Part 2. Purchasing an antique Swiss cylinder music box

"This baby has 450 horses under the hood!" the used car salesman says with a winning grin. There's a similar pitch tossed by the antique music boxe salesman, and it goes like this: "This box plays twenty tunes!"

In a little while I'm going to explain why the number of tunes isn't meaningful, except perhaps in an inverse way. But to arrive at that point I first have to take you on a simplified tour of the mechanics of a cylinder music box. So hop on the tour bus and look out the window at the first picture, below.

Pinning on a cylinder music box

This is a close-up of an actual cylinder and comb on a Swiss box. Notice that the cylinder holds thousands and thousands of tiny pins. How did they get there? After the cylinder was marked by a master musical arranger it was drilled and wires were inserted, legend has it, by little old ladies in cotages in Switzerland. Then the cylinder was filled with warm pitch, an noxious mixture of tar and resin. The cylinder was put on a lathe and heated as it spun, so as to distribute the pitch evenly on the inside wall. The cold pitch held the pins in place. Then the pins were raked on the lathe to the proper height and angle.

Pretty sexy, huh? Almost as appealing as a '65 Mustang. The upside of the comb of a typical antique Swiss music box doesn't look substantially different from the Regina comb we looked at earlier, except that the teeth terminate in a much finer point. In fact, the tip of the tooth isn't much wider than the width of the pins on the cylinder. In fact, if truth be told, the tip of the tooth is constituted by another wire that was soldered onto the underside of the tooth.

Let's assume that the box we are purchasing plays ten tunes. Let's look at what happens when the cylinder rotates and the box plays. Let's assume that tune number one is Cavalaria Rusticana. As tune number one plays the notes from that air miraculously line up with the teeth they are intended to strike and we are subdued by the immense beauty of Mascagni's art. Meanwhile, thousands of pins from the other nine tunes are just loafing, passing between the tips of the teeth without so much as hitting a sour note. Then we move on to tune number two: the cylinder is pushed slightly along its axis, the notes from Cavalaria Rusticana join the loafing pins, and so on.

Do you now see why the number of tunes has nothing to do with the price of bananas? We can spread out the teeth so as to make a coarser comb, and thereby accomodate more tunes. Or, if we're really sneaky, we can place two or even three tunes per revolution of the cylinder. As I hinted earlier, antique music box collectors don't like this kind of stuff, and so the number of tunes does in fact have something to do with the price of bananas. It turns out that the collectors like a fine cut comb. Some collectors, when considering the purchase of a box, will even ask the seller for the tooth count on the comb. Some of the most desirable boxes around are early overture boxes, which played only four tunes.

Feast your eyes on, or better yet avert your eyes from, the next picture. We have to touch on an ugly and unpleasant subject. This is the underside of a Swiss comb and I need to show it to introduce you to the dreaded D word. Dampers.

Cylinder music box dampers

Antique music box dampers can be frustrating to regulate, but it's not hard to understand what they are supposed to do, and that's all you really need to know.

Let's assume we have a vibrating dashboard, or a vibrating piano wire, or a vibrating steel tooth. Let's say a pin on our antique Swiss music box got that tooth doing its thing. Then let's say another pin comes around and says, I need to hit that note RIGHT NOW too. If that steel tooth is struck before it stops vibrating it's going to wail like a three month old. That's what the dampers are designed to prevent. They bring the tooth to rest before it's struck again. Bad dampers typically express themselves as a squeak, and a box with bad dampers will squeak like there's a flock of crows inside. You'll be amazed how often the seller will tell you the box is squeaking because it needs a little oil.

Usually everything except the high treble notes were dampered. Cylinder music box dampers and disc music box dampers work a little differently.There were any number of ingenious schemes to damper disc music boxes but cylinder music box dampers were basically all the same. If you look on the underside of the comb you'll see a tiny wire extending from a small platform slightly aback the tip of the tooth. A special curve was put in this wire. The wire terminates near, but doesn't quite touch, the tip of the tooth. Contrary to all rational expectations, when the dampers are working properly, the pin pushes this wire against the tooth enough to dampen it before the tooth is struck.

That's all I need to tell you about dampers before damper shock sets in. We'll return to the subject later when we talk about repairs, and why dampers can be such a miserable and expensive repair.

I told you earlier how the cylinder itself on an antique music box was pinned. Now I need to emphasize how important it is to look at the pinning on a prospective purchase. Bring a magnifying glass, if your eyes are bad like mine.

The pins were typically raked at 45 degree angle, but this angle will vary depending upon the decade the box was put together and who the manufacturer was. What you want to verify is that all the pins are raked at the same angle, sort of like soldiers in formation. What you don't want to see is that the pins look like drunken soldiers, some sleeping it off on the ground, some tilting to the left, some to the right, some backward as if they are ready to keel over.

