Spotlight on Guinness: TELLING TALES OF SONGS OF LOVE

The Morris Museum’s recent Chocolate Festival was attended by over 1200 visitors!  Among the exhibits, activities, crafts, and of course – chocolate – the public was delighted by the sounds of mechanical music in the Guinness Gallery.  It is hard to say which mechanical instrument was more popular as they all have their own unique sound and presence.  People swayed to the buoyant sounds of the Limonaire Orchestrophone, and got quite a workout playing the Duo-Art foot pump player piano, but visitors were intrigued with the Regina disc player.  Let me tell you a story….

Established in 1892, The Regina Music Box Company, first located at Jersey City, then Rahway, NJ, introduced the automatic self-changer in 1897.  The Sublima Corona was manufactured in 1899; it was a coin-operated mechanical musical instrument intended for public entertainment.  At only five cents a song, it was found in stores, restaurants, cafes and dance halls.  A precursor to the jukebox, it was the first musical box which automatically changed twelve 20¾” steel discs. When one disc was finished, it would lower back into its place on the carriage while the next disc mechanically rose into position, and played the next song.  It was considered a technological marvel of scientific engineering!

However, the disc musical box was short-lived as it was unable to compete with an even newer technology:  recorded sound as reproduced by a “talking machine,” or the gramophone.  Regina was the last company to produce disc musical players, and ended its production in the early 1920s.  Even so, the company survived, and exists today with their product line of vacuum cleaners and other household appliances.

The Guinness Collection, acquired in 2003 following the death of Murtogh D. Guinness, contains approximately 750 mechanical musical instruments and automata.  About one year after receiving the collection, the former Executive Director of Morris Museum, Steven Miller, traveled to London to visit the Marchioness of Normanby, sister of Murtogh Guinness, to inform her of the status of her deceased brother’s collection.  During the visit, Lady Normanby graced Miller with the heartfelt story of how Guinness presented her with the Regina Sublima Corona as a birthday gift, and how she and her guests were always greatly entertained by its magnificent music.  Lady Normanby offered to donate it to the museum, and add it to the existing collection.  This is the only piece in the collection that Guinness did not own; rather, it was a personal gift to a family member.

Guinness Conservator Jere Ryder, his brother, Steve, and their parents (who were also collectors of mechanical musical instruments), were lifelong friends with Murtogh Guinness.  As he was growing up, Jere watched the collection grow as he spent many hours at Guinness’ twin townhouses in NYC where Guinness lived with his collection. Jere began at an early age to repair and restore mechanical musical instruments and automata, and apprenticed in Switzerland to advance his specialized knowledge and skills.  When the Morris Museum was awarded the collection, who better than Jere to join the museum as the collection’s conservator!  A remnant of bygone days, mechanical musical instruments played an important role in the leisure lives of people during the 19th and 20th centuries, and contributed to the evolution of musical entertainment for home and public use.  Nearly all modern musical technology can be traced to these early musical machines.

~Michele Marinelli, Curator of the Guinness Collection

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