Music box stands out for its five cylinders and popular opera arias

This 19th-century music box is worth at least $20,000.

J.M.C. sent me photos of a fantastic music box, which is probably 50- 60 inches long and about 25-30 inches wide, dating from the last years of the 19th century. I happen to love old mechanical music boxes because they send me into another era just by hearing that brilliant resonant tone.

This box has five cylinders. Each cylinder may play a few songs (six each was de rigor) each, and generally well known tunes, such as “The Star Spangled Banner,” as well as opera arias “Maritana,” “Aida,” “Barbier, Rigoletto, and La Norma. All were popular when this box was installed in a well to do family’s front parlor circa 1885- 1895.

Picture a small Sunday gathering of friends and family in that parlor, with this box on a custom table in the center of the room or perhaps against one wall. The room is overfilled with overstuffed comfortable seating, antimacassars on chair headrests, matching pouf ottoman(s) for the feet. Potted palms in heavy red glazed earthenware pots grace each corner. The heavy burgundy and olive striped velvet drapes darken the room at 2 p.m., closed after your servants have cleared away dinner (served mid-day back them).

Your portly, bewhiskered husband is asked to crank up the music box so that your guests can hear a small selection of its available tunes.

Since your guests join your family most Sundays, they have heard the same songs, arranged the same way, played on the music box many times before; unknown was the concept of an endless stream of music! The guests sat, enraptured and listened to the tunes as if at a concert. This music was not background music (no such concept existed), but was listened to with real respect and fascination as it was the ONLY (semi) live entertainment available.

J.M.C. sent me the metal maker’s marks inside. This is a Sublime Harmonie Paillard Co. Swiss music box and is extremely rare, as the label states the box is a Longue Marche (plays for at least two hours with a good crank). This is a “Quator.” If I can see the photo correctly, that means it has five cylinders, with possibly room for storage of others in the supporting table below. 

To have more than one cylinder was rather rare — and extremely pricey in the day. Paillard had a popular model with one cylinder, playing the same songs for 2.5 hours, running on a large spring, called a “dinner box” because it was suitable for listening during dinner without leaving the table to crank it.

The mechanical features for the time were advanced, which is another “period” feature of the late 1890s. Today we relish precision workings and we want to see them, and show them as a design concept. In 1890, good taste was to have wonderful mechanisms housed in an inlaid marquetry box of great beauty that could have been a massive jewel box in earlier eras. The machinery was not the bragging point.

These boxes played music from a series of teeth, which are flexible spring steel strips rigidly held in place at one end and plucked on the other. Pitch and tone modulation was via weight and width. Pre-1800s boxes have these little teeth individually screwed down upon the support, and 1840s boxes have sectional combs where teeth in sections are screwed into a support.

Then in the 1870s, David Le Coultre invented the solid comb, a one-piece continuum with multiple teeth in a single support. All music boxes needed a damper, called a feather damper, because if a note was required to be played twice in succession, the vibration from the first “pluck” caused the second “pluck” to emit a harsh grating sound. 

J.M.C.’s box I suspect has top of the line dampers.

The movements inside the beautiful cases were elegant but mainly hidden, but were nickel plated with massive springs that drove a 5.75-inch wheel, a butterfly governor and speed moderator, and stops for safety checks and stops to protect the great wheel. Aside from clock making, it took the Swiss to make this premiere music box.

There are collectors for these boxes, who do not lay back as listen on a Sunday after dinner, but collect them for their evocation of the elegantly eccentric, comfort and outwardly beauty-loving era we call by both the Belle Epoch, the beautiful Ten Years and the Beaux Arts Era. Both have the same evocative meaning. 

The music box is worth at least $20,000.

Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.

Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.

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