Music box collector shares treasures with Harmony Museum
HARMONY — Music boxes just hit the right note for Al Zamba.
His fascination with music boxes dates back to his childhood.
“When I was young I heard a music box. I love stringed instruments like the harp,” he said. “To me, the sound you get from a music box is unique. The sound you get from a music box comes from the wood.”
That youthful encounter with a music box set off a 40-year and counting occupation of collecting the musical instruments for the retired dentist from Evans City.
He can’t say how many he has.
“I never counted them. There’s a lot,” Zamba said.
He’s brought 16 music boxes from his collection to the Harmony Museum’s Community Collections display running through April 8 at the Harmony Museum, 218 Mercer St.
Gwen Lutz, vice president of the museum and co-chairperson of events, said the “Community Collections” display was a long time in coming.
“We started looking into this, and a week or two later everything shut down because of COVID,” Lutz said.
Lutz credits Robin Wuchina, a museum director, for convincing Zamba to bring in a sampling of his music boxes, as well as his 1904 Cadillac automobile, to join the display of collections of pedal cars, bottle dolls, jade carvings and other items.
“She’s the one who brought us Al, and we are very grateful,” Lutz said.
Zamba is happy to share his knowledge of music boxes with the museum-going public.
His devotion to his hobby is so great he once spent a week at a Vermont school learning how to repair damaged music boxes.
While he no longer repairs the teeth and wheels that produce the music boxes’ melodies, Zamba said, “I refinish the music boxes and I build cabinets for the big disk boxes.”
Zamba said the precursors to music boxes were the bird organs from 17th century France. Zamba said if song birds were removed from the nest before the mother bird taught them to sing, the young birds could be taught to sing a desired song using a bird organ.
The user turns a handle which pumped a bellows and turned a cylinder to control the air supply to individual organ pipes to create tunes. Zamba has a bird organ in the museum display that dates to 1850s Mirecourt, France.
Bird organs gave way to the first cylinder music boxes created in Switzerland in the early 1800s by French watchmakers who escaped the turmoil of the French Revolution.
The cylinder music box, and the later disk music box, create music when a rotating cylinder or disk covered in pins or stamped projections turn, plucking tuned steel teeth. The rotation is controlled by a heavy spring. The whole mechanism is attached to a metal bedplate in a wooden box or other enclosure.
“The first cylinder music boxes derived from the watch industry in Switzerland,” Zamba said. He said the first musical watch, a timepiece that could produce a tune, dates to the 1810-1815 period.
This was the beginning of the music box industry, and it was the first mechanically created music in the world.
At first, according to Zamba, the musical mechanisms were placed into objects such as snuff boxes and wax stamps used to seal letters. But later the machinery was placed in custom-built containers.
Zamba said the wood is what creates the sound of the music box. Outside of the wooden enclosure, the mechanism’s song sounds tinny and thin.
Music boxes started out in snuff boxes and then evolved into cabinets and enclosures of various shapes and sizes.
“Cabinets were all wood and veneered to make them look pretty,” Zamba said. “Early cylinder boxes were not veneered but they became larger and more beautiful.”
“People started buying them, and it became a whole industry,” he said.
“It became a cottage industry in Switzerland,” Zamba added. “Farmers in the winter would make the components of the music box — the pins and the cylinders — and in the spring people would come around to the farms and buy the parts to be assembled in a factory.”
Cylinder music boxes could play from three to 20 tunes but were supplanted with the creation of disk music boxes.
“The fatter the cylinder and the longer the cylinder, you could get a lot more music,” he said.
By the mid-1880s, Zamba said the Germans introduced disk music boxes whose disks could be switched out like the later record player, allowing for more songs to be produced.
In Zamba’s collection on display at the museum are music boxes contained in children’s toys and children’s banks which would strike up a tune when a coin was dropped into it.
Larger music boxes would dispense gum or candy or send dancing dolls into motion with the a coin.
“These were called station boxes,” Zamba said. “The would be placed in hotels, railroad stations and saloons to make money for their proprietors, and from the records we have, they made quite a lot of money.”
But with the advent of Thomas Edison with his wax cylinder that could record the human voice, the heyday of the music box was over. Consumers flocked to the new phonograph, and the production of music boxes dwindled.
Zamba said there’s one factory in Switzerland that still produces small music boxes. Japanese makers still construct small musical cylinders for use in jewelry boxes.
And music boxes aren’t something that turn up often, if at all, in second-hand stores or flea markets.
Zamba said he adds to his collection by buying from a music box dealer or from other music box collectors.
“They can be expensive, especially if they are in good operating condition,” he said.
“I love them all,” he said. “I play them a lot at home.”
Music boxes aren’t the only Zamba possession on display at the museum. He also brought his 1904 Cadillac.
“This was the second year of the production of the Cadillac. It has a one-cylinder chain drive and an all-wood body,” he said.
The Community Collections display will continue at the Harmony Museum from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays through April 8.