Last month I found myself in Traverse City, Mich., at the Music House Museum. The museum started as a collection of pre-1930s music-making machines stored in a farmer’s barn amid the area’s omnipresent orchards. The farmer and his local collector pals eventually decided to spruce up the barn and throw open the doors to the public.
In the early decades of the 20th century, there was a craze for such gizmos. Records weren’t popular yet, so taverns would install a player piano in the corner to perform the function later handled by jukeboxes. People with more money than musical talent would install one in their parlors to impress their friends. Public parks were filled with such machines, ranging from shopping-cart-sized hand-cranked organs to van-sized or even school-bus-sized machines that combined several instruments into one mechanism. The most complicated, simulating the most instruments, were called orchestrions.