[Harp-L] My way to research the history of a harmonica and/or the harmonica in general

This is a long post that I'm posting as a reference for the archives (thus the unusually descriptive subject line) or in case anybody wants to print it out and refer to it later. 

I apply skills I learned with investigative journalism (I did earn a WV Press Association Award for Best Investigative Journalism) and in history research (it was one of my majors in college) to researching a harp and I'd like to explain how I do that. In a nutshell, it's about using deductive reasoning to steer research. I soak in all the clues, think about it for a few days, then start more serious research. I develop the most probable hypothesis, then try to confirm and refute it at the same time. You have to be flexible as you do this, keep an open mind and willing to be wrong. If you get too attached to an idea while you research and defend a position to keep from being proven wrong (even to yourself), you will be wrong, because you've not gone through a subjective enough process.

So, I'm going to give an example of a harp I started the deductive part of the research on today. Some of this could be proven wrong later. But now, I can focus my research. 

The all-plastic â even the reeds - âall-plastic,â made-in-USA Finn Magnus harp came in today. A lot of folks, when they get a weird harp in, want to know stuff about it. The patent office... via Google patents... is the best place to start. You'd be surprised what you can learn. (Again, I'll put out a call if anybody knows where I can see a copy of the 1898 Richard Seydel Sr. Bandmaster patent). 

The first question a wood comb guy like me would ask, why would one make such an abomination?
I got the answer to that question in the patent, which was filed 1942. Patents not only tell you what it is, but what the inventor of it was thinking when he did it. For instance, I learned why the Marine Band has a side vent from the patent, Jacob Hohner's idea was allow the reedplates to vibrate, which he said altered the tone. THAT was the reason for the mouse ear, which morphed into the side vent.

As for why ol' Finn âa.k.a. Colonelâ Magnus designed the harmonica, it was not specifically to displease me;), it was a response to the shortage of brass in World War II. He says so right in the patent. At that time, virtually all U.S. brass was being turned into 30.06 cartridge casings or artillery shells. This was a hell of an idea. Kratt was probably getting all the harmonica brass in the United States since he had the military and Red Cross contracts. This was a way Magnus could make boatloads of harps, rake in the cash... all while flipping the bird to Kratt with his brass rations. 

By looking at followup patents, you can get an idea of the evolution of the idea, or an evolution of the market, to which the inventor is making adjustments, or simply something he thought of later, or just flat out didn't get around to talking about in the first one.
In the followup 1943 filed patent, Magnus isn't talking so much about the brass shortage, instead he cites the fact that he can make a reed that is initially in tune when it is created, thus no tuning is required at the factory. How well is the tuning? I'll have to test it tonight after I clean this. 
Here's the 1943 filed:

You can also look at the box, if you got it, for an idea of the specific market they were aiming for, that also gives you probable price category. 
Look at the front of the box first. That's where the maker put the info that was most important to him and the most specific for the harp in question. If, for instance, you saw the Hohner âLa Cucarachaâ (as far as I know I just made it up, you could form a hypothesis that is was probably bound for Mexican sales post Mexican Revolution.

The front of my Magnus box has a picture of the harmonica itself. In my experience, a pic of the harp itself on a box is indicative that the harp was a beginners instruments. There are exceptions to all these rules and you have to keep an open mind. 
What is valuable info on this piece are three words on the front. âDURABLE â WASHABLE â EASY TO PLAYâ (other side âEasy on the Lips-Sanitaryâ) that sums up Magnus' main selling points.
There always may be others of anything, but the next truly washable harp I know of is the Seydel 1847 Silver of 2008.

On the sides of the box, there is more information. One side has a picture of obligatory Clean Cut, 1950s Boy, on one side and some girl that looks like Peppi Longstockings or whatever on the other. It says âLearn to play in 5 minutes. If you can whistle or hum a tune, you can play a Magnus.â 
The boy's side says âstart your own harmonica band. Ask your friends to join you at home or school.â 
Beginner harp, confirmed. 
Were they all beginner ones or did a better one exist? If you can sink your hands on a catalog, you are in really great shape. If not, again, you have to look for clues. Is there something on the box or harp that alludes to another harp? For instance, the Seydel âChromatic Standardâ name alludes to the fact it is a less expensive sidekick to another harp- in this case, the âChromatic DeLuxe.â 
Do check catalogs, those are excellent resources. That's how I know the Chromatic DeLuxe price has not changed in 10 years. 
My Magnus says âRegular Magnusâ on box end, which would hint that the word âregularâ was put there to differentiate it from something better.
The box has a catalog number âNo. 20 â Redâ That tells me one thing for sure, there were other colors. Also the âNo. 20â hints that this harp was giving that designation because it has 20 reeds and that there may have been a No. 40, for instance, as a tremolo or octave model. 
With this in mind, I can get a much better Internet search. Google Magnus catalog (without quotes) and I get 617,000 hits, ONE of which may or may not be the harmonica catalog. Magnus harmonica catalog (without quotes) yields 16,700 hits. With quotes, the results are narrowed, but most of the hits are links to porn sites that supposedly have âmangus catalog,â and harmonicas etc. in them.
What I did was put the words that will for sure appear in the catalog, the specific words I know will appear âNo. 2â âmagnusâ and generic words to separate out the chaff...I'll put in brackets exactly like I entered into google [magnus "No. 20" red plastic harmonica newark] I can play around with that a little, but if it's there, those words should find it. 

