Hans Hohner (1870-1927)

In 1857, Matthias Hohner established a harmonica workshop that would become the world-leading producer of this small musical instrument. Founded in Trossingen, a small town in rural southwest Germany, the company soon expanded into the American market through Matthias Hohner's son Hans, who was partially educated in the United States and supervised the first foreign branch of the company, founded in New York in 1901. Hans' nephew, Matthias (Matthew) Hohner, later took over the American branch from Hans in 1927.

Updated: November 19, 2015


In 1857, Matthias Hohner established a harmonica workshop that would become the world-leading producer of this small musical instrument. Founded in Trossingen, a small town in rural southwest Germany, the company soon expanded into the American market. Within a few decades, Matthias Hohner had established a thriving business which involved all five of his adult sons. Hans (born April 25, 1870 in Baden-Württemberg, Germany; died May 18, 1927 in Bad Rothenfelde, Lower Saxony, Germany), his second-youngest son, was partially educated in the United States and supervised the first foreign branch of the company, founded in New York in 1901, while his oldest son Jacob (1861–1946) took leadership of the main firm in Germany. Matthias (“Matthew”) Hohner (born April 2, 1892 in Trossingen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany; died Jan. 23, 1962 in Radolfzell, Baden-Württemberg, Germany), a grandson of Matthias Hohner, later took over the American branch from Hans in 1927. This article examines both the personal and business interactions between the German headquarters and its American operations, placing special emphasis on the careers of Hans and Matthew Hohner.[1]

Family and Ethnic Background

Matthias Hohner was born on December 12, 1833 in Trossingen, situated between the Black Forest and the Swabian Alps in what was then the kingdom of Württemberg. His early life was shaped by his family’s gradual impoverishment and its religious piety. His earlier ancestors had been well-to-do peasants, but over the following generations lost most of their wealth, mainly due to partitioning of the family’s property over the generations.[2] Hence, Hohner experienced poverty and deprivation throughout his childhood. The other determining factor of his upbringing was religion. Germany’s southwest in the early nineteenth century was a stronghold of pietism, an important reform movement within Lutheranism which focused on the pious individual and accordingly on the importance of appropriate personal behavior.

Given this socialization, Hohner was driven by a rigorous work ethic and eager to become self-employed. He was initially trained as a clockmaker but, due to disruptive technological changes, after only a couple of years of working at this trade he established his own harmonica workshop in 1857. The harmonica was a rather new product that had been introduced to Trossingen just fifteen years earlier by Christian Messner, another inhabitant of Trossingen. It was essentially an adaptation of a tool used for tuning pianos into an independent musical instrument. From the 1860s onwards Hohner and Messner competed over the developing market.[3]

Personal circumstances gave Hohner particular urgency to go into business for himself: he had impregnated his distant cousin Anna Hohner (1836–1907) and therefore a quick marriage was imperative in order to prevent her from becoming a “fallen girl.” According to contemporary law, a man who wished to marry could only obtain a marriage license by proving his ability to support a family. As the viability of the clock-making business was decreasing, defining his status as “freelance clockmaker and harmonica manufacturer” was a way to show his fitness to marry.[4] The resulting marriage would last until Matthias’ death in 1902. The couple had nine daughters and six sons; one of the sons and two of the daughters died young.[5]

In the beginning, the workshop remained very small and life was extremely difficult. The Hohner family had to do everything on their own: producing the goods, acquiring customers, and taking care of sales and distribution. Production was inefficient because Hohner could not divide these tasks among multiple workers; instead, employees were called on to fulfill all roles in the business process as necessary. Correspondingly, it was also difficult to put capital aside for future investments: “This retail system was neither cost-effective nor safe. Its limited geographical scope also made it highly vulnerable to trade slumps.”[6] Hohner realized this early on and consequently went looking for export opportunities, especially in the United States. It would eventually develop into the most important foreign market for Hohner.

The first exports of Hohner harmonicas were handled by friends and acquaintances who were immigrating to the United States. Trossingen was part of one of the most important emigration regions in Germany. A decisive step towards a more formal distribution system and large-scale exports was taken in March 1867. A Nuremberg toy exporter offered Hohner an opportunity to export a large shipment of harmonicas. After brief hesitation, Hohner shipped six months’ worth of his workshop’s output to the United States; Hohner alone had to carry the financial risk and a failure of this venture would likely have ruined his business. Before making this far-reaching decision, Hohner sought advice from a personal friend from Trossingen living in the United States. His friend’s reply strongly recommended that he take the offer, suggesting to Hohner that harmonicas would be very popular among German immigrants as their specific tone would evoke feelings of nostalgia. Hohner relied on a regional network of communications and solidarity extending into the New World. This consultation on the potential of the American market was noteworthy as the resulting expansion would turn out to be one of the decisive moments in the history of the Hohner company.[7]

Hohner’s approach to business was strongly influenced by his religious and rural background: he was “a traditional religious paternalist who remained firmly rooted in Trossingen’s agrarian milieu and never gave up agriculture”; he continued to operate his own small farm until his death.[8]Correspondingly, Hohner dealt with family matters as a patriarch who did not tolerate dissent and did not grant his children a say in their own life planning. The paternalistic and traditional attitudes of Hohner would come to clash with the expansionist business philosophy of some of his offspring, and in particular with the character and business approach of his second-youngest son, Hans.

