first simple musical movements are found in watches made in Switzerland in the 16th century, and the invention of the first true music box in 1796 is credited to Anton Favre, a Swiss watchmaker, who invented the “music comb”.  The music comb is a comb shaped device that is made from steel then hardened and tempered to produce a number of 'springy' teeth varying in length from short to long.  Pins set into a revolving cylinder pluck the teeth.  As each tooth is plucked it produces a musical note, producing a sound much like many individual tuning forks, and music results.  The note produced by each tooth is determined by, amongst other things, the length of that tooth.  The pins in the cylinder are arranged in such a way that a melody arises from the comb as the cylinder turns.  In this way, it was possible to 'record' music and produce it at any time and as often as desired.  This was the forerunner to the gramophone.  Music boxes were produced in both disc and cylinder models.  The value of a cylinder music box depends on the length and diameter of the cylinder, the date of its manufacture, the number of tunes it plays, and its manufacturer.  Nicole Freres, Henri Capt. LeCoultre, and Bremond are among the most highly regarded, and the larger boxes made by Mermod Freres are also popular.  Examples with multiple cylinders, extra instruments (such as bells or an organ section) were also produced; pins on the cylinder also operated them.  Musical boxes were built into birdcages, jewelry boxes, boxes with dancing dolls and many other objects.  Moreover, those in particularly ornate cabinets or with matching tables bring significantly higher prices.

While smaller cylinder boxes are still being made, the larger ones (over 10-inch cylinders) typically date from before 1900.  Disc music boxes were introduced in the mid1880s, but were replaced by the phonograph only 25 years later.  However, during that time hundreds of thousands were made. A special technique was developed to punch projections onto a steel disc and these were used, instead of the pins on a cylinder, to pluck the comb.  It was now possible to buy a selection of discs and listen to a lot of music instead of the limited repertoire of the cylinder box.  Their great advantage was in playing inexpensive interchangeable discs, a factor that remains an attraction for today's collector as well.  Among the many names involved in the production of the disc music box, perhaps the best knowns are Symphonion, Polyphon and Regina.  Symphonion and Polyphon were German companies, while Regina was based in the United States.

Relative values are determined by the size of the discs they play, whether they have single or double combs, if they are upright or table models, and how ornate their cases are.  Especially valuable are those that play multiple discs at the same time or are incorporated into tall-case clocks.

The Liepzig Company Kuhno-Lochmann, which was founded by Paul Lochmann, was the first commercial maker of a disc machine.  Lochmann had manufactured various kinds of machinery before turning to disc music boxes with the opening of the Symphonion factory.  The first Symphonion was produced in 1886 and was an immediate success.

In 1896, Symphonion established a subsidiary in the United States-The Imperial Symphonion Manufacturing Company, at Bradley Beach, New Jersey.  The first music boxes were imported from Germany, but U.S. versions of the disc music box known as the Imperial Symphonion were being made by 1898.

Gustave Brachhausen established the Polyphon Musikwerke around 1889.  Symphonion had employed Brachhausen, and he and a friend set up their own factory not far from their former employer.  Polyphon produced many clocks fitted with disc movements, and these were often coin operated.  Examples of Polyphon music boxes have been found housed in original bookcases, china cabinets and bureaus.

Many collectors agree that the Regina disc music box has the best sound of all.  In addition, the cabinets housing them are beautifully crafted and styled.  The company was established in 1892, when Polyphon's founder, Gustave Brachhausen, journeyed to Jersey City to open an American branch.  Polyphon supplied the parts and discs that were first assembled in America and marketed by Regina, but eventually an increasing number of parts and mechanisms were made at the Jersey City factory.  However, by 1902, the competition from the first disc phonographs was beginning to have its effect, and in 1922, the company went bankrupt.

Unlike many manufacturers of disc music boxes, Regina kept detailed records of styles, serial numbers and dates of manufacture, enabling collectors to accurately identify the provenance of the company's machines.

During the 19th century, musical mechanisms were placed in footstools, trivets, kitchen utensils, Christmas tree stands, lamps, humidors, cigarette cases and opera glasses.  Musical photograph albums that played when the cover was opened were popular from around 1880 to the end of the century, the mechanism being wound with a key or a pull string.

Many candy or serving dishes have had musical movements in the lid or base; mechanisms have been put into teapots operated either by winding and letting the music play through or by having an on/off trigger that allows the music to play only when the pot is lifted.

Many of the makers of disc music boxes incorporated their mechanisms into hall clocks, and cylinder music boxes have been placed in pocket watches and watch cases.

Swiss chalet jewelry boxes seem to have been popular subjects for musical movements, and many are still being made.  Other more recent examples of items containing musical movements are note-pad holders, beer cans, dustpans, watering cans, Christmas ornaments, greeting cards, and even bathroom fixtures.

The finest musical automatons were made in and around Paris in the latter half of the 19th century, where manufacturers such as Theroude, Decamps, Lambert and Vichy relied on the skills of hundreds of cottage workers.  The musical movements, however, were often Swiss made.  These movements were concealed in a landscape base, or sometimes, in the body of the automaton.  Among the figures that were made were dolls, monkeys, jesters, and children.  These pieces are rare and expensive.

Thousands of music boxes were made before World War I, and there is a large range to choose from, covering a wide range of prices. If you are buying an antique music box, be on the lookout for good movements and cases.  The better movements have 28-144 notes, compared with cheaper models with 12-18.

