Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Soldier's "Pocket Pal" - Over 150 Years Old?

Music is of course a well-known staple at reenactments. The overwhelming majority of soldiers knew how to play a simple musical instrument, and even those who had no musical skill whatsoever tried to play them anyway.  

When I was a kid, I don't remember exactly how old I was, my parents gave me a Hohner Pocket Pal harmonica for either christmas or my birthday.  It came with a book and accompanying audio cassette tape entitled "Harmonica for the musically hopeless."  I never really took the time to learn how to play this fairly crude instrument, but I kept it all these years and I used to very much enjoy listening to the music on the tape.

Well, some of my slightly more musically-inclined friends have tried to get me to learn how to play an instrument in camp.  At first I tried "the bones", a simple cow jawbone scraped across the teeth with a metal or wooden rod.  This did seem excitingly easy to play, but the excitement wore off after about the end of the first song, when I realized it could only produce one clicking sound with little variation.  Then I remembered this harmonica entombed in my 'junk' dresser drawer.  I fished it out and was pleased to find I still had the original cardboard case and its songbook, albeit without the cassette.

Then I got to wondering what the harmonicas soldiers might have had looked like, and if they were any different from the cheapest harmonicas of today.  After a quick search on the world's repository of infinite knowledge, the electronic wonder that makes your very enjoyment of this page possible, the results I found rather astounded me.

Hohner Musikinstrumente GmbH & Co. is a German company that has manufactured musical instruments for over 150 years.  It was founded in 1857 by Matthias Hohner (born 1833 – died 1902). Matthias Hohner, who was originally a clockmaker, started making harmonicas (by hand) in 1857 with his wife and a single employee. 650 were made in the first year. Hohner harmonicas quickly became popular, and during Matthias' lifetime he built the largest harmonica factory in the world. During the American Civil War, Matthias Hohner gave harmonicas to family members in the United States, who in turn gave them to the fighting soldiers. In Germany he also became famous for his accordions and other hand-held air-powered instruments.

Even Wikipedia has a well-referenced article about Hohner and all the various types of harmonicas it produced throughout the years.  Their 150th anniversary was in 2007. This is the sort of thing you might never think to look up.

 If you want your very own Hohner harmonica to use in camp along with some historical info to tell the public, you can buy one of these with an accompanying info sheet at Fall Creek Sutlery.

Here is an amusing little picture on a postage stamp of a barefoot German boy, wearing appropriate clothing, fishing pole in the crook of his arm, wailing away on his Hohner.  

(source: National Music Museum, Alan G. Bates Harmonica Collection)

I found my Pocket Pal fits nicely into my upper vest pocket.

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