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Object of the Month #14
Swiss Chalet Music Box (2013.01.162, 2013.01.242)
February 2016

The realia in the NMH Archives can be a mixed lot. We’ve got sculptures by famous artists, and Shriners cufflinks (in the same box). Sometimes it’s literally a mixed up lot. This month’s object actually started out as two parts, found in two separate boxes, and cataloged almost a year apart.

With both pieces reunited, it’s a Swiss chalet music box. The roof flips up, revealing a purple velvet lined interior. Once upon a time, music would have played when the lid was opened. The music box mechanism is missing its winding key, although I’m not entirely sure it would work even if we had it.[1]

There were several dating clues on both pieces. Since the chalet and mechanism were cataloged separately, it provided an interesting opportunity to see if the separate analyses meshed and the dating agreed.

The box was found first, over a year ago. It is relatively small, no more than 14 cm tall (about 5.5”), and is carved and decorated in the form of a three story Swiss chalet. It is in moderately good condition, although part of the upper balcony is missing, as are a few pieces of trim. The roof has the exaggerated overhang of the chalet style. Wire nails were used in the box’s construction, giving it a date of no earlier than the late 19th century. The only other feature of note is a scattering of white dots on the roof, and two larger white circles on the “ground” of the box on the front proper right corner.

The music mechanism, more properly called a cylinder music box, was found in another box in the archives almost a year later. The mechanism is practically covered with textual information, although much of it is either illegible or cryptic. The mechanism is attached to a rectangular wooden base, and the whole thing fits neatly underneath the chalet. The screws, now broken, that attached the base to the box, line up perfectly.

The underside of the base is covered with two paper labels, two ink stamps, and one pencil inscription. One of the stamps is illegible. The pencil writing, “2819,” is legible, but remains meaningless.[2]  The second stamp is just clear enough to provide us with some useful information. This is the mark of F. Conchon, a music box maker from Geneva, Switzerland, active in the last quarter of the 19th century.[3]

The two paper labels are pretty straightforward. One, in English, gives directions for winding the music box. The second label tells us what music the box plays. Written in ink on a lithographed label, it reads, “Cloches de Corneville, Valse. / Il Trovatore, ai nostri monti. / 740.” “Cloches de Corneville” is an opera written in 1876 by Robert Planquette, which gives us a decent terminus post quem for the mechanism. It could not have been made before 1876.[4] The “740” is still mysterious, but it is certainly no coincidence that “740” has also been stamped into the mechanism itself.

An even closer look at the second label is informative. Visible at the bottom edge is, “LITH. Vve VALLUET ET FILS BESANCON,” indicating the label’s maker. The Widow Valluet and Son, in Besanรงon, France, were printing under this name until at least 1880. By the early 1880s, however, labels start appearing attributed to “Lith. Valluet jeune a Bensacon,” which seems to suggest that the widow’s son had taken over the business.[5] This gives us a potential terminus ante quem, or latest possible date, for the mechanism. Putting the terminus post and ante quem dates together, we now have a date range of about a decade, 1876 to the mid-1880s.

When the two parts, chalet and mechanism, were reunited, I was pleased to see that the dating was not contradictory. I feel pretty secure in dating the whole thing to the late 1800s, probably around 1880. It very likely came from Geneva or the vicinity.

As you are all probably used to by now, we don’t know the name of the donor, or the reason for the donation. It was likely bought by a tourist, and you can easily imagine buying something similar even today. It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that the cylinder music box would have been considered rather cutting edge when it was made, and not the nostalgic item that many people would see it as today.

There is one more point of curiosity about this chalet, largely speculative. Earlier, I mentioned the presence of some white spatters on the roof and “ground” of the box.  After taking a good look at these dots I realized they were probably paint, and not some sort of mold as I had originally assumed.

Once I realized the dots were paint, I was reminded of another object in the archives: part of a wall-mounted school bell.[6] We don’t know where it was used, when it was removed, or why someone decided to put it in the archives.[7] Like the chalet, it, too, has white paint spatter. In the case of the bell, the direction of the spatter clearly indicates it was still mounted to the wall when the room it was in was repainted. Judging imperfectly by eye, the paint on the bell and box are a match.

It’s possible, although absolutely not provable, that they were both in the same room at the same time during a repainting.[8] There’s no real way to identify which building or room the objects may have been in,[9] but it is certainly evocative to imagine them occupying the space together, and it helps remind you that many of the objects in the archives were once part of someone’s daily existence before they came to be here in boxes in the basement of Schauffler Library.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] Maybe some day the key will turn up in yet a third box.

[2] It might be a serial number, although this is really a guess.

[3] Bulleid, H. A. V. (1994). Cylinder Musical Box Technology: Including Makers, Types, Dating, and Music. Vestal, NY: Almar Press, p. 10.

[4] “Il Trovatore” was written over two decades earlier, in 1853, and as such, does not help date the box.

[5] Bulleid, Cylinder Musical Box Technology, p. 187.

[6] 2013.01.129

[7] I’ve always wondered if it could be from Silliman Hall, which would make it a nostalgic piece of memorabilia.

[8] Institutions like schools tend to choose a shade of white and use it pretty much everywhere. As such, it could also be that these objects were in separate rooms that were both being painted the same color.

[9] Trust Me. I tried.