The faint yellow advertising cover for Allan & Co., Importers of Pianofortes, American Organs, Band Instruments and Music has a lilac ‘TWO PENCE’ and an orange ‘THREE PENCE’ QV stamps of Victoria cancelled by a MELBOURNE/ 5/ PM/ 22-3-05/ 5 cancel on both stamps and it is addressed to Messrs Mermod Freres, Ste Croix, Switzerland. The reverse was not seen (Figure 1).
Not the earliest form of mechanical or automatic music, the musical box was, in its day and generation, the most popular, perhaps because of the ease with which it could be manipulated, or its portability and comparative low price. The musical box continued in great favour in England, at any rate over a period of about 100 years, from 1810 to 1910. The makers studied public taste in the countries to which musical boxes were exported, and, they were manufactured in tens of thousands, and were to be found in nearly every home of rich and poor people alike.
The first makers of musical box movements were watchmakers; therefore, the first musical movement that is a tuned steel comb played upon by pins or pegs set in a cylinder or disc originated in a watch. The country of origin was Switzerland, and it was here that the industry developed and improved. In 1839, musical movements were being made in Saint Suzanne, France, by one Auguste Lepee, a Swiss, and soon after this date musical movements were made also in Paris. Later still they were made in Germany. As to the date of the first maker of a musical movement was one Louis Favre, in Geneva, some time early in the eighteenth century.
Later still, 1885 -1890, Mermod Freres, made four-comb musical boxes. These had twenty-two inch cylinders, and the combs were all of equal length, and each comb was complete in itself. They were produced also in the cheaper quality, but always with the twenty-two inch cylinder. The musical effect was splendid, but for some reason not many of the four-comb instruments were made ; this seems strange, as even the cheaper patterns had well set-up cylinders.. However, the enterprising makers continued to improve musical boxes in every conceivable way, each maker seeming to try to outdo the other, and many of the improvements were patented, and thus protected in England, Germany, France and U.S. A.
From the late 18th century members of the Mermod family traveled to Geneva to sell their time pieces and Louis Mermod was a master watchmaker. He had 4 sons Louis Philippe, Gustav, Leon and (?) who took over the business and moved to Ste Croix, Switzerland, the village of their origin, and in 1883 they founded Mermod Freres. They eventually won 27 medals for their watches, participated in several World Fairs, and they had a prestigious shop in New York. The medals are shown in Figure 2.
The watchmaking expertise of Mermod Freres was at its zenith when they started to manufacture music boxes and the business was successful until the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, when they stopped the watch and musical activities for nearly 80 years. The Mermod Freres brand was taken over and its revival was present at the Basel World 2007.
Allan & Co. firm of music retailers and publishers, in its heyday the meeting place for Melbourne’s musical fraternity, was established by George Leavis Allan (1826-97). Allan arrived in Melbourne in 1852, was instrumental in the foundation of the Melbourne Philharmonic Society, and was a pioneer singing teacher at the Mechanics Institute, Methodist Ladies’ College and Melbourne Grammar School. In 1863 he joined Joseph Wilkie and John Webster at their Collins Street musical warehouse on the present site of the Block, becoming sole proprietor in 1875. With his son George Clark Allan, he formed Allan & Co. in 1881. The firm moved in 1877 to new three-storey premises nearby, boasting a grand saloon seating 500, a piano showroom, and teaching rooms where opera singer Nellie Melba had lessons from Signor Cecchi. A fire at the adjacent Georges building in 1889 damaged the store, which in 1955 was destroyed by another blaze. A new building reopened in 1957. Allan & Co. had close associations with visiting artists, and was renowned for its publication of sheet music. In 1932 a company formed by Allans, David Syme (publishers of the Age) and J.C. Williamson’s was granted a radio broadcasting licence for 3AW (standing for Allans/Williamsons). In 1942 Allans purchased Will Andrade’s magic business, running it as a depot of their store. In 1976 the company was taken over by Brash Holdings, and the instrument sales department emerged from the liquidation of Brash’s as a separate company in 1998.
Figure 1 has been used again in a more complete paper on Allan & Co. and is listed as George Leavis Allan in Category Arts & Artists.
However, in the year 1895 the Swiss manufacturers succeeded in making a Swiss disc musical box that was by many considered to be as good as, or even superior to, those of German make. The first of the Swiss disc machines was the Stella, which was made and sold by Messrs Mermod Freres of St. Croix. This indeed was a good-class machine, and was, moreover, an improvement on the German Symphoniums and Polyphons. The Stella was made in various sizes, and the machines and cases were of better workmanship than were the Polyphons and Symphoniums. The music was good, and the tone mellow and less strident than the German machines.