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Music Boxes

A few years ago while browsing in an antique mall wondering what I should collect, I saw a man with several beautiful old music boxes in his hands, ready to check out. I thought this was a beautiful thing to collect, tiny crystallized denominations of possibly my favorite art form, music. As it happens, I do an awful lot of thrift shopping, and before long I was picking up music boxes left and right, and before I knew it I had a small collection. I don’t have many music boxes yet that may be considered high class or of any significant monetary value, but my music box collection means a lot to me nonetheless, and I’d like to use this page to show pictures of and talk about them. If anyone has any questions or comments, feel free to share!

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Nondescript music boxes like these are some of the most common to find. Some of them, like the one on the left and the one in the center, only play music, but other ones like the one on the right can open up and hold things, like jewelry and trinkets, I guess. While many music boxes actually require you to crank them, the ones you most often find in a thrift store or garage sales are the kinds you wind, then play until they wind out. You wind these boxes by turning what is called a key, just a little crank. Sometimes these keys are removable, but I’ll get to that later.

Some music boxes, like the mirrored type one on the left, are wound by turning a little circle type pedestal key on the bottom, and then the entire music box rotates around that key as it plays. The style in which that one on the left is in, the sort of mirrored, crystalline thing, is actually pretty common. You can probably find one just like that (at an inflated price) at your local Osco. This one in particular plays “Beautiful Dreamer,” which is easily recognizable but is also indicated from a label on the bottom of the box.

It would be nice if every music box had such labels, but not all of them do, like the other ones shown here, both of which play melodies I recognize but cannot identify. The standard nature of these boxes compared to how infrequently I can actually name their tunes reminds me that I am pretty unversed in popular tunes that they usually have. The one on the right is also a pretty common style. This one in particular is hand painted. The one in the middle is pretty unique, made to look like a little phonograph. When you wind it, it audibly whirrs, and if you turn it over, you can see the actual music box, which is always nice.

The way a music box works is that you crank or wind the ratchet lever, directly causing the cylinder to move if cranked or indirectly causes it to move by means of a little spring motor if wound. The cylinder has tiny brail bumps that pluck tiny pieces of metal on what is called a comb. All these little pieces of metal produce different tones, and by the rotation of the cylinder and subsequent plucking of the comb, a song is produced. You can see the cylinder and motor (the tiny little white circle in the lower left of the pane) in the windable music box below.

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As you can see, this music box is shaped like a piano, but the top is missing. This is significant. See that little peg on the left side of the top surface? When you press this button, it stops the music box if it is playing by pushing itself down into the path of the motor. My educated guess is that at one time this music box had the top of the piano attached, and once that top was closed, that peg was pushed in and the music box would stop. This is pretty standard for music boxes, that is, a stopping mechanism, and you’ll see more of that if you scroll down.

The origins of this music box in particular are hazy. It came from my grandmother’s basement, that much I know, but my grandmother isn’t sure whose it actually is, and no one is owning up to it being theirs. So I guess it’s mine, for now. I like it. It’s heavy and plays a beautiful, melancholy song which I also don’t know the name of. It also has that little red, velvety section in which can be put very small things, like many music boxes have.

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This is definitely one of my favorite music boxes. As you can see, it is a pig in a snowglobe. I’ve always loved pigs. It plays You Are My Sunshine, which I love. I’ll never give this one up.

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This is by far one of the more bizarre music boxes I have seen. It cost $2.12 cents at The Community Thrift Store in Carpentersville IL, but I probably would have paid much more for it. The music box itself plays a nice little melody which I can vaguely recognize parts of but can’t put a name to. But the figure is what is most interesting. Obviously it is Noah’s ark, with a snowglobe on top. The ship is adorned with four sets of animals that appear in doubles, but the figure clearly hasn’t been well preserved, so ears and trunks have broken off. On the right side of the figure is a little golden chain that is attached to the ship and dangles loosely. I’m wondering if anything has ever been attached to it.

Inside the snowglobe are Mr. and Mrs. Noah (Mr. looks rather dramatic), a lion and a lioness, and most interestingly two giraffes. Or at least most of them. Their necks extend upward far past the other animals and then stop abruptly leaving only two stumps where their heads should be. Where are they? The obvious answer is that there clearly isn’t enough room for anything above the stumps in the snowglobe, but I don’t think that whatever company that made this box would have simply made giraffes without heads. On top of the snowglobe are small abrasions or possibly remnants of superglue that may have once attached something to the top. Perhaps there was another figure on top, which contained the giraffe heads. I’ll probably never know, because I can’t for the life of me find any information or pictures of other music boxes of the same model online. It seems like Noah’s Ark is a pretty common motif for music box figures, but this one is obscure, and I just can’t find anything on it. If anyone has any information, let me know.

