by Regina Scott
If you’re like me, you’ve already been queueing up the Christmas music. There’s something special about the hymns, carols, and jingles written to celebrate the season. But in the west of the 1800s, music was a precious commodity, at any time. There are tales of families sacrificing to bring a piano on the Oregon Trail, stories of stampedes averted by a cowboy with a calming voice. If you could play an instrument or sing well, you were instantly popular!
Perhaps that’s why music boxes were so prized. First developed in the early nineteenth century in Europe by watchmakers, some early specimens were tiny enough to fit inside a gentleman’s snuff box. The mechanism was much like what you may have seen in a child’s toy—a cylinder with bumps equating to notes and a toothed comb that the cylinder rotated against to “ring” out the song. You cranked the mechanism to tighten a spring, which slowly unwound and stopped the motion of the cylinder.
People were entranced by the sound, and demand grew. Music boxes grew larger, fancier. Some came in tortoiseshell cases, others encased in fine wood. Sizes increased to tabletop and even as large as a grandfather clock. Companies found ways to swap cylinders, so you could play more songs. The number of teeth “playing” across the cylinder grew to over 300, providing a range of octaves. More springs meant the box could play for hours without rewinding.
Catalogs allowed you to pick from a range of music, from popular tunes to classical pieces and hymns. One piece even mimicked the sound of a bird singing. Supposedly Beethoven was particularly enchanted with the devices and composed music with them in mind.
At first the price for these boxes was high enough that only the wealthy could afford them. But after the Civil War, more reasonable boxes became available. These used less durable components, such as wooden or even paper rolls. Coin-operated versions were placed in railway stations for the public’s enjoyment. Pocket watches became musical, playing chimes to mark the hour. And people on the frontier ordered the boxes and gave them to those they loved. My hero Levi Wallin gives one to my heroine Callie Murphy in this month’s His Frontier Christmas Family. Callie loves music, but her family circumstances have prevented her from owning any kind of instrument. The music box becomes her prized possession.
The advent of the phonograph and player piano toward the end of the nineteenth century usurped the popularity of the music box. But examples continued to be created long afterward. The round music boxes in this blog post belonged to my great-grandmother and her sister, both of whom were born in the late 1800s. One was used to hold face powder—the original powder puff is inside.
Perhaps, like Callie, they loved music in any form, even from a magical little box.
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Regina Scott started writing novels in the third grade. Thankfully for literature as we know it, she didn’t actually sell her first novel until she learned a bit more about writing. She now has more than thirty-five published works of warm, witty romance. She and her husband of nearly 30 years reside in the Puget Sound area of Washington State. Regina Scott has dressed as a Regency dandy, driven four-in-hand, learned to fence, and sailed on a tall ship, all in the name of research, of course. Learn more about her at her website or connect with her on Facebook, Pinterest, or Goodreads.
His Frontier Family
After taking guardianship of his late friend’s siblings and baby daughter, minister Levi Wallin hopes to atone for his troubled past on the gold fields. But it won’t be easy to convince the children’s wary elder sister to trust him. The more he learns about her, though, the more he believes Callie Murphy’s prickly manner masks a vulnerable heart…one he’s starting to wish he was worthy of.
Every man in Callie’s life chose chasing gold over responsibilities. Levi—and the large, loving Wallin family—might just be different. But she can tell he’s hiding something from her, and she refuses to risk her heart with secrets between them. Even as they grow closer, will their pasts keep them from claiming this unexpected new beginning?