Charles Reuge, a watchmaker from the Val-de-Travers, settles in Sainte-Croix and begins making pocket watches with musical movements.

The original snuff boxes were tiny containers which could fit into a gentleman's waistcoat pocket. The musical boxes could have any size from that of a hat box to a large piece of furniture. Most of them were tabletop specimens though. They were usually powered by clockwork and originally produced by artisan watchmakers. For most of the 19th century, the bulk of musical box production was concentrated in Switzerland, building upon a strong watchmaking tradition. The first musical box factory was opened there in 1815 by Jérémie Recordon and Samuel Junod. There were also a few manufacturers in Bohemia and Germany. By the end of the 19th century, some of the European makers had opened factories in the United States.

The cylinders were normally made of metal and powered by a spring. In some of the costlier models, the cylinders could be removed to change melodies, thanks to an invention by Paillard in 1862, which was perfected by Metert of Geneva in 1879. In some exceptional models, there were four springs, to provide continuous play for up to three hours.

The very first boxes at the end of the 18th century made use of metal disks. The switchover to cylinders seems to have been complete after the Napoleonic wars. In the last decades of the 19th century, however, mass-produced models such as the Polyphon and others all made use of interchangeable metal disks instead of cylinders. The cylinder-based machines rapidly became a minority.

The term "musical box" is also applied to clockwork devices where a removable metal disk or cylinder was used only in a "programming" function without producing the sounds directly by means of pins and a comb. Instead, the cylinder (or disk) worked by actuating bellows and levers which fed and opened pneumatic valves which activated a modified wind instrument or plucked the chords on a modified string instrument. Some devices could do both at the same time and were often combinations of player pianos and musical boxes, such as the Orchestrion.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, most musical boxes were gradually replaced by player pianos, which were louder and more versatile and melodious, when kept tuned, and by the smaller gramophones which had the advantage of playing back voices. Escalating labour costs increased the price and further reduced volume. Now modern automation is helping bring music box prices back down.

Collectors prize surviving musical boxes from the 19th century and the early 20th century as well as new music boxes being made today in several countries (see “Evolving Box Production”, below). The cheap, small windup music box movements (including the cylinder and comb and the spring) to add a bit of music to mass-produced jewelry boxes and novelty items are now produced in countries with low labour costs.

Many kinds of music box movements are available to the home craft person, locally or through online retailers.

Reuge value

What's it worth? Take a look at this Reuge price guide: sold listings for a value indication.

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