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History Of The Harmonica In The 1800's

Sheng from Yin Dynasty 1100 BC

Historians believe that the harmonica evolved over time from a Chinese instrument that date backs from the Yin Dynasty, 1100 BC, called the “Sheng.”  This was a curved pipe with bamboo tubes attached. The instrument contained a wooden reed and a flexible metal that would move up and down when someone one would blow through the pipe.

Other historians believe that a German inventor by the name of Christian Friedrich Ledwig Buschmann created the harmonica. He had registered one of the first European patents for his new musical invention, the “Aura.”  It used metal reeds instead of wood.

Man Playing The "Aura"

The “Mundharmonika” or also known as the “Mouth Accordion” or “Mouth Organ” became extremely popular by the 1820’s In Europe. It was much bigger than today’s harmonica, but other inventers, were constantly tweaking and trying to make a similar and smaller instrument.

Around 1825 another German inventor by the name Joseph Richter tweaked these instruments to what we know to be the harmonica today.

By 1829 the harmonica was produced in Vienna and slowly, other cities started producing them as well.

A watchmaker named Matthias Hohner from Trossingen, Germany, was intrigued by the

instrument watching people play and the construction that allowed the different notes to flow out. Hohner would go on to learn the process and in 1857 he started to build his

Matthias Hohner

own line of harmonicas by hand. Hohner’s wife would assist him in building harmonicas and eventually they would hire one employee. Around 650 Hohner harmonicas were built in the first year.

The Hohner harmonica became exceedingly popular. Hohner would sell to Germans that were migrating to the United States and they would go on to sell them once they arrived. That is how the Hohner harmonica was first introduced to the U.S. Eventually due to the popularity of Hohner harmonica, Hohner would work with distribution companies in N.Y. The “Marine Band 1896” harmonica is the most sought out harmonica. Hohner would become the leading brand of harmonicas today.

M.Hohner Harmonica Seara, Roebuck Catalogue No.112 1902

Other lesser-known brands of harmonicas were available in the United States before the Hohner came onto the scene. They were also known in the U.S. as the “French Harp.”

During the Civil War, it was not uncommon for a soldier to have one, or a cowboy packed in his saddlebags. They were portable, a source of entertainment, and the cost was about 10 - 65 cents. That was affordable.

Cowboy Playing The Harmonica in the 1800's


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