How do we arrive at the drunken soldier scenario? Well, if we have just a few bent pins it's possible that just a few soldiers went AWOL. Maybe the manufacturer used a soft wire on the cylinder, and over the years natural wear and tear pushed just a few pins out of formation. It's sometimes possible to straighten out a couple of bad soldiers, although you can't count on it, as the military knows.

But a more likely cause has to do with the governor of your antique music box. Nope, that's not a military governor. Something has to regulate the speed of your music box, just like an escapement regulates a clock. This means that when all is said and done the only thing holding back the force of the mainspring is the endless screw of your music box. Some people refer to the endless screw as the worm. Attached to the worm is the fan, or possibly air brake if you are of the British persuasion. There's a jewel, a ruby, that the top of the endless bears upon. For your viewing pleasure, I have posted a picture below of a typical governor assembly.

Music box governor

Let's say someone attempts a repair on the box while the spring is wound. They decide to fix the governor. They loosen something up. Maybe they decide to replace the ruby; this is where the motor usually binds. The full fury of the mainspring is unleashed upon your poor, helpless music box. The cylinder whirls like a dervish on steroids, bending pins and snapping teeth. This state of affairs has been known since music box time immemorial as A Run. A Run is absolutely the worst thing that can happen to a cylinder music box.

You can usually hear a run when you listen to the box. The music sounds garbled, maybe as if the drunken soldiers were conscripted into a very bad band and were playing part of Cavalraria Rusticana and ten other tunes at the same time. You may hear all sorts of squeaks and pops from the dead dampers. But there is also a situation where it is much harder to diagnose a run. Let's say that the tune change cam was set on repeat rather than change when the run occurred. In this case, some of the pins on only one tune would be damaged, and unless you looked really, really hard the cylinder would appear OK. Moral: play through all the tunes.

Cylinder music boxes, as I mentioned before, swing into production around 1840. What I didn't mention earlier was how excellent these early boxes are. The boxes from this keywind era, 1840 to 1850 or so, really sing. The cases may be small or nondescript, but you won't believe how much sound you get from a little machine. If you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to purchase a box in good condition from this era, go for it! Believe me, the collectors will. The early lever wind era extends to 1860 or so, and many of these boxes maintain the excellent quality of the keywinds. Many fine boxes were made through the 1880s and 1890s, and many interesting features were introduced such as sublime harmony or mandolin arrangements. Drums and bells become popular in the 1880s, although there is disagreement among collectors as to whether such orchestral accompaniment enhances the music. As we get closer to and beyond 1900 the quality of antique Swiss music boxes diminishes, until we start to see cheap, mass-produced Swiss boxes in the Sears, Roebuck catalogues.

Interchangeables became available in 1890s, and in general were quite expensive. I have a massive orchestral Nicole interchangeable that takes up one wall of my front room; it's a superb example of the musical box maker's art. I've never been able to track down the robber baron who first purchased it. The thing you have to keep in mind about interchangeables is this: the cylinders you get with the box are unique to your box and will be the only cylinders you will ever receive. Do not delude yourself into believing that some kind stranger, somewhere, is holding more cylinders for you. It used to be that you stood a slim chance of finding extra cylinders if your box was manufactured by Mermod Freres, but I doubt even this is true anymore. Ergo, it follows that an interchangeable with only one cylinder is worth no more than a non-interchangeable.

Some people are very good at identifying the maker of a Swiss box. (I'm not.) By and large these boxes were not marked with the maker's name, but some people can identify the manufacturer by the curve of the case, the shape of the winding handle, or the design of the governor. The truth is that it doesn't matter who manufactured your music box, whether it was Ducommon, Bremond, Mermod Freres or somebody else; all these companies had a great deal of pride in their product and during their glory years produced wonderful arrangements. The only possible exception I can give you to the Doesn't Matter rule is Nicole Freres; some collectors consider their early boxes of such superlative quality that they will command up to a fifty per cent premium.

So rather than tell you what to buy, I'm going to tell you the earmarks of a good antique music box. A good box hits a lot of notes. This can mean a long cylinder, a fat cylinder, a fine-cut comb. If you can't remember anything else, remember this: The movement from a decent box fills up the case. A big cylinder in a big case is an indication of a better box. A small cylinder in a big case is indicia of a cheap, late box.

The good news is that you can get a lot more for your money in an antique Swiss music box than in a disc machine. $1000-$2000 can buy you some very nice Swiss boxes. Sadly, that amount won't buy you a good, entry level disc machine.


Copyright 2015 by Vicki Young

Vicki Young
Box 435
Randolph,OH 44265
330 325-7866


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