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A History of the Harmonica

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Also known as a mouth organ, tin sandwich, and mouth harp, the principles of the harmonica go back 2,500 years. Another name for the instrument is the Mississippi saxophone, which tells us a lot about where its popularity is greatest.

Invention of the Harmonica

The “sheng” was an instrument in Ancient China that had bamboo reeds. It worked in the same way as a modern harmonica although there is no direct line of descent. The principle is simple. A flat, metal strip (a reed) is fixed at one and free at the other. When air is passed over the reed it vibrates and emits a note. The type of note depends on the thickness and length of the reed.

Today’s instrument owes its life to a Berlin inventor and musician called Friedrich Bauschmann. In 1822, he tinkered about with materials until he created what he called an “aura.” It had 15 reeds and was intended for use as a pitch pipe for tuning pianos rather than as a musical instrument.

It was Christian Messner, a clockmaker, who tweaked the aura and took it to the marketplace as a harmonica. It was peddled at carnivals and market fairs around Germany, where it proved popular. Soon, Messner’s nephew, Christian Weiss, started making mouth organs as well. The two men guarded their manufacturing processes closely.

The Hohner Brand

This is where we meet Matthias Hohner, a name that will be familiar to most of us. He was a man raised in a pious branch of Lutheranism that stressed the importance of correct personal behaviour. So, of course, he had no qualms about stealing the production secrets of Weiss and Messner.

In 1857, Hohner started building harmonicas using mass production methods and quickly dominated the market. There was a reason for haste in speeding up the Hohner factory output.

According to Hartmut Berghof of German Historical Institute, Hohner “had impregnated his distant cousin Anna Hohner (1836–1907) and therefore a quick marriage was imperative in order to prevent her from becoming a ‘fallen girl.’ ”

The law required that a prospective husband prove his financial ability to support a family before marriage was allowed. So, the Hohner production line cranked out mouth organs, just as Matthias and Anna proved to be equally dynamic in turning out 15 little Hohners.

By the late nineteenth century, the Hohner factory was turning out more than a million instruments a year.

Harmonicas in America

With all those mouths to feed, Matthias Hohner needed to find new markets for his instruments; he found one among the German immigrants who were settling in large numbers in the United States. Ex-patriots would be nostalgic for the familiar sounds of the old country, he reasoned; he was right.

By the late 1890s, sales of harmonicas in the New World were brisk enough to warrant sending a member of the Hohner brood to manage things. Hans Hohner was dispatched to handle the situation. In large part, Hans was chosen because the lad had gotten the family maid pregnant and a dark stain on the Hohner name had to be avoided.

There is a large helping of hypocrisy here as Papa Hohner was a devout Christian whose strict moral code abhorred hanky-panky with the staff. But, didn’t Matthias put the unmarried Ana in the family way a couple of decades earlier? Awkward. Matthias Hohner ruled his family with a paternalistic rod of iron so it’s unlikely anybody had the temerity to raise the topic.

Hans Hohner built up the American business and others, seeing the potential, moved into the harmonica trade.

The Harmonica Gets the Blues

The instrument became popular outside the German-American community because of its simplicity and low cost.

For a while, harmonica bands were all the rage on the vaudeville circuit.

But then, African-Americans got hold of the tin sandwich and harmonica music was never the same again. The creative energy of Black musicians found new ways of playing the instrument. They learned to bend notes to create a mournful sound that blended perfectly into the blues. They cupped their hands over the instrument to deliver new sounds and give them a vibrato texture.

University of Maryland professor Barry Lee Pearson is an expert on traditional American music. He told the Smithsonian Magazine that “When African Americans picked up the instrument in the 20th-century, they completely transformed it into something it had never been intended to be played as in Europe. To me, that is such a remarkable demonstration of the power of tradition. You don’t just take and play an instrument the way it was built to be played. The music is inside you, and you take that instrument and you try to recreate the way you think music should be played. That’s what African Americans did.”

Journalist Daniel A. Gross points out that, “By the 1920s, the harmonica stood alongside the guitar as an essential part of the blues, not to mention the companion of countless train-hopping wanderers and working-class performers.”

The instrument migrated into folk music, and rock and roll. It has even made its way into classical performances. Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his Romance for Harmonica for virtuoso Larry Adler.

While Adler, Tommy Reilly, and others took the mouth organ to the concert stage there will always be a substantial number of people who dismiss it as a novelty item.

Bonus Factoids

  • The centre of harmonica manufacturing in Germany is the small town of Trossingen in the southwest of the country. It is where Matthias Hohner set up shop. Today, it has 17,000 citizens, a harmonica museum, and three music colleges.
  • In December 1965, NASA astronaut Tom Stafford aboard Gemini 6 alerted Mission Control that he had seen a strange UFO with a pilot in a red suit. At this point, fellow astronaut Wally Schirra played a tinny version of Jingle Bells on a seven-note harmonica. This was the first song played in space.
  • Between 1942 and 1944, the American Federation of Musicians refused to make commercial recordings in order to force radio stations to employ live musicians rather than using “canned” music. The ban included saxophones, pianos, violins, and the like, but omitted harmonicas. As a result, the instrument was used extensively on live broadcasts and this led to an increase in its popularity.

Sources

  • “Hans Hohner (1870-1927).” Hartmut Berghoff, German Historical Institute, September 9, 2015.
  • “Industrial Espionage and Cutthroat Competition Fueled the Rise of the Humble Harmonica.” Daniel A. Gross, Smithsonian Magazine, September 17, 2014.
  • “Inhaling the Blues: How Southern Black Musicians Transformed the Harmonica.” Paul Bisceglio, Smithsonian Magazine, April 23, 2013.
  • “Tin Sandwich, Anyone - a History of the Harmonica.” BBC Four, March 15, 2008.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 29, 2020:

Aishatu Ali - The principle of wind over reeds creating musical notes was discovered in China, but, as I pointed out in the article, there is no direct line between this discovery and the development of the harmonica.

Anya Ali from Rabwah, Pakistan on March 28, 2020:

I didn't know the harmonica originated in China. Thank you for an informative post.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on March 27, 2020:

Hey Rupert, the harmonica is very popular among grown-ups in Nigeria especially the Easterners in the 1960s. What Professor Pearson said about the African-American has its root also among the Niger Deltans for a similiar musical tool exists among us. I throughly enjoy the article. Thanks for sharing.