By continuing use this site, you agree to the Terms & Conditions and our use of cookies.
Harmonica Blog



Probably around 1830-35, a watchmaker from the small town of Trossingen, Christian Messner took over a model of a mouth organ (perhaps an aura) brought to him from Vienna by one of his neighbors, renamed it harmonica, and began its manufacture. Initially, Messner used all sorts of metals (copper, lead, etc.) to make a stronger and more reliable instrument. Around 1840, demand was strong enough for Messner to join forces with his nephew (or his cousin, the relationship varies according to the sources) Christian Weiss. This developed enough so that in 1855 the two Christians separately registered two different business ventures with the same objectives: Christian Messner & C° as well as Harmonikafabrok Christian Weiss.

Meanwhile in the town of Klingenthal that Christian August Seydel opened 1847 a workshop for the manufacture of harmonicas (C.A. Seydel Söhne) whose quality and solidity was very famous. This manufacturer is still in business.

Finally, around this time (the date is generally given as 1857) another watchmaker from Trossingen, Matthias Hohner (1833-1902), who may have trained with Messner and Weiss, decided to also start manufacturing his own harmonicas. If Mathias Hohner certainly did not invent the harmonica, he is its undoubted popularizer. Its concept of manufacturing and sales was very modern for the time and enabled its brand to impose itself fairly quickly against its many competitors which encompassed (Andreas Koch in Vienna, Langhammer in Graslitz, Wilhelm Thie, the respected Hotz whose manufacturing secrets he has "spied on"...). Some even threw in the towel and ended up working for Hohner, bringing their know-how and their own experience to the enterprising boss, helping him to create new models.

Hohner distinguished itself from its competitors from the outset by a manufacturing process that was more industrial than artisanal as well as by a very active, even aggressive commercial policy. Realizing that Messner, Weiss, and the others were unable to keep up with demand, Hohner launched into the mass production of much cheaper harmonicas, creating a real chain to make his products in series and at a fast pace. It uses coarser materials than the others. And, although he was careful to always mention that his products are "handmade", it is often a question of qualifying the finish more than the manufacturing itself. 

That being said, Hohner did everything to make his instruments extremely solid, "companions that will never fail you" to quote an advertisement from the time. From the first years, he produced more than 650 harmonicas from his workshop, almost ten or even fifteen times more than his competitors. He didn’t care about the critics who denounced his "mediocre quality harmonicas" and who accused him of copying them "without care or shame".

Especially since despite all the application that the latter has brought to the manufacture of their instruments, they have never received anything other than the indifference or even the contempt of the academies and many professional musicians. Hohner answers these criticisms on the quality of its products through greater research of presentation. He adorns his harmonicas with eye-catching, amusing, evocative designs, always including his name, giving credence to the idea that he is the real and almost unique maker of harmonica. He also creates various models intended for particular classes or categories of society. Hohner also decides very quickly to export its harmonicas all over the world.

Mathias Hohner's business was a total success that could even be described as phenomenal for the time because he was certainly the only one to believe in the industrial future of what was considered until then as a small toy, a "gadget" we would say today.

Be that as it may, in 1867, its factories in Trossingen produced 22,000 harmonicas of several kinds, of multiple shapes, and sometimes also of different colors. With the export to America, a huge market for the harmonica opened up. It seemed that the first Hohner harmonicas appeared in Canada (via Great Britain) around 1857. Although there is controversy over Hohner's authorship in introducing the harmonica to the United States (some credit Bazin as the father of the harmonica in the United States while Sylvanus Sawyer is known to have manufactured and sold harmonicas; finally, certain authors say that Lightsinger would have been the first manufacturer of harmonica in America), the lightning and considerable success of this small instrument are attested by numerous documents and testimonies. President Abraham Lincoln, who was known for his prowess on the jew's harp, would also have taken up the harmonica around 1858. 

