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Music Boxes

Text by: Amy Carpenter

As an infant, I fell asleep every night with a green, toy elephant that my caregivers put in the crib with me. It had a music box inside it that played Brahms' Lullaby and wound down slowly as sleep descended upon me. I still have that green elephant and wind it up once in a while to feel again the comfort and safety of my caregivers' arms around me - a wisp of a memory that clings to me in the shrouding mist of time. My youngest child had a mobile attached to her crib that also played Brahms' Lullaby, a musical memory I passed on to her. Though the mobile's clown figures and framework have been put away, I still keep the music box on her dresser and wind it up some nights before she goes to sleep.

As a child, my parents took me to visit their friends, Richard and Helen Rice, to see the impressive mineral collection housed in their basement (their home later became a nationally-renowned rock and mineral museum after they died). What I remember most about our visit, however, was not the glittering rocks in their basement but the calliope band organ hidden away in their storage building. It took up the entire room, and it produced an enormously powerful sound. It was the kind of automated musical contraption you would find on an old-fashioned carousel or at a carnival in the days before the invention of recorded music and amplifiers. As I listened to its cheerful, booming song, my face broke out in a delighted smile, and I imagined myself flying around on a rearing, wooden horse attached to a pole.

As a teenager, my favorite store at the mall was the music box store. I could spend hours there, winding up each and every music box and listening to each familiar, tinkling tune. Fortunately, my friends would save me from my oblivious fascination and drag me away for some much-needed sustenance at the orange smoothie shop around the corner. But even then, the music boxes' innocent songs played in my head as my friends chattered away around me.

As a mother, I often take my kids to the local greeting card store, heading straight for the Christmas ornaments, which seem to be on-display almost year-round. I love to push all the buttons and hear their happy holiday songs, watching them light up or turn around on their bases. Then I search out the snow globes. Eagerly, I wind them up and shake their shiny contents in wonderment. My kids are delighted to follow their mother's example, but really, my motive is quite selfish. I want to play all the music boxes myself and use my kids as decoys so the other adults in the store do not realize how much of a child I still am.

My mother knew (as mothers do) what I loved best. One year, she used her amazing artistic skills to make me a musical jewelry box. It was shaped into a long hexagon and was covered in yellow and white, dotted fabric with yellow ribbons and flowers on the lid. When I wound the music box up, it played the song "Edelweiss" from my favorite movie, "The Sound of Music." I lovingly placed my favorite jewelry in it and sometimes even put a treasured stone or gem inside it for safe-keeping. Though I've never been able to buy a music box for myself, I still have my mother's hand-crafted music box. It is a reminder of the promise I've made to myself that one day, when the time is right, I will start collecting music boxes.

Music boxes have a long history. For centuries, inventors sought to create automated musical devices. One of the first mechanical musical contraptions was the carillon. The carillon evolved from belfry's simple system of pulled bells to the more complicated keyboard, which, when a key (called a "baton") was struck, would pull wires and levers, eventually moving a clapper which would hit the bell associated with that key. An automated mechanism was invented to play the bells on a set schedule. For years, inventors tried to harness the huge carillon's music and put it into smaller contraptions for the enjoyment of individuals. The first truly successful music box was made by Swiss watchmaker Antoine Favre in 1796. He was able to convert the music of the bells into an ingenious smaller contraption. Inside the music box was a cylinder which had teeth that would pluck small, metal strips that vibrated and produced the delicate tinkling of the music box. This technology, married with the existing technology of watchmaking, was a marvel and a wonder to the people of the time. Other watchmakers soon followed, and the Swiss music box business soon rivaled the country's already successful watchmaking business.

Throughout the 1800s, the music box continued to be a favorite for automated music. Music boxes could be housed in snuff boxes, pocket watches, jewelry boxes, or in larger, tabletop models. Sometimes, a louder sound was desired, so inventors came up with larger, even more elaborate automated musical devices, such as the band organ and player piano. The inspiration for all of these new contraptions was the simple music box.

Later in the 1800s, music box makers began using flat, metal disks instead of cylinders. The disks were far easier to produce than cylinders and were easier for the owners of music boxes to change out as well. Music box popularity waned with the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s when people began buying the recently invented gramophone, which was much cheaper than the music box. Ironically, the gramophone itself used a flat disk, an echo of the music box's own metal disk.

Today, music boxes are an integral part of our lives, though we often don't notice them. I can't count how many musical toys we have strewn around the house that my son plays like a little disc jockey. Music boxes help our children go to sleep at night. They bring our Christmas trees to life with their tiny songs. Unlike an mp3 player or CD, they do not reproduce the exact sound of the original recording. They play their own little instrument: the plucked metal strips. They are an entire orchestra fit into one tiny compartment, placed in a toy or some other vessel to cheer and comfort us.

Now, when I put my children on the flying, wooden horses on the antique carousel at the mall, I tell them about the big machine in the middle that produces such wonderful, happy sounds, and how it uses the same system that a tiny music box uses. When we wind up the snow globes' music boxes, I teach them about clockwork and bells. When I play my baby's mobile music, I whisper to her siblings the story of my little music box elephant who sang the same melody to me every night when I was a baby. And when I push the buttons on the Christmas Tree ornaments, I remind myself of who I really am - a child who wants more than anything to wind up a little box and discover what marvelous, little chiming song will issue forth and sing to my heart.