Music Box History -1770 To Present Day

Music Box History

Before we consider a look back in time at music box history, it seems appropriate to first understand how we define the Music Box.


Gilbert Bahl, in his book, "Music Boxes, The Collector's Guide To Selecting, Restoring and Enjoying New and Vintage Music Boxes", suggests, ---- "It may be easier to say what should not be included in the category, as follows. The term music box is not used to describe a system that plays back pre-recorded music - by tape recorder for example - nor music that is non-mechanical - computer-generated sounds."

Roy Mosoriak wrote a book in 1943 titled, "The Curious History Of Music Boxes". He defined music box to mean any device or contrivance used by man to reproduce music by means of vibrating tongues or teeth automatically, without the application of his own bodily force during the immediate performance of the music.

Encyclopedia Britannica writes - "Music box, also called musical box, mechanical musical instrument that is sounded when tuned metal prongs, or teeth, mounted in a line on a flat comb are made to vibrate by contact with a revolving cylinder or disc that is driven by a clockwork mechanism. As the cylinder or disc revolves, small pins or other projections mounted on its surface pluck the pointed ends of the metal teeth, causing them to vibrate and produce musical notes. The sequence of notes produced is determined by the arrangement of projections on the cylinder. The deeper the teeth are cut into the comb or flat plate, the lower their pitch when plucked. A watch spring and clockwork move the cylinder, and a fly regulator governs the rate."

We should not be surprised that musical instruments like the piano player and the phonograph are now obsolete along with many other inventions. But it is fascinating to think that because of its ingenious and unique designs, physical beauty, charm and inviting allure, the music box has remained with us and is currently sold all over the world in many shapes and sizes. Including our very own online music box store.

Historical Narrative

The following historical timeline is gleaned from the book written by Thomas E. T. Clark in 1952 titled Musical Boxes, A History and an Appreciation. Publisher, The Fountain Press, London. This historical narrative I have provided is only a brief glimpse of what Mr. Clark wrote about the musical box. The book provides a thorough detailed look at antique music box history.

1770 - "The earliest mechanical music boxes came on the scene in 1770 in Switzerland and were produced by watchmakers. That is, a tuned steel comb played upon by pins or pegs inset into a cylinder or disc was contained in a watch. It was here in Switzerland that the mechanical music box industry developed and flourished. It is not known at what date or by whom the first musical movement was invented or made, but it is unlikely to have been before 1770. It has been said that the first maker of a musical movement was one Louis Favre of Geneva."

"As may have been expected in a new and promising industry any developments were accomplished more or less secretly and for this reason it is most difficult now to trace the early developments. Furthermore, it would seem that the Swiss at this period took little interest in the actual history of their national industries, or at any rate the history of this particular trade, and accordingly very few records exist bearing on the origin and development of musical boxes."

1770 - 1780 "It is indeed a matter of great interest that at this period so many highly skilled mechanics could be found in Switzerland who were capable of taking up the production of these little automatic musical movements. Geneva eventually became the primary manufacturing center and later the industry extended to Bern and various other towns. The craftsman maintained their enthusiasm and enterprise over a considerable period, in fact the enthusiasm and skill seem to have passed from father to son for well over one hundred years."

Note: The antique music box images I have provided were kindly offered by the Musical Box Society International.

1780 - "Improvements to the mechanism. David Lecoultre put in a brass cylinder to replace the disc, the cylinder being set parallel to the comb. This was the pioneer of the brass cylinder musical movement and permitted the enlargement of the whole machine and so transformed the primitive "montetr a carillon" into an instrument of greater exactitude and altogether larger compass. But at this period the cylinders were not more than three inches long. It is not certain that David Lecoultre first introduced the brass cylinder in musical movements."

1780 - "The earliest musical snuff boxes were of silver or silver-gilt. A few were of gold. The cases were especially made to contain the tiny musical movements. Some of the cases were quite plain polished silver, others were chased or engine turned. The lid always received the most decoration. The dates of the hall-marks vary from 1780 onwards. Most of the early cases were made in London but some were made in France; others bear the Birmingham and Glasgow marks of 1790 to 1840."