Reuge Company, based in Switzerland, currently offers a wide range of music boxes; these are easy to acquire and will likely become the collector's items of tomorrow.

Before World War II, the Japanese, not to be outdone, had developed exquisite clocks enriched with intricate musicals of their own design.  In 1947, Rokuichi Yamada founded Sankyo Manufacturing Company and, imitating the Swiss, became the most prominent supplier in the east of musicals that rival the sound and quality of the best in Switzerland.

Porter Music Box Company has been producing disc music boxes since 1974.  Porters are the largest disc-style music boxes in manufacture today, each component handcrafted and assembled in Randolph, Vermont.  To control precision and quality, Porter’ s artisans finely machine the musical combs and other works in Porter's own shop, using advanced computerized numerically controlled lathes and premium-quality tools.  Porter music boxes are cradled in beautiful cabinets imported exclusively from Italy; each work of art features intricate inlays of the finest woods.

Further reading: Musical Boxes, A Guide for Collectors, by David Tallis (Stein & Day, New York, 1971); The Disc Musical Box Handbook, by Graham Webb (Faber & Faber, 1971).

Collectors club: The Musical Box Society International, P.O. Box 205, Rte. 3, Morgantown, IN 46160.

Museums: Bellms Car and Music of Yesteryear, Sarasota, Florida; Lockwood Matthews Mansion, Norwalk, Connecticut.

Large numbers of these treasures were produced, but sadly, most have been scrapped.  There are however, quite a number still in existence held in museums and private collections.  They are often in poor condition.  There are many more that have been relocated to the loft or the garden shed having been used as children's playthings or suffered from attempted, unskilled repairs.  Musical boxes are extremely sensitive and delicate devices but in the right hands, even these badly damaged, sad old machines may be brought back to life!

                                     (Contact us for your music box repairs or consultation/appraisal)

How to Care For Your Music Box

You have just inherited a music box with a cylinder or a disc movement from your family, or maybe you were just given one, or you bought one for pleasure. So, if you have only one or two music boxes, and don't want to read a lot about music boxes, but you wish to keep them in good condition, here is what you should do and shouldn't do to a music box.

The most sensitive parts of a music box, which we should look after with great respect, are:

bulletthe pins of the cylinder (if it has a cylinder movement),
bulletthe teeth of the comb,
bulletthe dampers under the tips of the teeth,
bulletthe speed regulator and the spring (which can do a lot of damage if it unwinds with no control).

Always keep it horizontal. Carry and store a music box horizontally; not vertically, not upside down.

Never wind the spring while it is playing. The cylinder of a smaller movement might go backward a little bit and ruin teeth, dampers or pins. Let the music box play until the end of the tune.

Never move a music box while it is playing. The cylinder might shift aside, and break dampers or pins. For the same reason, always let the music box play until the end of the tune, and never let it stop before. If necessary, wind it a little so that it goes to the end of the tune.

A good practice is to leave the Change/Repeat lever (if there is one) on 'Repeat' when the box is not playing. Should a shock or an accident happen, only the pins of one tune would be ruined.

Beware of temperature shock, which is not, appreciated by the steel which music boxes are made of. If is has just been moved from the cold into a warm room, wait a little while before playing it so that the temperatures of the components can equalize.

Block the speed regulator for moving or shipping. After unwinding and expanding the spring as much as possible and stopping the box at the end of a tune, you should block the speed regulator with a little piece of folded paper, if you will be transporting it over long distances. In that case the movement can't start playing accidentally. Be careful when you take this piece of folded paper away: do so gently, never force it away.

Don't take it apart if you don't know exactly how a music box works; and especially if the spring is not totally unwound, or you could ruin your box.

Never remove rust from the comb, either with sandpaper or a file or a metallic brush, because the tuning will be affected: your music box will play very modern or ethnic music! If you really want to take the dust away, just wipe it very gently with a very smooth, non-metallic brush (and even so some dampers might suffer).

For disc music boxes, similar care should be taken.

When you put a disc on the comb, notice carefully the place of the beginning of the tune. If the pressure bar doesn't go gently into place, never force it; find the cause of the problem (usually it's that the disc is not placed correctly).

Don't remove the disc before the end of the tune.

Always remove the disc before transporting.

Always carry the discs horizontal or vertical, never slantwise. To carry discs with projections, put protection material, such as newspapers or bubble-pack (but not fluffy material) between each disc.

Store in a dry place. The biggest enemy of music boxes (besides restoration by a non-specialist), is rust, usually provoked by water or dampness. So do not keep a music box in a damp atmosphere. In case of flooding (e.g., after a fire), you may use an electric hair-dryer, but anyway call an expert within a few hours to know what to do. If you cannot do so within a few hours, it is actually better to immerse completely the wet mechanism in drinking water, and take it like that quickly to the repairer!

And now, enjoy for many years your music box!

When you need restoration work for your antique mechanical music device, you want a company that has the knowledge and experience to not only repair and refinish the piece, but to restore the device to like new condition. A properly restored antique music device will appreciate in value much faster and will look and sound magnificent. Restoration work requires many skills. We have the capability to repair, and, to manufacture missing wood and metal parts. We have the ability to repair old gears or to cut new gears. We replace broken comb teeth and tips; re-damper and tune, re-pin cylinders, governor work, spring barrel work, casework and metal polishing.

(Contact us for your music box repairs or consultation/appraisal)

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