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History of the Harmonica

The harmonica has a long history in many different music genres, most notably blues, jazz, and American folk music. Here at Duluth Pack, we are fans of folk music because a lot of Duluth’s music scene has roots in folk music. Bob Dylan and Trampled by Turtles, famous for their folk style, both came out of the Northwoods and helped put Duluth on the map. Furthermore, music with the harmonica reminds us of sitting around a fire and cracking a cold beverage open during the summer with loved ones, which is something we desire. Today’s post is an homage to and a history of the harmonic, which has provided depth and beauty to music for centuries.

The harmonica’s history technically starts in 19th century Europe, but instruments like it have been used in countries in East Asia since ancient times. These instruments were introduced in Europe and became quite popular, which eventually led to the invention of the modern-day harmonica. 

It is unclear who truly created the harmonica, but credit is often attributed to Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann of Germany in 1821. Though his version of the harmonica was clunky and difficult to use, many people took his instrument as inspiration and started to make their own thus leading to more practical versions of the harmonica - similar to what you see today. The harmonica was first used mostly for classical music but became popular in European and specifically German folk music. As the harmonica improved more and more, it became more suitable for other types of music as well, such as blues and traditional country music.

The first mass-producer of harmonicas was Matthias Hohner, who was originally a clockmaker. He introduced the harmonica to American culture in 1868, and it immediately became enormously popular in American music. Today, the Hohner company is still a major producer of harmonicas nearly 170 years later.

Though this instrument is small, its importance in music is mighty. The instrument itself is deeply intertwined in the history of American music. The instrument itself has famously been noted to provide solace and morale in soldiers during major wars including the Civil War and WWII. Abraham Lincoln was also known for carrying a harmonica in his pocket, which helped solidify its place in American culture during the 19th century.

So next time you are gathered around a campfire with loved ones and have folk music playing or someone pulls out a harmonica of their own, remember the long history of this little instrument and its importance in American music history.

-From your friends at Duluth Pack