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Dead medium: The Regina Music Box
From: (Stefan Jones)
Source(s): *The 1897 Sears Roebuck Catalogue* (Chelsea House Publishers, New York, 1968)

The Regina Music Box

by Stefan Jones

The 1897 Sears catalogue contained many pages offering musical instruments, sheet music, accessories and lesson books. "Do it yourself" seemed to be the way to go back then. However, automation was making some inroads even in 1897. Besides a single phonograph (actually, a "graphophone") and a few dozen cylinders, Sears offered music boxes.

Page 524 depicts seventeen music boxes, ranging from a tiny cylinder a few inches across to "roller organs" which played paper music rolls. The catalog offers to send lists of available rolls where appropriate, but does not provide even a sample of the selections.

On Page 523 is a music box of another order: The Regina.

((( From this point forward, my comments in triple parenthesis.)))

"The Queen of Automatic Musical Instruments. The first of the kind ever manufactured in America, and it surpasses anything of similar nature manufactured by anyone anywhere. The mechanism of these music boxes is entirely different from any other. Interchangeable music sheets are used instead of the round cylinder found in the old style music box.

In the case of the latter, only one to a dozen tunes could be played without the great expense of an extra cylinder. (((Reality check: Extra music rolls for the "roller organs" on the next page cost 23 cents.)))

"With the Regina, however, the expense of extra tune sheets is only about that of ordinary piano and organ music and they can be obtained in any quantity. The latest airs on the market can be secured almost simultaneously with their publication in paper form. This one fact is sufficient to render the Regina the most popular instruments of the kind on the market.

"The motive force in the Regina consists of an extremely solid, and yet in its unique combination, an extremely simple clockwork. One valuable feature of this clockwork lies in the fact that all the parts are interchangeable and we are able to supply duplicates of any part they may be broken by accident or otherwise." ((("Otherwise"? Did the Regina's melodies inspire thoughts of sabotage in some users?)))


"The Regina is the only music box having duplex combs. The two combs face each other; the steel tongues are tuned and actuated in pairs, by corresponding star-wheels. An extraordinary volume and sweetness of tone is the result, and makes it possible to have as many as 156 keys in a small space, a range far exceeding that of the piano."

(((The above will be clearer if you've ever dissected a music box. Each flat tongue of the metal comb corresponds to a different note. In traditional boxes, the comb lightly brushes the surface of a cylinder studded with small metal posts; as the cylinder turns the posts "twang" the tongues, causing the note to play.)))


"The list of tunes increases every day, and is already large and varied enough to meet the taste of every purchaser. The metallic tune sheets are easily interchanged, thus making it possible for each individual box to play an unlimited variety of airs. The sale of these tune-sheets at a very reasonable price will continue for years after the boxes are sold. A guide for operating, oiling and repairing the Regina music box goes free with each instrument."

((( The ad copy anticipates fears that the boxes and sheets will go out of production. Were people aware of media obsolescence even then? )))

((( Three different Regina music boxes are described next. Surprise: they look astonishingly like a disc record player. They consist of a wooden box with a hinged lid. The disc is mounted on a spindle, and a drive rod snapped on top. The rod, which runs from the spindle to the perimeter, has three or four small wheels.

(((The tune 'sheets' are actually discs. They are depicted as white in color, with a printed (?) logo and graphic flourishes, and what appear to be hundreds of small slots. Are these simple punch holes, or does a tongue of metal protrude from the lower surface?

(((One of the machines is shown without a disc. Underneath the drive arm is a small rectangular platform that has what look like eight small buttons... or are they bolts? What *might* be a cylinder is mounted directly under the drive rod as well. The exact method by which the notes are struck is not apparent.

(((What might be the metal tone-comb is visible underneath this mechanism. The tongues run the full width (21") of the case.

((( The three Reginas each use differently sized tune sheets, and have 41, 56 and 156 tongues respectively. Most have a clockwork drive; a cheap ($8.70) variant of the first model is hand cranked. Here is the description of the largest Regina:)))

"No. 7305. Regina music box. Case is made either of mahogany, maple or oak beautifully polished. Size is 21 inches long, 18 1/2 inches wide by 9 1/2 inches high. Working part contains 156 tongues, while the tune sheets are 15 1/2" in diameter, rendering possible the rendition of the most difficult and classical music with perfect precision and charming execution. With this magnificent instrument, you can have rendered in your home, such music as the most brilliant pianist is capable of and that without the slightest musical talent or the expenditure of the hundreds of dollars necessary to secure a musical education. The extra music costs little more than would the same were it in paper form. Weight boxed, about 40 lbs. Our special price, complete with all attachments and one tune sheet . . . . . . . $78.95"

"Extra tune sheets 76 cents each. List of over 300 musical selections free on application."

(((By contrast, Sears sold pianos for $125 - $169, and organs for $38.95 - $56.00. The best violin cost $46.95; the toniest autoharps and accordions cost $18.50 and $11.25 repectively. Folios of sheet music (120 - 200 pages) cost $.30 - $.45.

((( Who did the Regina appeal to? Did it sell well? Did people sing to it, or was it used as "muzak?" We will probably never learn the answer to these questions. I would be willing to bet that the poor thing didn't last long once Berliner's disc gramophone was introduced. I imagine the Regina sounding like my Creative Labs 8-Bit Sound Blaster playing a MIDI file of harpsichord music: Perfect, precise, pure and soulless. Even indifferently recorded music from live musicians would beat it hands- down. And, or course, the Regina could not reproduce the human voice.)))

Stefan Jones ( "Honest! I have a life!"