Instrument identification and history

It is natural to want to know as much as possible about the musical instrument that you own and cherish. Fortunately much research has been published about every type of mechanical musical instrument that has ever been made — from player pianos to carousel organs to automatic harps and violins to mechanical orchestra to cylinder and disc music boxes — and the MBSI has much of it in its Member’s Lending Library.

We are glad to provide brief answers to questions about instrument identification, as well as brief histories of the firm which made the instrument, to our website visitors. We can also refer you to the most authoritative information available, if you want more than the brief data we would provide via email. However, for a person seriously interested in the field of mechanical music, full membership in the MBSI is the answer.

A good general reference book on mechanical music — indeed the bible of the field — is the “Encyclopedia Of Automatic Musical Instruments,” by Q. David Bowers, a copiously illustrated, well-documented, 1007-page compendium first published (by the now-defunct Vestal Press) in 1972, and reprinted many times. It is still in print and to be found in most large libraries; if not in your local library, it is available via inter-library loan everywhere (ISBN 0-911572-08-2; Library of Congress record number 78-187497). Bowers’ section on the Regina disc music box, for example, is very comprehensive, covering every aspect of company history and all Regina models (p. 170-212).

For cylinder music boxes there are several books by experts such as Arthur W.J.G. Ord-Hume, Graham Webb, and others. The chief category of question we get about instrument identification is from people who want to identify the maker of their antique cylinder box. Cylinder box manufacturers did not often put their names on their products, leaving a retailer to claim the box as his.

Let us say here that pictures of the cabinet work or woodwork of a cylinder box are of no value in answering the question, “Who made my music box and when?” What is very helpful, however, is a clear picture of the box’s tune card or tune sheet. Ord-Hume and H.A.V. Bulleid have done considerable work researching tune card designs and linking them to the company that used each. If we see the tune card, we can usually say who made the box — and if the picture is clear enough to allow use to read the handwriting of the tune titles, we may be able to approximate the date of its manufacture, from knowing when the tunes were composed.