The Curious Melodic Case of The Regina Music Box 

June 11th, 2024

Detail of a Regina music box. Photo by Halfrain / Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

The tale of the Regina Music Box Company is one composed of innovation, initial success, perseverance, and the struggle to remain relevant in the capricious home music landscape of the US at the turn of the century. To fully understand how the Regina music box emerged it is necessary to travel nearly two hundred years before its birth to the very first of these marvelous mechanisms.

The exact date the music box was conceived remains hazy among music historians, though the consensus indicates that it was at some point in 18th-century Switzerland. These early contraptions operated in the form of an opulent and ornamental automated device known as a singing bird box.

While not producing music in the classical sense, it did implement the precise arrangement of gears to animate impressively lifelike mechanical birds which would chirp in sync with their beak movements. This was possible through an ingenious system of bellows, whistles, and pipes conceived of by Geneva-born Pierre Jaquet-Droz.

The market for these bird boxes existed exclusively among those families that comprised the upper class of society. This technology would later be incorporated into traditional music boxes and, consequently, be made available to the average consumer of that era.

Innovation continued and, not surprisingly, Switzerland was again at the forefront as a new mechanical process was implemented in the 1880s. In this modern iteration, revolving cylinders produced melodies via the placement of pins. The fact that this would be the product of Swiss ingenuity is hardly a surprise, as this Central European country is renowned for its timepieces, which represent world-class accuracy and craftsmanship.

The Regina music box (which is also referred to in some circles as a ‘musical box’) was the brainchild of a 35-year-old German engineer named Gustave Brachhausen. A foreman at The Symphonion Company in Leipzig, which was the first musical box firm to implement a disc-based mechanism, he had daily interactions with these machines and began formulating a plan to set out on his own.

Gustave Brachhausen in Fruend’s Musical Weekly, Vol. 10, no. 13, 07 August 1895. Public domain image

Ultimately, he and a fellow engineer for The Symphonium Company named Paul Riessner put their combined knowledge to work and established the Polyphon Company in 1889. This would go on to be the name pressed onto their signature discs along with ‘Regina’.

By 1892, business was going so well for these intrepid entrepreneurs, that the pair decided to make their way to the city of Rahway, New Jersey to expand, what seemed at the time, a burgeoning empire. The move was a wise one, as by producing their boxes in the United States they would avoid increasingly steep import tariffs. The Regina Music Box Company was now ready to enter the home music and instrument market.

Read also: The Birth and Evolution of Victor Victrola Antique Phonographs

Advertisement for the Regina music box by the Regina Music Box Company, New York, 1898. (Photo by Jay Paull/Getty Images)

Brachhausen had filed several patents in advance of his entering the American market, and the business appeared to be well-situated to become a formidable competitor in their industry. Among these early models was the Regina Corona, a unique music box that had an ingenious automatic disc-changing feature.

There were challenges on the horizon, however, as competition in their market was incredibly fierce. This, coupled with the economic downturn that resulted from a stock market crash in 1901, foresaw a potential end to the company. Thankfully, this near encounter with disaster would be averted and Gustave Brachhausen’s invention would live on, if only briefly.

Regina “Corona” 27-inch “Home Model” Automatic Disc Musical Box, style 33, no. 47600. Photo © Bonhams Skinner

By 1903 the business had changed its name to simply The Regina Company. As the year progressed, the saga of the business seemed to be drawing to a close. Their stock prices began to drop markedly, and it dawned on the intrepid German businessmen that the company would have to diversify, and quickly.

Pianos were beginning to dominate the home music market, and music boxes were struggling to compete despite having been only second to that instrument in total sales in 1904. Regina would attempt to manufacture pianos, a phonograph comprised of both music box and 78 record elements branded The Reginaphone, musical gambling machines, and even hall clocks. Despite their best efforts, they all failed to save the firm.

Read also: What Music Looked Like, Circa 1940s

Reginaphone exhibited in the Bayernhof Museum, 225 St. Charles Place, O’Hara Township, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. Public domain image

Circumstances would only get more dire and the year 1910 brought with it greater innovation in the home instrument market and, as a result, consumers now had even more options for home entertainment in the form of player pianos, phonographs, and even coin-operated machines.

The writing was on the wall, and Brachhausen sold his share of the company in 1915 for the handsome sum of $1 million which amounts to roughly $31 million in today’s currency. Despite this infusion of cash, he would end up broke, divorced, and returning to Regina as a worker in 1919.

Perhaps fittingly, this would be the same year that the business went under after limping along for a short time, joining in the fate of many other music box manufacturers. By 1920 these companies had essentially become ghosts, no longer relevant in a new era of home music.

The Regina music box is a beautiful reflection not only of the aesthetic of the era in which it was produced but the tireless attention to detail and impeccable craftsmanship that went into each piece. There is certainly something to be said about an item that stood out among a sea of companies vying for market supremacy.

It may be seen as a curiosity, a relic of a bygone era that experienced success for a short time before the home music market seemingly swallowed it whole. Perhaps part of its charm as a collectible lies in its story, not to mention that, in its brief life, a mere 100,000 of them were manufactured. This makes them very desirable items.

Regina table top double comb music box, ca.1895. Photo Ripley Auctions

In addition to its eye-catching design and intricately fashioned scrollwork, what makes these instruments especially appealing to collectors is the sound. The Regina issues a beautiful melodic bouquet in the form of rapturous chimes.

There is something innately fascinating about a relatively simple machine with the ability to create such tones. There is also the joy that accompanies witnessing the disc revolve underneath a gleaming arm made of brass.

The instrument also comes in a variety of distinct models, from tabletop boxes to gorgeous cabinets that contain racks to accommodate each metal disc behind two decorative doors. The cabinet models have been known to provide an even heartier reverberation than their tabletop counterparts.

While original discs are of primary interest to collectors and available in fairly large quantities, some companies are creating entirely new discs that conform to the original specifications. Additionally, one may custom order them to contain a song of their choosing. This certainly may fall outside the realm of the Regina music box purist, but it is an option that exists in the marketplace should it be so desired.

Read also: Scopitone: ’60s Music Videos You’ve Never Seen

A metal disk to be played on a 1902 Regina music is pictured. Photo by Natalie Kolb 3/24/2017 (Photo By Natalie Kolb/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

These machines provide a harmonic glimpse into the past. The ability to listen to music and hear it exactly as those from over one hundred years ago did. Considering its short-lived manufacturing run, it remains a captivating example of one music box among many competitors that, in some ways, emerged victorious in the end among its peers. The tenaciousness of Brachhausen and Riessner to keep the company afloat cannot be overstated, and their vision lives on with each generation that discovers the melodious Regina.

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