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I have a few transparent music boxes that are shaped like musical instruments. One of the nicest things about these ones is that you can open them up and see the music boxes working inside, which I appreciate.

The larger piano on the left I found in a thrift store called the Sparrow’s Nest in Palatine IL. It used to have little detachable legs, but one time when I was taking it off of the shelf in my closet which has most of my music boxes on it, one of them caught on something and snapped off. The leg is once again detachable and in tact, but it is lost somewhere in the lower half of my closet, which is where things go and never come back, at least until however many years go by and I decide to clean my closet. This will probably happen this summer, so I’m keeping the other two legs nearby to remind me of what I need to do to find what I need to find.

The one in the middle shaped like a violin is really nice as well. The cover actually slides off to the right on a pivot, and when open and wound it plays “You Light Up My Life,” according to the label on the back, which is just the nicest tune which has an adorable major fourth triad close to the beginning which will just break your fucking heart. I fear for the safety of this one- when you wind it it sounds like there is a rubber band or something inside that is straining. It just sounds like it has kind of a rough time. Also one of the little pegs is missing, which I find cute.

The one on the right is one of the first music boxes I ever bought, at a garage sale just down the street from my apartment. I don’t remember how much it cost, but it was cheap, and I think I bought it with the violin too. It plays a nice little melody.

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Well this one is just lovely. It also plays Beautiful Dreamer, rather slowly (music boxes have varying tempos). It’s stopping mechanism is actually a little metal lever on the back. What else can I say? It’s a really nice figure with a great melody. If I have kids, I  might use this one to put them to sleep at night.

FROM THE GIFT WORLD OF GORHAM, MADE IN JAPAN

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Music boxes with horses are pretty common, actually probably the most common type that I have seen. I see them in thrift stores fairly often, but obviously they are all pretty similar and if they aren’t pretty cheap I won’t bother. But they are nice. Almost all of the ones I have seen rotate on their little poles. The one on the left actually does it automatically when you wind it. I don’t recognize the songs on any of these music boxes, which is odd. None of them have labels either, but they are all nice.

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Other circus-related music boxes include this one that my friend Max gave me with a scary looking clown on it. Once you take off the plastic top, a little plastic protrusion is removed from the hole in the clear plastic which you can faintly see in the upper left of the box in the picture. When the protrusion is in this little hole, it blocks the tiny motor fan on the music box from running, thus stopping the music box. So if you wind it and then close it, the music stops. Most music boxes have similar mechanisms which stop the motor fan when you close them. On the back of this one, there is a label with the following printed on it:

Music Tune

Send in the Clowns

The Plactory

After doing a little Googling…

The Plactory, now based in Santa Cruz and in business since 1976, manufactures plastic injection-molded products from primarily recycled feedstock that “nobody else in America” would touch.”

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This is the other clown music box I have. I found it in a thrift store in Elgin. It is fat and creepy looking and absolutely fucking awesome. It is also a very slow moving music box, and you really have to wind it as much as it will go to get it moving at a decently paced tempo. Even then, it sputters and whirrs occasionally, and if you touch the sides of the figure while it is playing you can feel little thumps inside. I once again don’t recognize the song that this one plays.

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The final clown music box I have seems to be made out of porcelain, and also plays Send in the Clowns, which is by this point a tune that has buried itself into my memory for better or worse. I would probably say better. It’s a nice little song and it lends itself well to being played faster than its usual delivery on the music box format.

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I have many music boxes that seem to be made for children. These are some of them, except maybe for the one with the two bears, which might just be a cute valentine gift. Unfortunately, I don’t recognize the melody for the one with the little bears, and the rotating upper figure is lopsided, but I still like it a lot. It’s just too cute to not love. The tall angel plays Silent Night, the Doll on the Horse plays It’s a Small World (I thought I had rid my mind of this song forever, but like Send in the Clowns, its one that kind of sticks with you, but this song is for worse. Anyone who has ridden the It’s A Small World ride at Disney World can relate.), and the adorable little bear with the blanket plays the beautiful Brahms Lullaby. I love that little bear one.

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This really old looking Anri music box was the first music box I bought knowing it was broken. And the broken-ness extends beyond the creepy looking little girl missing her hand. At the time, the key was missing, and thus the box could not be wound. I saw this as an opportunity for research, and I learned a lot about music boxes from it. Two sets of screws are on the wooden bottom. One set attaches the actual music box to the piece of wood and the other set attaches the wood to the figure. As it turns out, this is more or less the way that most music boxes are held together. There is typically a set of screws which attaches the wooded piece to the bedplate (that is, the base of the actual music box)and then the wood is somehow attached to the figure. Sometimes, like here, this is by means of another set of screws. And sometimes it is just glued into place and if you want to take the actual box out, you have to do a bit of prying.

