Bakelite Brevities

Prominent world harmonica collector Harland Crain sent HRR this photograph of a Crackajack Miniature Concert (with bakelite frame). In the Melbourne Weekly Times (Saturday 10th November 1934) advertised alongside the Crackajack Miniature Concert was Ludwigs “Improved Bakelite” mouth organ (maybe the Antoria Concert).

It had me reminiscing on the bakelite devices in our family home as a young feller. Who doesn’t forget listening to 3UZ on the bakelite radio in the kitchen or the ringing of the bakelite telephone in the hallway? It was time to put the white lab coat and safety goggles on and investigate the world of harmonicas made from alternatives to wood.

Let’s go back a little further in time, just before the turn of the twentieth century, to visit Prince Street Grafton and enter Jordan’s Music Emporium that sold a celluloid mouth organ. The proprietor of Jordan’s was none other than famous local identity Henry ‘Harry’ Jordan (1862-1913). Henry had serviced the city as an Alderman and was responsible for improving recreational facilities in the area. He held a membership of the Grafton rowing club and actively participated in the local cricket, football and athletic clubs. However, Henry’s identity within the community was best known for his involvement with music. Not only did he have the music emporium, Henry was also a noted violinist. His playing skills were in demand both in and outside the district and he instructed many a ‘whipper snapper’ on the intricacies of the instrument. It didn’t end there as he conducted the local orchestra and operated the dance hall with his wife. The hall was designed and built by Henry which doubled as their humble abode. The Criterion Hall still stands tall to this day. Henry injured an arm in an accident that adversely affected his violin playing, so much so that a new pastime was required. Photography became his new passion. But like everything else the untiring Henry did, it became more than a pastime. A photography club was formed and a studio opened (with photographic supplies that could be purchased). Some of his photographs featured in prominent Sydney journals.

On display inside Jordan’s Music Emporium were a variety of violins, mandolins, concertinas, tambourines, accordions and, featured in the mouth organ section, a Celluloid mouth organ for 2/6. Celluloid was the world’s first plastic and was designed by John Hyatt in the 1860’s as an alternative source to ivory, which was used in producing billiard balls.

In Jordan’s advertisement from Grafton’s Clarence and Richmond Examiner on the 10th July 1894 it mentions Seyart as the patent and maker. I have a feeling this may have been a misprint as I could not find (through all my sources) anyone making mouth organs by this name. I wondered if it was Seydel (or if it had been a merger of Seydel and Albert’s name) and if the mouth organ mentioned was actually the Native Waratah made by Seydel for Albert’s. The Native Waratah had a sliding celluloid cover plate that protected the lips from poisoning. The time frame fits to a tee. I even discovered Richard Seydel’s 1893 patent for a mouth organ in which the cover plate appears identical in shape to the Native Waratah.

Here is a DRGM (“Deutsches Reiches Gebrauchs Musterschutz” – meaning protected patented design under the Reich Government) for Seydel from the same year.

In English – “A Harmonica in which the covering of the mouth and back sides are pushed into the grooves on the sides of the harmonica body with bends.”

This DRGM description coincides with Richard’s claim on the Patent.

Max Doerfel’s International was one of the first mouth organs to use celluloid. These two models advertised in 1892 were patented by Max the previous year.

Then there was bakelite developed in 1907 (patented in 1909) by Leo Baekeland a Belgian – American chemist. Leo discovered that by controlling the pressure and temperature applied to phenol and formaldehyde he could produce a hard mouldable plastic. This was the first plastic to be developed from synthetic components.

It was noted for electrical non-conductivity and heat resistance and would be used as an insulator on many devices. And, as seen earlier in this article, as the comb for the Crackajack Miniature Concert mouth organ and Ludwig Antoria Concert.

After the Second World War Finn Magnus developed the all plastic harmonica (even reeds) after there was a shortage of essential metals (such as brass) and a reduction in the exportation of German manufactured mouth organs. Finn arrived in America from Denmark in 1925 with just twenty five dollars to his name and would go on to make a million dollars from his plastic harmonicas.

In the early 1970’s a revolution occurred in the construction of the harmonica thanks to Hohner inventors – recessed reed plates. The ‘Tin Sandwich’ as it is affectionately known, is so named because all its components are sandwiched on top of each other. This design has the lips in direct contact with the reed plates when being played. The new model from Hohner the Special 20 eliminated contact with the reed plate as it sat inside the comb. The Special 20 moulded comb (made from a thermoplastic polymer – ABS) was created with a recess for the reed plates. The end result – a comfortable mouthpiece and an extremely airtight harmonica. It wasn’t the first time an ABS comb had been used. In 1953 the Hohner Comet was promoted with an ABS comb, however it wasn’t recessed.