1790 - "The exact date is uncertain but the laminated comb was introduced for use in movements that were larger and were fitted into more elaborate cases. The production of single tooth combs continued for some years. From 1790 onwards the escapement was an endless screw which replaced the primitive and unsatisfactory naked pinion. The endless screw escapement ensured smooth running and was, and still is an altogether ideal escapement for a musical box. It is used today in all makes of clockwork-driven gramophones, and in some makes of electric clocks." (written in 1952)

1800 - "Abram Louis Cuendet, after secret consultation with the Lecoultre Brothers, implanted a similar industry in the manufacture of musical movements in Saint Croix. A. L Cuendet was shortly afterwards joined by Henri Jaccard. All had previously been watchmakers of repute and later became famous in the musical box trade."

1812 - "Jeremie Recordou of St Croix began manufacturing musical movements and although he did not flourish at first, he was joined in 1815 by Samuel Junod. These enterprising craftsmen began placing the movements in fancy articles such as watches, fob-seals, walking stick tops, smelling bottles, bonbonniers, jewel-cases and snuff boxes. These products in due course became world famous and the snuff boxes remained in great demand over a period of years."

1815 - "By this time the industry had so far developed and its movements had been so much improved that expert workmen were required in the craft. These workers following one Pierrot as their leader, began migrating from their villages to settle in Geneva, where they at once began manufacturing musical movements exclusively."

1820 - "The larger pattern musical box (the Cartel) was first produced in Geneva in 1820, and soon after in St. Croix. By this time factories were operating in Geneva which required fewer outdoor workers. The factories resulted in producing a certain standard of excellence, and the manufactures endeavored to maintain this higher standard over a period of years."

1820 - 1825 "Dampers were introduced. These were very small feather quills fixed with shellac to the underside of the points of the bass notes of the comb. The dampering of the combs greatly improved the sound, as it prevented a note chattering or grunting when struck by a pin before the tooth had ceased to vibrate."

1830 - 1850 "During this period musical movements were fitted into a larger variety of expensive cases."


"Moving the Cylinder. In 1830 M. Bordier in Geneva was making fine small two-air movements fitted into good quality, amber tortoiseshell snuff boxes. "


"Many fancy articles such as colored tin boxes, dolls, workboxes, jewel cases, etc. containing musical movements were produced both in Switzerland and France. Toy musical boxes. The small and cheap toy musical box known as the manivelles, or crank-handle pattern was made."


"This year saw the first inlaid case. First only the lid and the workmanship was of a very high order."


"Musical movements were being made in Saint Suzanne, France, by one Auguste Lepee, a Swiss, and soon after this they were being made in Paris."


"Sometime before 1850 the elaborate and expensive inlaid cases were produced; these cases were works of art in themselves having inlay on the top and sides. As a rule, the top would be inlaid with devices of birds, flowers and musical instruments such as pan-pipes, musettes, castanets, cymbals, tambourines, etc."

1858 - "Mooline Senior, of Geneva made a very elaborate interchange cylinder musical box playing overtures. The changing of the cylinder was still very unsatisfactory."

1862 - "In the 1862 exhibition Messrs Paillard, of St Croix, showed a very large elaborate musical box with a greatly improved system for changing the cylinders. This was the largest and most ambitious system yet seen in this country. It had six interchangeable cylinders and they were telescopic, so that they expanded while the tune was playing, and the cylinder revolved six times non-stop in playing the tune. There were two combs of equal length, and the cylinders extended were 20 inches long."

1865 - Charles Reuge, a Swiss clockmaker who began making watches fitted with musical movements. His son Albert continued his work in St Croix about 20 years later. The company would continue under the leadership of Guido Reuge.

1870-1880 - "A number of cheap machines were made in Geneva but the larger type (Cartel) being more serviceable soon found favor with the public, and the enterprising manufacturers lost no time in improving and perfecting them. Musical boxes now began to be taken seriously."


"At St Croix, the first music box factory was not built until 1875. Music Box History reveals that even after that date many craftsman continued to work in their own homes. This practice, of course lowered the cost of production considerably, and the instruments could be sold cheaper, thus more people were able to purchase them. Thus it is that St Croix became the centre of the cheaper class of musical boxes."


"Nicole-Freres produced musical boxes with four main springs that would play for three hours with one winding. This was by means of an ingenious system of gearing. By this same date the industry had so far developed that there were thirty different firms in Switzerland engaged in the manufacture of musical boxes."

1880-1890 - "Giant musical boxes measuring six feet or more with cylinders as long as two feet nine inches. These extra large musical boxes were never very popular. The firms Nicole-Freres and Baker-Troll made drawers for the spare cylinders that fitted into a space underneath the actual musical box case thus doing away with the table."

"For the most part, the cases of the best quality musical boxes were of rosewood or walnut. Some were of solid wood but many were veneered with intricate designs on a cheaper hardwood. The lid always received the most attention."

