Copyright Vladimir Kagan, May 18, 2013
On a recent visit to my Daughter Jessica in Connecticut, I was enchanted by a simple music box we bought together in a touristy gift shop on our trip to Paris. It is encased in a tin box and wound with a little red knob to emit a “tinkley” rendition of the Marsaeille. The box is decorated with historic images of the revolution…It’s a cheap toy that one buys on impulse and tosses into a drawer, never to be seen again. However, it’s simplicity and sophistication is quite amazing - a detail that we take for granted.
Jessica's Paris souvenir - a music box in a tin can
The technology of a music box is not new; they first appeared at the end of the 18th century and were originally made with a perforated metal disk. Over the years, the mechanism was miniaturized into a small cylinder with spiky pins that pluck at thin stands of spring-steel, each fine-tuned to emit a single note on perfect pitch. By plucking a number of these strands at one time they emit a symphony of sounds. By the 19th Century, music boxes were powered with elaborate clockworks produced by sophisticated Swiss watchmakers. As these instruments became smaller and smaller, they were secreted into snuffboxes and fine jewelry. Not all music boxes necessarily were diminutive. A father and son team of German cabinetmakers, Abraham and David Roentgen, created intricate cabinets with a plethora of hidden gadgets. Amongst these were elaborate armoires that concealed a complete music box orchestra. The Roentgen’s furniture was the rage of all the Royal families of Europe. In a recent exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum an amazing collection of Roentgen cabinets, desk and tables were beautifully exhibited. I was amazed that these elaborated pieces of furniture were so remarkably well preserved in spite of two hundred years of the ravages of wars.
A simple hand-held music bax showing the inner working: A spiky cylinder engaging a comb of spring steel hand wound by a knob with a geared worm-screw
By the earliest 20th century, music boxes gave way to the player piano, which, with their punch-card technology were the precursor of IBM’s first punch-card computers!
Tiny things have always fascinated me. While visiting Boston’s North Bennet Street School, an institution dedicated to fine craftsmanship, I was enamored by a miniature plane, so tiny that it disappears into the palm of a hand; yet a vital precision tool used in violin making.
I like collection small-gauge toy trains, though they do not qualify as miniature, their exacting details surely do.
It was probably my wife Erica’s love for “small” that got me stated in the first place. We have a glass vetrine cabinet filled with Erica’s collection of miniatures including a porcelain tea set befitting a royal dollhouse. As toddlers, our children played with it daily, serving droplets of tea for their imaginary parties.
On my cluttered desk, I have accumulated an assortment of diminutive “toys”: a pair of Italian hand-bound miniature books covered in marbleized paper, originally intended for our grandchildren, but never bestowed on them.
I enjoy fondling a small ball bearing disc, which I purchased some years ago to design a hinge for a pair of heavy eight-foot cabinet doors.
As we have graduated to bigger things in our lives, we have mostly forgotten the pleasure of small…. Small can be beautiful!
What can be more fun than enjoying the toys of our youth?
Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens (Metropolitan Museum of Art) [Hardcover]