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This is what the music box inside looks like with the actual box removed (sorry about the poor quality). After I took it out of the figure, I was hoping there was some way I could manage to make the music box work manually. I found that this was possible but quite difficult. If I turned the screw where the key used to be, the motor would run, but very slowly. And if I turned the motor with my fingers, it would set the cylinder in motion at a snails pace. I tried to find some kind of wingnut or something to screw where the key used to be but not only could I not find one that would fit, but none of them were capped on top. So I just tried what seemed to me then to be the most painfully obvious thing I could think of; I simply unscrewed a key from another music box and screwed it onto this one. It worked like a charm. Apparently the screws and keys on music boxes are of uniform size and are interchangeable. I’m wondering if there is a place where I can buy spare keys, but until then this process works just fine. By the way, the box plays “Knock Three Times.”

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I have amassed a large amount of Christmas themed music boxes, and this one is one of the more exciting ones I have acquired. It is the only electric music box in my collection as I write this, and for that reason it probably isn’t a bonafide music box, meaning I’m almost certain that it doesn’t have the classic cylinder structure. The main reason I say this is because it can play different sets of songs, as you can see from the switches on the side which can turn to either “All time classics” or “Christmas songs.” It also has volume control.

When I bought this, I was told that it was broken and was to be sold as is. Sure enough, even when I flicked the switch in the store, it stayed silent. I bought it anyway, figuring it looked like a treasure enough that it would be worth trying to open up and fix. As soon as I got it home, I replaced the batteries and it turned on just fine, and as you can see it also lights up. A key with which to lock the box and an instruction manual were also included. However, it is still a little broken. The ice pond, which looks to me like it should rotate, does not (perhaps I should still open it up), and many of the little figurines have been knocked over. Still, I love it. It has a vintage chic to it.

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These are some other Christmas themed boxes I have. They are obviously cheaper but still nice enough. As far as I’m concerned, the more the better, because I love Christmas music, even the cheesy overplayed stuff.

The little Santa Claus and squirrel box on the right plays Here Comes Santa Claus, which is a personal favorite Christmas song. The cute bi-racial (you can’t really see that their fur are different colors from this photo) mouse couple play Winter Wonderland. If the little red bird wasn’t staring directly at their crotches, the rest of the figure would be enough to make it my favorite of the bunch. But that designation has to go to the one in the center, which is just the funniest little box. When wound, the little snowman in the middle rotates rapidly while the box plays a very, very out of tune and creepy/funny sounding Winter Wonderland. As the song begins, everything sounds normal, but as the song progresses you can tell gradually that something is wrong. By the end it just sounds like an atonal mess. I’m assuming the comb must be warped for something like this to have happened. At any rate, it is one of the music boxes I wind the most often.

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Here are two other Christmas boxes. The one on the left is totally badass, and I knew that as soon as I aw it in the store, but unfortunately I knocked one of the propellers off by accident before I even got to the register. This was pretty frustrating, but I bought it anyway not just because it was the right thing to do for the store but also because I still thought it was badass. Supergluing the propeller back on proved to be quite difficult because of the angle at was at, and it ended up pretty poorly reattached, much less of a success than another superglue job which you will see coming up soon. Still, I really like it a lot. It plays Here Comes Santa Claus. The bears on the right play Deck the Halls.

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This one is very interesting. The figure is pretty basic, but I like it a lot. The dove is lovely looking and the snow is nice. But what is special about it is the box itself. It plays Greensleeves, but at a ludicrously slow tempo. Even when you wind it fully, it only plays one note about every ten seconds. You can’t really understand what the song actually is unless you pay attention to it for a really long time. Some people would probably argue that this is broken or useless, but I contrarily think that is both a sweet, gentle, unique music box as well as being pretty metal (drone metal, I guess). There’s just something really impenetrable about how slow it moves that I just can’t get over. This is one I hope to open up as well and look at so I can see exactly why it runs slow.

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This one is a little funky. It is easily the most, well, racially diverse music box in my collection. The figure is of four children of varying ethnicity, and I would have expected it to play something like It’s a Small World After All, but it doesn’t. I Don’t recognize the song but it’s kinda nice. But it does have one annoying quality. The key it rests on is a circular type which allows for it to be quite off balance and wobbly, and I usually have to prop it up with something, like you can see in this picture. It leads me to believe that this may not be the original key.

