Who cares about history?

I know. Trust me, I do (I've spent time with high-school students in their natural environment. It happens). I know all the classic complaints about history:

  1. "Why do I have to learn about this king/emperor/crazy warrior barbarian guy who's been dead for centuries?"
  2. the horrors of history

  3. "Why should I care if the Boston Tea Party happened on December 16, 1773?"
  4. But most of all:

  5. "When am I ever going to use this??"

Well, I'll tell you why. Because this is the history of that little instrument that you're probably holding in your hands right now! (And if you're not, bad move. Go on and get it. We'll wait.)

I'm sure that unlike our friend on the right, who is clearly very puzzled and disturbed by the concept of learning, you are very excited at the prospect of learning something new. Really.

History (and stuff)

The origin of the harmonica dates back for entire dynasties. Literally. (Most people have a sneaking suspicion that the Chinese invented the first harmonica)

But while the Asians were off banging rudimentary harmonicas together (At roughly 3000 B.C.), the rest of the world didn't really have a clue until centuries later.

Europe finally got on the scene at or about 1822, when a German teenager made something that looked pretty much like a harmonica, but it only produced music when you blow in it, and not when you draw air back through.

In 1857, another German named Matthias Hohner, who was a (disgruntled, most likely) clock maker from the Black Forest (all those cuckoo clocks are bound to drive you crazy eventually), invented the modern-day harmonica, which featured the dual-action reeds that earlier models lacked.

The Black Forest in Germany has long subscribed to the whole cottage industry notion, and soon Hohner and his family were cranking out harmonicas faster (barely) than tourist shops from Yellowstone to Niagara Falls could keep them in stock.

War is good (and bad) for harmonicas

The harmonica became wildly popular in America just in time for the Civil War. Soldiers on both sides liked the instrument, and it became ingrained in American folk music shortly afterward.

By the First World War, the whole idea of having a harmonica at the front lines still hadn't died out. British and German soldiers were given harmonicas (by their respective governments, of course) as they marched off to battle.

Although the years leading up to 1939 were a golden age for the harmonica, Hohner hadn't diversified very much by the time of World War II. Practically all the harmonicas in the world still came out of the small village of Trossingen. What with embargoes being what they are, harmonica imports came to a screeching halt.

After the war (of course), the harmonica was back in popularity.

Recent Developments

One player named Marion "Little Walter" Jacobs figured out that playing the harmonica through a guitar amp gave it a punchy new sound, and with that, the harmonica became much more attractive to the rock & rollscene. Creedance Clearwater Revival liked it, and Bob Dylan took to it so much that he practically had it bolted onto his face.

For more recent harmonica action, check out the 90s band Blues Traveler. It will shock and amaze you that John Popper (one of the great harmonica virtuosos of our time) can do what he does.

Today, Hohner is no longer the main manufacturer of harmonicas. Those plucky folks at Suzuki, who seem to be trying to corner the market on, well, everything, make a few models, as do players like Lee Oskar. Hohner, though, still makes the most, with over 1,500 models produced.