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Children’s plaything from the eve of war

PUBLISHED: 11:22 14 April 2018

The colourful box for the harmonica.

The colourful box for the harmonica.

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Collectables: Mike Hicks looks at the story of the harmonica.

The Hohner Band children's harmonica, picked up for a few pence at a village fete.The Hohner Band children's harmonica, picked up for a few pence at a village fete.

Recently, a friend bought a harmonica at a village fete, and fascinated by this instrument, he asked me if I would do a bit of research on it.

I think everybody, from time to time, has come across a harmonica, probably more so in the past than today. I certainly remember them being taken to school illicitly, only to be played during the playtime, but somehow they found their way into class as well, and were frequently confiscated.

It seems as though the idea of an instrument such as this was conceived in China, maybe a couple of thousand years ago, when it was made of bamboo reeds strapped together. This instrument was known as a ‘sheng’, and found its way into Europe during the late 18th century.

Then around 1825, a European inventor called Richter developed the first instrument that had ten holes with two reed plates in each, and this was the very first fundamental harmonica.

Various other models were developed, mainly in Germany and Austria, but the best-known were produced by a certain Matheus Hohner. Herr Hohner was pretty good at playing the harmonica, but he also was also a very good businessman. By 1862, he had begun to produce harmonicas in large quantities and exported them to the United States.

By the early part of the 20th century we had harmonica bands. One of the best was the Morton Fraser Harmonica Gang.

The model illustrated is a children’s one which is inscribed with a range of dates, the latest being 1938. It is also marked ‘Made in Germany’ (not ‘West’ or ‘East’) so it’s a reasonable guess this was produced on the eve of the war.

Over the years various additions were made to the basic harmonica design including a chromatic device, which was a button on the side, which allowed more notes to be played.

One local harmonica enthusiast was our dear friend the late Roy Waller, who was frequently persuaded not to play on Radio Norfolk, but somehow he managed to, every now and again!

A more high-profile player of the harmonica was the great Larry Adler. He was a pretty canny businessman as well, because when he was asked to write the score for a film, he agreed to do so but for a very small percentage of the gross taking rather than a flat fee. That film was the hit 1953 comedy Genevieve, and by the 1980s it had earned him more than a quarter of a million pounds. Although Larry died in 2001, I imagine that somebody will still benefit from his shrewd business move.

Mike Hicks runs Stalham Antique Gallery at 29 High Street, Stalham (NR12 9AH). You can contact Mike on 01692 580636 or info@mikehicksantiques.co.uk.

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