7th December, 2018
Hello Riff Raffers,
Recently I acquired somewhat fortuitously, a ‘Cobber’ harmonica tin. The top of this once colourful tin has a three dimensional graphic of the harmonica that should lie within. However the harp inside wasn’t a ‘Cobber’ and it’s name had been incorrectly identified by the seller (maybe a Dawg Blawg down the line). They advertised it as ‘harmonica with tin’ with the emphasis squarely placed on the harmonica. I believe the vendor had no knowledge of the container’s cultural significance as there was not a mention of the ‘Cobber’ brand name. The metal tin wasn’t in prestigious condition, but in any condition it was an important historical discovery. Then there was the question of restoration. Patina can be an endearing feature as it displays its age and heritage. To destroy the patina could decrease it’s value and could put off would be collectors. I put the question to a respectable restorer and an estimate of a ‘sympathetic’ restoration was quoted at between two hundred and two hundred and fifty dollars. The tin is an antique and I have never set eyes on another one. So for the time being, it will be displayed as is.
Four different models of ‘Cobber’ harmonicas were sold in Australia from 1912 to 1920 by jobbers (wholesalers), ‘Jackson & MacDonald’ of Sydney. Samuel Jackson and David MacDonald did their apprenticeship as employees of ‘Allan & Co’ in Melbourne, who had great success selling their own ‘Crackajack’ brand of harmonicas. Both gentleman were great friends and expert rifleman at the ‘Mosman Rifle Club’. Initially, ‘Jackson & MacDonald’ had the franchise for ‘Edison Phonographs’. Later they would find enormous success manufacturing their own brand of talking boxes (gramophones), the ‘Rexonola’. Their wooden cabinets later evolved into speaker boxes that would replace the sound horn. ‘The Gloucester Advocate’ on Friday 3rd May, 1929 reported where the timber for the cabinets was sourced: “after exhaustive search and tests the company have decided to use suitable softwoods including sassafras, corkwood, beach and other timbers from the Copeland brush.” Most cabinets appear to have been carved from oak or Queensland maple. ‘Cobber’ was trademarked in 1911 by Leipzig based company, ‘Bauer & Krause’. Although primarily an import-export set up, they were a highly regarded German toy maker producing a wide range of horse themed toys, which included rocking horses hand crafted by folk artists of their employ. Perhaps they outsourced the making of the harmonicas too, and then sent them on to ‘Jackson & MacDonald’ for sale down under.
These days their ‘Cobber’ harmonicas are as rare as rocking horse poo. In a 2007 article entitled, ‘Hum Along’, business journalist James Cockington of ‘The Sydney Herald’ suggested that, “none are known to have survived.” There must be at least one out there waiting to be housed in my tin. I want to believe. Australian harmonica consultant and author, Ray Grieve told me, “I’ve only ever seen one and that was in bad shape, it was owned by an American collector.” I’m sure I can recall a young harmonica player from Warrnambool, Eddy Boyle mentioning to me off air prior to a radio interview that he possessed a ‘Cobber’.
Samuel Jackson was incredibly skilled at promoting the harmonica. A marketing skill he employed with some success was either publishing a weekly ‘Cobber’ limerick or by surreptitiously placing a headline with a ‘Cobber’ twist in Sydney’s, ‘The Sunday Sun’.
This headline, ‘Shocking Discovery’ placed in July 13th, 1913 read, “Yesterday afternoon, shortly after a pleasure party had arrived at picnic ground, it was discovered that nobody had brought a ‘Cobber’ mouth-organ and a picnic without a ‘Cobber’ mouth-organ is like an egg without malt, or, as the Spanish girl said, a kiss without a moustache. The party returned to town greatly depressed.” Another, a week earlier entitled, ‘Indignant Conductor’ was written as a concerned letter from A. Noyde: “As a conductor of a large orchestra I beg, through your courtesy, to ventilate a grievance under which Sydney conductors suffer. We have to pay our musicians good salaries, but how can we charge adequate fees for our performances when anybody can have a fine orchestra of his own by buying a Cobber mouth-organ for a shilling?” With this kind of marketing many ‘Cobbers’ had to be sold and played. They’re out there surely. “Don’t call me Shirley.” Like their competitors, ‘Jackson & MacDonald’ used competitions and mouth organ champions to promote and endorse their product. Mr. J. Donelly, who was used regularly in their advertising won the New South Wales ‘Cobber Championship’ in 1913 at the Glaciarium Theatre in Sydney. He had been tutored by Albert Emmett of ‘Dr. Carver’s Entertainers Of America’ twenty one years ago. An international taking out our great event. Who would have thought! His endorsement read, “Every Cobber Mouth Organ I have had, and I have used no other for some time, has been perfectly satisfactory in every way. I am prepared to play any player who cares to challenge me, or refutes my right to hold the titles mentioned in this report, and the instrument I will use will be a ‘Cobber’.”
As Andy Pipkin (character played by Matt Lucas in ‘Little Britain’) would retort, “I want that one.” They’re out there. Here’s hoping.
PS: Here’s a photo of a better conditioned ‘Cobber’ tin (no restoration) from newly joined Riff Raffer-Canadian harmonica collector, Doug Dawson. Cheers mate.