1890 - "Germany saw the production of the musical movement. They produced the ever popular photographic album which would play when the cover was opened. The movement was made by the Swiss."

1895 - "The Regina Musical Box Company had been establish five years before producing disc musical boxes of high class quality, playing discs ranging in size from 8 to 27 inches in diameter. The latter size is undoubtedly the finest disc musical box made either before or since."

1897 - "Gustave Brachhausen invented, and patented a self changing disc machine that was entirely automatic. the self changing disc machine was a very ingenious contrivance and soon revolutionized the polyphon and Regina trade. The self changing Polyphons and Reginas held a magazine of twelve discs and either of the tunes could be selected to be played or for private use it would also play all the tunes at one winding, one after the other, if desired. In the case of the penny-in-slot machine, by inserting a penny the selected disc would be carried up from the magazine, placed in position, and played twice, and afterwards returned to the magazine. The magazine could be reloaded at any time. "

(End Quotes of Historical information from Thomas E.T. Clarks book)

Musical Box Industry Slows

It should not be any surprise to us after reading music box history to realize there was no other means of bringing automated music into the home in those early days, and therefore why it became such a popular item. The music box remains popular today due to its unique charm and beautiful sound but no longer treated as the only musical entertainment available for the home.

The music box would remain the primary method of bringing automated music into the home well into the 1900's due to its popularity and affordability. However, other forms of automation were being discovered as early as the 1850's. The phonautograph was invented by a French inventor named Edouard -Leon Scott de Martinville in 1950. Thomas Edison made possible the recording and playback of sound in 1877. Volta Graphophone Company discovered the dictaphone in 1881. The gramaphone was invented in 1894 by Emile Berliner and later in 1901 he would partner with Eldridge Johnson to create records. By the 1950's vinyl records would dominate the music industry.

As happens with every modern invention the old standard items begin to disappear along with the companies who produced them. The musical box popularity was no different. In 1903, one of the oldest and best cylinder musical box makers, Nicole-Freres went out of business finding the competition for vinyl records to be unbeatable. By 1902 the Regina Company, known as the market leader in music boxes, had decided to drop the  "Regina Music Box" from its name and diversify into other products. They continued to supply music boxes and discs through 1921.

The Music Box Industry Continues

It is a fact that most of the old music box companies no longer exist. My research shows that Reuge is the only survivor of the old days. Very few new music box companies have since started up.
1865 - Reuge Manufacturing of St Croix, Switzerland which had been founded in 1865 was acquired by the Italian Company "Arte" in 2001 who was their main supplier of wooden boxes and inlay. The name remains Ruege, and is considered one of the world leaders in a luxury Swiss Music Box manufactured today. They offer musical watches, singing birds, Unique Reuge music boxes and traditional music boxes.

1946 - Nidec Sankyo was established in 1946 in Suwa Japan by Sankyo Seiki. They manufacture music box movements that include the very inexpensive 18 and 23 note to the luxurious Orpheus series of 30, 50, 72 and 100 note movements. At one time, Sankyo provided over ninety percent of the worldwide music box industry with development, production engineering and sales network. Today, Sankyo continues growth in music box manufacturing but has also expanded into the highly technical manufacturing of industrial robots, card readers, motor drive units, sensors and more.

1974 - Porter Music Box Company, Inc of Randolph, Vermont, USA started its business in 1974 and does restoration of vintage music boxes and still produces large luxury disc music boxes and twelve and fifteen inch discs with extraordinary sounds. They also offer some low priced traditional musical jewelry boxes with small mechanical movements.

1978 - The San Francisco Music Box Company was founded in 1978 and became one of the largest retailers of musical gifts in the world. The first store was opened in San Francisco, USA at pier 39 boardwalk and became the flagship store for a chain featuring over 300 stores in almost every mall in the USA and Canada. The company produces inexpensive novelty music boxes featuring 18 note mechanical or electronic chips. I do not know if they manufacture their own movement. Most likely they buy the 18 and 22 note movements from the Japanese or Swiss. Although they no longer operate their our own retail stores, those same great products are featured by quality retailers across the U.S. and Canada, as well as Europe and Australia. Their headquarters is now in Lenexa, KS, USA 66219

German Music Box: We are not aware of any German music box manufacturers from the old days. However there are several wholesale manufacturers in Germany today making small wooden novelty items including German music boxes. One such manufacturer is Erzebirgische Volkskunst.