On the corner of... A Piccilo-Zither music box

Fri, 05/26/2017 - 3:15pm

The Block Island Historical Society was formed in immediate reaction to an item in Lucretia Mott Ball’s will, whereby personal items of especial interest and value were to be given “to museums or historical collections” preferably in New England. She died in 1941; the local organization was incorporated the following year. 

Her furnishings, household and personal, became the core of the collection, from parlor settees to wedding dresses, from clocks to music boxes.

Lucretia’s music box in the Historical Society is housed in a rosewood chest with inlays on its lid; it could be a place for treasures, company silver, a lady’s gloves and handkerchiefs, even a precious doll with a glazed porcelain face.

Music does not start when the lid is raised, as in some later-day jewelry cases, rather an interior mechanism, protected by glass, comes into view. A fragile tune card, listing a series of selections in another language, tells us it is a “Piccolo-Zither,” a finely calibrated instrument crafted in Switzerland.

Inside the case, under the glass, sits a long cylinder with raised bumps, a sort of musical braille, waiting to be read as it is turned and each tiny hill meets a single tooth of a long metal comb, and a note rings forth. 

There is, of course, no battery, neither is there the wind-up key in some modern mechanisms; there is, nestled to the left of the cylinder, a handle to be lifted up and pulled forward, setting the gears in motion, creating music. Music boxes were very popular items in nicer homes, this type generally with interchangeable cylinders. Some were the size of ours, others as large as a parlor organ. They were displaced by gramophones, then long-playing vinyl and so forth, to today’s hand-held technology pulling full symphonic pieces from a cloud.

The music box has been, in memory, operable, but now needs a tune-up. Still, we can stop and for a moment imagine a time when luxury was “live” music in the parlor, requiring no instruction, no sheet music, no more effort than one easy turn of a handle in a rosewood box.