The earliest mention I could find of the Special 20 harmonica was from a 1974 US Hohner catalogue. I had believed the Special 20 was offered prior to this date for the UK market, however when a Hohner catalogue dated 1972 was scrutinised more closely there was a 1976 book by Jerry Ackley advertised. Interestingly the Special 20 is promoted as new and with more fanfare in this catalogue than the blurb in the 1974 US catalogue (pictured below). It is quite possible the Special 20 may have been available in stores earlier than 1974.

There isn’t a patent that I’m aware of – strange since it was such a revolutionary development in the construction of the harmonica. On the packaging of my recent Special 20 purchase they pronounce, “The world’s first diatonic harmonica with projecting mouthpiece and recessed plates ensures air tightness, water – resistance and playing comfort.”

Perhaps Karl Scherer was the inventor as he had been credited for developments in Hohner harps from 1937 to 1987 and he held a degree in engineering. I’m informed by Steve Baker that, “Karl Scherer appears to be one of the Hohner managers at the time of the 100 years jubilee in 1957. However, technical innovations at Hohner weren’t necessarily thought up by the management. In my 33 years of direct involvement with the company, innovations generally were the brainchild of either craftsmen directly involved in production processes, or the R&D department, usually in cooperation with players or at their suggestion.” I’m gob smacked that this significant advancement in harmonica technology has so little reported history and that this question would even be debated.

Many professional musicians use the Special 20 as there harp of choice. In Australia Mike Rudd (Spectrum) and Steve Williams (John Farnham Band) exclusively perform with this model and it’s also my harmonica of choice. Steve told HRR, “I’ve used the Special 20 since it came out which must be about 40 years ago. Before that it was the Blues Harp or Marine Band which I would always soak before playing. This made the wooden comb swell up and slice your lips open. Then I would sand down the swollen wood. Then, if it was an infrequently used harp the comb would shrink away, so the plastic combed Special 20 was a revolution. I’ve tried most other brands but I always come back to the 20. It’s probably muscle memory but it just feels ‘right’. I like the little lip, as opposed to the sheer ‘sandwich’ front on harps like the Golden Melody.” I have the same issue as Steve – changing to any other harps is fraught with difficulty. My muscle memory will be tested shortly as I need a low F# for a recording session and Hohner doesn’t produce this in either their Rocket or Thunderbird models – an alternate manufacturer is required.

World renowned harmonica exponent Charlie McCoy couldn’t remember when he first used Special 20’s, but he’s favoured harp at the time the Old Standby was reduced to only seven keys so the Special 20 (manufactured in all twelve) was required. I read somewhere Charlie liked the Old Standby as he knew which side was up (a perennial problem for harp players) as the top cover plate featured a large emboss of M Hohner’s ‘crust of bread’.

Later Hohner created the Country Tuned (CT) Special 20 that had one note altered, the draw five raised a half step (the major seventh). This enabled cross harp, with all its expression to be played with a major scale. Country Tuned as a title is a little genre limiting and perhaps a more appropriate referencing would be Major Seventh Tuned. There is even conjecture on when they were first available and in what keys. Their first recognition in a Hohner catalogue is 1993, although it looks likely they were available in the late eighties. I contacted Charlie and enquired on how he first came to play with country tuning, “I was first shown the ‘country tuning’ in 1973. A guy from upstate New York (Duane Parker) figured it out when he was trying to learn to play the song, ‘Danny Boy’ that I had recorded on my self titled album. I then contacted Hohner and told them about it. In a short while, they started making them for me.”

This country tuned Special 20 first appeared on Charlie’s 1977 Country Cookin‘ album. On The Last Letter and We Could he uses a country tuned ‘A’ harp and on Evergreen and 18th Century Rosewood Clock a ‘C’ harp. All in second position. On earlier albums Charlie had overdubbed the major seventh I believe, by using the draw three on the harp in the key of the tune.

That was going to be the end of it, but Hohner has looked at using renewable materials for their combs and designed a bamboo comb in the last ten years. Perhaps they were reminded of the harmonica’s distant cousin the Chinese Sheng. Technically bamboo is not a wood, but a grass. This is used in their Crossover and Thunderbird models. Its construction consists of a series of thin bamboo strips glued together and is triple lacquered with Simple Glide to prevent moisture swelling the comb. The comb has a patent unlike the recessed comb of the Special 20.

A journey it has been from Celluloid to Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS). From a photo of a Crackajack to the harp I use. From Grafton to Nashville. It never ceases to amaze me how a story can go in a different direction that you envisaged. I hope you have enjoyed this as much as I had in composing.

Ch EssDawg

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