During the Civil War, soldiers on both sides played the harmonica even if it was different songs and tunes! Mathias Hohner was in the front line to sell tens of thousands of harmonicas to Americans, to the point that in the years 1870-80, most of his production was turned towards North America. For this juicy market, Hohner invented the marine band (perhaps in reference to John Philip Sousa's brass band), the so-called Caruso model for the countless fans of the very popular tenor. The harmonica players are in the cities, the most remote villages, in the South, and of course the West. Indeed, despite the clichés, if the guitar and the fiddle were extremely rare among the pioneers and the cowboys, the harmonica was substantially present. 

Several articles in the gazettes du temps (whose rigor of information will not necessarily be praised) feature Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, or Wild Bill Hickok playing the harmonica to relax! The instrument was touted as the "only musical instrument that can fit in your pocket". And for countries where men don't wear pocket clothes, for women too, and also for places where there are "too many pickpockets", Hohner manufactures special models with a chain!

But unlike Europe, a whole musical elite was also interested in the possibilities of what appears to Americans curious about everything as a real novelty, even a challenge to take up given the intended limitations of the instrument. We find harmonica players in countless Music Halls and popular theaters (Vaudeville) in all American cities. Especially in Irish theaters in particular which were extremely important and popular in the United States during the last decades of the 19th century. 

The audience there was particularly fond of pieces played on the harmonica by the familiar character of Paddy or Teague, the Irish immigrant who disembarked from his ship. apologizing for not having been able to bring his bagpipes or his fiddle with him but who takes a harmonica out of his pocket to play.

It is also reported that many shows featured Native Americans who also played the harmonica! Indeed, from the 1860s, the harmonica became one of the objects most in demand by the Indians during the days of barter. Later, in the reserves, the sales lists which have been preserved mention sometimes considerable quantities of "Marine bands" or other inexpensive models (5 or 10 cents). The famous Traveling Indian Medicine Show, a show made up entirely of Native Americans who were selling their magic potions, drawing cards, and demonstrating their skill in all areas includes a group of "Indian chiefs" (The Warriors Spirits) all playing together on the harmonica, without doubt, one of the first known harmonica orchestras.

Finally, the first real "scholarly" methods for playing the harmonica were written by music teachers from Boston and New York and sold in the United States in 1870 at the price (quite high for the time) of 45 cents!

Faced with such demand, Hohner continued to innovate in presentation but also in quality. The metal slats became more and more sturdy and were even touted as "indestructible" by the manufacturer's advertising. They were then entirely machined in series thanks to a machine created in 1878 by Julius Berthold (1828-1899). During the 1890s, when he had to face many competitors in the United States, Hohner managed to sell more than a million harmonicas a year by opening new markets for which, each time, he created a model. Special with designs, figures, and sometimes specialized tunings. He spread them everywhere with a lot of publicity. 

England and its many colonies (South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India...) were flooded with specialized models such as the Druid harp; the harmonica "for the English people" said of Blackpool; a model "for the saloons of the gentry", says King George; the Rob Roy and Mc Gregor models for Scotland, which are supposed to "imitate the solitary sound of the bagpipe as best as possible"; the "Emerald Island" for Ireland. France (and the French in America or North Africa) have not been forgotten with the success of models like L'Épatant and La Marseillaise, which were touted among French colonial troupes!

Hohner also spread the harmonica in Latin America. The San Martin, named after the famous liberator of the southern cone, was a resounding success, as was the "El Centenario" model sold in Mexico decorated with the portrait of Juarez. In Mexico, the Linda Mexicanas model was also enjoying great success. The Asian market was explored by Hohner as well, who made a pentatonic scale model for the Far East, paying tribute in its advertising to the various shengs qualified as "honorable ancestors" of the harmonica. The commercial success of this model seemed to have been modest in China itself. 

On the other hand, it will be adopted by the Amerindians both in the United States and especially in the Andes, descendants of the Incas and the Aymaras, who use pentatonic scales widely or sometimes only in their music. Finally, in Japan, Hidero Sato or Satoh (1899-1990), a musician without blinkers succeeded around 1927 in introducing the tremolo harmonica model to the heart of other traditional Japanese instruments (koto, shamizen, sakuashi...), creating a strong enthusiasm that his country never experienced before for the harmonica.

