The harmonica, that
most modest of instruments, has ancestors that go back to Asia over
a thousand years ago. But the "mouth organ" or "harp" as we know it
today dates back only to 19th century Germany.
In 1822 an inventor and musician from Berlin named Christian
Bauschmann made an experimental instrument with fifteen reeds called
the aura, designed mainly as a pitch pipe. It attracted the
attention of a local clockmaker named Christian Messner. Because of
an economic depression, the clock business was bad and Messner was
looking for other ways to make a living. He started making cheap
copies of the aura to peddle at local fairs and carnivals, and soon
other German craftsmen were getting into the act. Then, in 1857,
Matthias Hohner figured out how to mass-produce the little
instruments, and soon became the leader in the field. By 1977 he was
making over 700,000 harmonicas a year, and over half of them were
being exported to America.
Americans seem to have taken the harmonica to heart from the very
first. They were carried by soldiers in the Civil War, and by1890
were being sold mail order by dozens of catalogue stores. Though the
harmonica was one of the few instruments that could not be home-made
and harmonica sellers offered instruction books about the "proper"
way to play, Americans quickly began to explore unorthodox ways of
Blues musicians learned how to cup their hands over the harmonica to
get all kinds of bent and slurred notes; others would "choke" the
instrument to get odd, percussive effects. White musicians liked to
try the imitations of chickens or trains or a fox hunt.