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This one is another of my favorites. I bought it in a thrift store in Wicker Park while I was at the Metronome Street Festival along with two of the horse music boxes, and brought it back home on the train in a plastic bag. Also in the bag were two flannel shirts I bought which I assumed cushioned and protected the boxes well enough, but clearly I was wrong, because when I later took the contents out of the bag, the angel’s wing had broken off. After a couple days I got hold of some Gorilla Glue, and attempted to fix it. The stuff is hard to deal with. You need to apply moisture to one of the things you are gluing and the actual glue to the other, and then hold the pieces together for a long time. It works, but it takes a while. I had to hold the wing on for a while myself, and then when it fastened enough I propped the figure up on various things until it was angled just so, with the wing pointing upward. By the next morning it was all mended together. I spent a lot of quality time with this thing and probably have more sentimental value for it now that I fixed it myself. It plays “Silent Night.”

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Apparently my grandmother bought this one at a garage sale. It’s really nice looking, and it plays Love Me Tender by Elvis. I love it.

IMG_0661But this one I hate. Beyond the thing just looking kinda creepy and unflattering, when you wind it it just keeps on going. Like, even after it stops, if you nudge it or try to move it, it keeps going. There have been times where it has been in my closet with no one touching it, and it just randomly starts playing again. I don’t particularly like the tune either. Maybe I don’t hate it but it’s not one of my favorites.

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This is actually one of the few crank music boxes I’ve had. I had one other one when I was little, but I gave it to someone in a secret santa exchange. If I could take it back, I wouldn’t, because that was the best secret santa gift ever given and I hope she still has no idea who gave it to her. Anyway, this was also a gift and it’s great. It plays a really nice little melody. The top opens to reveal a cheap little pop-up scene with Hello Kitty and some butterflies.

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This is one of the few religious music boxes I have, and there isn’t much I can say about the appearance that you can’t gather from this picture. It is an interesting one, and I don’t really know what I think about it. I don’t recognize the song.

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Get ready, because this one is the big kahuna. Every year my hometown has a big thrift sale at one of the local churches, and this baby was for sale in the boutique. I saw it and I just had to have it. Apparently it was released by Disney around the year 2000 as a millennium commemoration. It contains the most modern version of Mickey in the waterglobe, and many of his previous incarnations on the sides of the base, even a black and white Steamboat Willy! I just love this thing. For a long time, I couldn’t find any information about this music box at all, as it didn’t come with its original box and no one online seemed to have any information about it. I finally found an ebay auction on it, though.

http://cgi.ebay.com.sg/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=230360633257

I’m going to apologize in advance for the broken link. Although it is not broken as I write this, it seems as if the auction has ended and it will probably be dead eventually. But I learned a little more about this music box from that page. The seller said that the box he was selling played a tune called “Through the Years”, but mine plays, according to a label on the bottom, “As Time Goes By”. Is it possible that there were many models made that played different songs?

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As much as that last one floored me, this next one is truly my favorite. I’ve never seen anything like it at all and I still can’t get over it.

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The twins gave this one to me. It seems to be made entirely out of metal, possibly tin, and when the box, which is suspended within the building, is wound by turning the windmill, and the song echoes within the metal and sounds haunting. The song is called “Windmill in your Mind” according to the label at the bottom. The only other information the label provides is that it was made in Hong Kong. Does anyone have any more information about this?

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My explanation can’t possibly do this one justice, so I’ve recorded a video of the music box for you to see.

5 comments

  1. Delightful article. Why was no name given for author? I did some consulting for The Plactory in the late 1970s when they were first adding music boxes to their line of small novelty plastic boxes. So it was fun seeing the clown box in the article. They had a wide array of artists contributing graphics for their box covers.


  2. I enjoyed your article and pictures about your music boxes. I have collected music boxes for about 30 years and have somewhere around 700, some of the same ones you have. My husband passed away and I must downsize and would like to sell some of them, some are too sentimental to part with. If you are interested please let me know your likes and I will send you some pictures. I would love them to go to someone who would appreciate them.


  3. Hello my name is Telete and Im looking for a figurine that plays Send in the Clown. Want to possibly get this for my mom for Christmas gift.


  4. Neat article! I happen to own the piano-shaped music box in your second photo (yours is broken and has no top). Mine works and is in near-perfect condition. It is for sale, if you’d like to make an offer. Otherwise, it will be going to auction in February.


  5. I am searching for a music box made in Japan that is made of wood, has a lion on it and when the music plays, a little mouse with a magnet on the bottom of the figure, dances around. It was a gift given to my daughter 30 years ago when she was a baby.



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