Thanks to this extremely active commercial policy, Hohner finally achieved 1887 the manufacture of one million harmonicas!

When Matthias Hohner retired (after having also been mayor of his town of Trossingen for six years) around 1900, entrusting his businesses, almost an Empire!, to his five sons, he had spread the harmonica all over the world, making of this modest instrument in which very few saw the slightest future, the best-selling musical instrument in the world! Ironically (because Matthias Hohner himself hardly ever played harmonica), his memory would be hailed this time and finally (!) in the music press as having been the "Stradivarius of the harmonica".


Matthias Hohner’s sons will continue to make the company prosper, especially during the 1914-18 war. The British Army provided each soldier with a harmonica purchased from the Hohner factories before the start of the conflict in his kit, while Hohner also created his "Kaiser Willhelm" (Emperor William) model in order to participate in the Germanic patriotism engendered by the war! An anecdote may be correct reports that the Hohner factories provided each soldier of the Imperial Army with a model of this type as a Christmas present in 1914! They also develop new models (Red Rose, Comet...).

But these considerable successes still did not bring the slightest recognition from the Academies or classical musicians to this instrument, which was always considered too basic, imperfect, and inaccurate. The Hohner sons, more concerned than their father, to be recognized by these circles, developed around 1923 a model of chromatic harmonica that was heavier, longer, much more expensive, and cumbersome. A drawbar incorporated for the first time in the harmonica was making it possible to alternate the reed plates and obtain a full chromatic scale. In 1935 the 64 Chromonica was made, it was a sixteen-hole harmonica with an additional octave in the low register expanding the range of the harmonica to 4 full octaves!

These important changes greatly affected the general sound of the harmonica and did not really meet the favor of the usual public of harmonica buyers who would prefer the diatonic most of the time. But the chromatic will finally open the harmonica to the jazz repertoire, the varieties, and, to a certain extent, Classical music, genres that very few musicians had tried and even fewer succeeded in interpreting on the diatonic harmonica.

By 1930, after the Hohners had finally bought out their (small) lifelong competitor, Messner & Weiss, the factories in Trossingen (now under the Hohner AG brand) were manufacturing 25 million harmonicas a year!

To maintain this pre-eminence, the Hohners continued to innovate by adding more harmonies to the family: the bass harmonica and the chord harmonica a model dedicated solely to orchestral accompaniment; a model called polyphonia to take into account the success of Hawaiian music around the world and which allowed obtaining glissando effects...). At the same time, they continued to create all kinds of models with a particular presentation, based on events, segments of society, and personalities that were novelties and subjects for the press and advertising.

Mention should be made of the model (perhaps unique, but which made headlines) Pope Pius XI in ivory and precious stones set on one side in gold and also the Brown Shirts model to celebrate Hitler's accession to power in Germany in 1933. Despite Hohner's efforts to ingratiate himself with the Third Reich, in an interview with Hitler to convince him to proclaim the harmonica "official instrument of the Reich", the Führer, warned of the immense popularity of the harmonica in the United States and its relationship (however very distant) with the "Jewish harp", decided to favor the accordion which was inducted "one and only instrument of the German race".

What then appears to be a setback for the Trossingen brand (which nevertheless also manufactured accordions) will be a chance after the war because many German companies considered too close to the Nazis will be dismantled at that time. Still, the Second World War caused a collapse in harmonica sales, cutting off the firm from its customers and its metal supplies. And, in 1943, the Hohner factories were finally used by the Third Reich to manufacture weapon parts.

In April 1945, the Allied forces occupied Trossingen and the Hohners were able, with the benevolence of the Anglo-American provisional administration, to relaunch their primary activity. However, the years of Nazism and war marked the end of Hohner's dominance in the world harmonica market. They were now facing competition from manufacturers around the world, in the United States, in Japan, and soon elsewhere... At first, their attempts to regain commercial success all failed: flop of new models like the Harmonetta, a harmonica six-sided with buttons; suspicions of collusion with the Nazis that fail to dispel all the clarifications they could make.


    Leave a Reply