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Digging the Fifties | Part 4

The NMM is excited to bring to you this series of musical delights. Written by curator Ana Sofia Silva, "Digging the Fifties" takes readers through some unseen highlights of our collections, with intriguing stories, commentary, photos and more, celebrating our 50th Anniversary with 50 objects extraordinaire. Read more below to see how we're "Digging the Fifties!" To view other Notes from this series, and download the full article, check out


Digging the Fifties

A curatorial perspective on 50 objects from the NMM collections

By Ana Sofia Silva, Curator

At the NMM, one cannot talk about harmonicas without mentioning the Alan G. Bates Harmonica Collection and Archives. Five of these are featured in “Digging the Fifties." Read on down to find out more about some of the different types of harmonicas such as an “organ-pipe” (NMM 08950), a “sliding-cover” (NMM 09150), a double-sided (NMM 10250), a chromatic (NMM 08050), and a triple-chord (NMM 08450).

Alan Graham Bates (b. 1928) gifted the NMM the most comprehensive harmonica collection ever assembled in this country. Because harmonicas are small, they are easy to collect, and Bates endeavored to acquire at least one representative example of every known type and subvariant to document the cultural history of the instrument. The Alan G. Bates Harmonica Collection and Archives at the NMM includes more than 2,500 instruments and supporting research materials. So, in this collection, there are at least 25 objects with catalog numbers ending in 50, all of which could be featured in this article. However, the author chose five of the most interesting ones in this group.

A metal harmonica on a white background.
Harmonica, Andreas Koch, Trossingen, Germany, ca. 1910–1928. NMM 08950. Photos by Ana Sofia Silva.

A metal harmonica on a white background.

The oldest representative in this group is a typical diatonic harmonica, also known as vamper or Richter type, in which a comb is “sandwiched” between two reed plates, each reed plate carrying single-blow or -draw reeds. NMM 08950 was made by Andreas Koch (1844–1915), whose enterprise was the second-largest harmonica producer in the world, after Hohner company. The Koch company, also located in Trossingen, Germany, started in 1867. While sales in Europe were big, the company founded a branch in New York in 1903, and the business flourished in the 1910s and 1920s. Then, in the years preceding the economic crisis of the 1930s, the company suffered from internal management conflicts among the family members, and the business declined to the point that they made the decision to sell. The giant Hohner took possession of the Koch enterprise in 1929. “The Atlas” model (No. 251) is seen in Koch catalogs from at least 1910 until 1927, in the sections for “artists and professional players.” This one has a standard rectangular shape, a wooden comb with ten holes, brass reed plates with 20 reeds (10 per plate, one draw, one blow), nickel-plated steel covers, and extra corrugated brass sheets attached to the reed plates forming sound channels for each reed, which would provide for a “strong tone.” These corrugated plates resemble organ pipes, so this is also known as an organ-pipe style harmonica.

A metal harmonica on a white backround.
Harmonica, Gustav A. Doerfel, Klingenthal, Germany, ca. 1925–1930. NMM 09150. Photo by Ana Sofia Silva.

The second example in the group, NMM 09150, is an example of a sliding cover harmonica, in which the cover plates are not attached to the harmonica body and can rather slide over the reed plates through a flange-channel system construction. This way, the reeds may be easily exposed. The cover plates in this example also have two crescent-moon-shaped slots for a nail to slide the plates. The top cover plate features an embossed “Richard Wagner” inscription with fancy script capitals, which was a registered trademark by the company G. A. Dörfel (G. A. Doerfel), located in Brunndöbra, Saxony (today Klingenthal, Germany), founded in 1848 by Gustav Adolf Doerfel (d. 1922). It has a rectangular wooden comb with rounded sides, double-chamber construction with ten holes, and brass reed plates with a total of 20 reeds. The sides of the harmonica have strips of metal attached with two large brass tacks that may indicate this instrument was probably part of a multi-sided, paddlewheel-type harmonica.

A metal harmonica on a white background.
Harmonica, Max Spranger, Klingenthal, Germany, ca. 1935–1940. NMM 10250. Photo by Ana Sofia Silva.

The next example, NMM 10250, was also made by another maker from Klingenthal, Max Spranger, who founded his company relatively late in 1903. This is an “Erlkönig” model of unusual shape and beautiful enameled covers that were fashionable in the 1930s. The blue, black, and silver colors with a design of what appears to be some kind of mountain peaks, clouds, and perhaps a form of spectral mist probably alluding to the Germanic folklore of the “Elven” or “Alder” King. It is a double-sided harmonica, meaning two harmonicas in one instrument, both with curved or concave front edges. Each harmonica has a wooden comb with 24 holes in a double-chamber construction (48 holes total), and brass reed plates with 96 reeds total. Similar to the tremolo harmonica in design, this is actually an octave-tuned harmonica, in which the reeds for each hole are tuned one octave apart instead of being slightly off-tuned from a reference pitch. This makes the resulting sound stronger and full-bodied, without the “tremolo” effect.

A metal harmonica on a white background.
Harmonica. C. A. Seydel, Klingenthal, Germany, ca. 1925–1930. NMM 08050. Photo by Ana Sofia Silva.

The next harmonica, NMM 08050, also has enameled cover plates, with a simpler art-deco-type design in black and off-white colors, and the model name “Bandmaster Chromatic.” The Bandmaster was a popular trademark used for several harmonica series made by the company C. A. Seydel (later C. A. Seydel Söhne, in short, "C.A.S.S."), founded in 1847 by Christian August Seydel (d. 1882) in the region of Untersachsenberg-Georgenthal (a district of Klingenthal as well). Originally a family of miners, the Seydels established their factory at the foot of the famous Aschberg mountain, and the company withstood the test of time thus becoming the oldest harmonica factory in the world still producing today (Hohner was only founded ten years later). This example is an unusual chromatic in that the slide mechanism is built within and hinged at the back of the wooden comb. The comb has 10 holes, double-chamber construction, and a total of 40 brass reeds with “wind-saver” leather valves.

A metal harmonica on a white background.
Triple-chord harmonica, Matthias Hohner, Inc., Trossingen, Germany, ca. 1950. NMM 08450. Photo by Ana Sofia Silva.

And finally, one other example from the well-known Hohner company, founded by Matthias Hohner (1833–1902) in Trossingen, Germany, in 1857. NMM 08450 is a triple-chord harmonica, meaning that it is composed of three individual chord harmonicas assembled together. A chord harmonica is a sub-type of the chromatic-orchestral accompaniment harmonicas, in which the reeds are clustered in groups to be played together to sound a chord. The model Polyphonia No. 8 (Orchester VIII in the German market) was introduced in catalogs from the 1950s, and it was a fairly large instrument boosting 144 brass reeds total, distributed in groups of three-chord notes, plus a fundamental bass note. Each harmonica has 12 single holes for the bass notes, and 12 wide holes with partitioned chambers for the chords. The hinged assembly allows to adjust the angle of each harmonica to better suit the player. This model disappeared from Hohner catalogs in the 1970s.


Stay tuned for more posts in this special curatorial series - Digging the Fifties!



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