I recently joined Harmonica Collectors International http://www.harmonicacollectorsinternational.com/ and if I get stuck on something, I can ask the club to cough up whatever tidbits they know to aid my research. This whole process isn't as hard if you are researching Hohner, because much of that history has been documented. If it's a German instrument you are looking for, OWN a copy of the harmonica makers of Germany and Austria printed by the German harmonica museum. In the states, HCI sells it. It is a must. It's a very interesting read and it yields a lot of info that can help your research. Let's say you were looking at a J.F. Kalbe harp that had a picture of an airplane on it. Well, it would be made after 1903 to have a plane on it. Kalbe was in business from 1840 â 1912. BUT, Kalbe was one of the many companies Hohner gobbled up. This opens another question, could my harp be a clandestine Hohner? In Kalbe's case, according to the book, no.
 Hohner swooped in, sent all the workers packing and shut the factory down right after they bought it. 
Thus, the date of the Kalbe would be 1904 â 1912, since the 1903 Wright Bros. Flight was in mid-December and we would look for other clues that could narrow it down further. 
On the other hand, let's say you have a harp from Peter âpicked a peck of pickled peppersâ Pohl. The Harmonica makers book says Pohl was in biz from like 1890 â 1907, but before Hohner bought them out, nobody had ever heard of Pohl, but Hohner made a bazillion harmonicas under the Pohl name later.
The book is a critical starting point, but it's important to look elsewhere also. For instance, the Harmonica makers book research â which was done in Germany â missed something very neat about Kratt that made him the man he was. In what were these missing years in New Jersey in the book, I came to find out Kratt was Thomas Edison's chief machinist. 
That's what makes this SO FREAKIN' exciting for me. There is so much we do not know that we can still find out. 

Dating this Magnus harp is fairly easy, because we know when the box was made. Says âcopyright 1947,â that's a copyright for the box, not the harp, but it is safe to assume that the harmonica was put in the box within surely a few years after copyright, especially in this instance, where an old date on a box would make it look less hip for the targeted young impulse buyer with a pocketful of milk money. 
What can also be important is what is missing. There is no mention of key anywhere on harp or box. That's another indication of an entry-level instrument, but also that it was only available in one key.

Obviously, you can use the patents for dating... beware of follow-up patents though. A very dear friend of mine has a Hohner with a metal strip all the teeth of the comb that goes down in the holes. He was telling me about it a couple of weeks ago and I remembered seeing the patent for it. Thus, I can explain what it's there for â to prevent comb swelling by keeping moisture away from the wood. And give the earliest date, which I think would be like 1915 or something, the year it was FILED. We don't have an approximate latest date it could have been manufactured, but we have the earliest date, just from the patent. 

Back on the Mangus,
The most obscure details can lead to info about the company, its founding, etc. the words âMagnus Harmonica Corp., Newark, N.J.â suggests he and Kratt at least knew who each other were. So, what I'm looking into is what that relationship was. I highly suspect that Magnus made Kratt's plastic combs, but I don't know yet. Second question, why were these two American harmonica companies (there weren't many) both in New Jersey? To answer that question, I gotta see if 1) Magnus was with Thomas Edison back in the day? Was Magnus a Kratt employee at one time? The fun is in answering such questions.
When you see some fact, some cooperative effort between two companies, etc.Âtry to file it in the back of your mind, even if it doesn't seem important. I recall a long time ago I came across something that said Magnus and Kratt had some cooperative effort in plastic non-harmonica instruments. I can't refind it, but it's another tidbit that could help me focus research efficiently.

I know I'm not known for liking plastic and I joke a lot about it, but I am very proud to own this Magnus, regardless of the fact it's probably not worth anything. It is a fascinating experiment of harmonica history.

Guys like Vern, Chris, Bill and other plastic injectors, might enjoy this read on Magnus' molding process. 

He also has a different approach on making a chromatic: 
I'll probably post all these Magnus patent links in a shorter post, one that folks will actually be able to read in a single setting.
Dave Payne Sr. 
Elk River Harmonicas

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