One source of these conflicts lay in the steady acquisition of bourgeois ways of life which arose from Hohner’s successful business establishment and conduct. While his older sons, Jacob (1861–1946), Matthias (1863–1929), and Andreas (1864–1926) were in local elementary school for a rather short time and quickly became absorbed into the family business, the two youngest—Hans (1870–1927) and Will (1879–1933)—were granted a longer and more ambitious education which included several extended periods abroad. In the eyes of the elder Hohner, this education away from home was on the one hand valuable and prestigious but it also threatened the established maxims of thrift, religiosity, and family duty.[9]

It is against this background that Hans Hohner had to find his place in the company—and the family. Born in 1870, he attended schools in England and Switzerland.[10] According to naturalization records, it was in 1890 that Hans traveled to the United States for the first time to directly observe his family company’s most important export market.[11] In 1891 his father, Matthias Hohner, began making plans for his son to return to the United States; on this trip, he was tasked with traveling to the most important Hohner customers on the East Coast to help prevent the worsening of the export business. Although the trip did not take place until the next year, the careful preparations started early: Hans had to submit a proposed route to his father beforehand, who then cut it down rigorously. In a tense letter, the elder Hohner gave detailed instructions on how to behave, thereby revealing his own fears of losing control over his son. The instructions placed special emphasis on demanding that Hans be thrifty and ended with a moral-religious imperative which sums up Matthias Hohner’s philosophy of life and business: “Be quite virtuous, devout, and honest, [and] thus you will fare well.”[12]

Hans, indeed, embodied the harshest disappointment of the strict ideals of the father: using part of his inheritance, Hans engaged in stock speculation during a long sojourn in the Black Forest in 1899. But it was Hans’ impregnation of the family’s maid, taking place the same year, which signified the most serious violation of his father’s moral standards. The family covered up this “disgrace” with financial compensation and absolute discretion. Ironically, Matthias Hohner had been in a comparable situation a couple of decades before and had defused the situation by marrying Hans’ mother. It is not possible to determine from the existing sources the details of how Matthias Hohner reacted to his son’s unseemly conduct. However, an interview with a Hohner employee whose parents also worked for the company noted that the elder Hohners were reportedly determined that Hans “could do no more harm to the family’s reputation.” In the small town of Trossingen, knowledge that he had made an unmarried woman pregnant was “a very embarrassing matter” for a family known for its religiosity.[13] The social advancement of the Hohner family that the company’s rise had made possible meant that the family was now committed to the strict moral codes of the educated middle class. As a consequence, Hans had to leave the hometown Trossingen immediately and was sent to oversee the business in the United States permanently.[14]

In summary it can be said, therefore, that two crises fostered the Hohner company to intensify its attention to the American market and made Hans’ subsequent success there possible: firstly, over the course of the financial crisis of the 1890s, his father instructed him to focus on making personal connections with the company’s customers; secondly, Hans’ indiscretions made him an undesirable presence in the pious environment of Trossingen and an American exile was simultaneously a way to preserve the family’s reputation and a pragmatic business decision.

Hans went on to build up the American branch and revolutionize the company’s advertising techniques. This was possible, in part, due to his intercultural socialization, which enabled him to adapt to American society. Hans Hohner still remains the “black sheep” of the family, and his extraordinary role in the development of the business has been largely neglected, despite the fact that he was in many respects the most creative of Matthias Hohner’s five sons.[15] The Hohner family continued its ties to the United States in the third generation. While Hans was still a perennial traveler between both cultures, his nephew Matthew (1892–1962) not only succeeded him as head of the American branch, but eventually even obtained American citizenship.

Business Development through 1920

From the onset, the American market played a crucial role in the development of the Hohner company: “Nowhere was the mouth organ more popular than in the United States. Several regions settled largely by German immigrants… became known for the high caliber of their harmonica players.”[16] In the first phase of Hohner’s expansion to the American market, which started soon after the establishment of the company in 1857, it was essentially the community and networks of German immigrants Hohner relied upon, both as consumers and distributors. As southwest Germany was still a focal point of transatlantic emigration, the first exports of Hohner harmonicas were transferred by friends and acquaintances who were leaving for the United States.[17] Although large-scale exports were not possible through this immigrant network, it nevertheless “introduced harmonicas from Trossingen into their future markets, helped the marginal producers to survive, and gave manufacturers an idea of the sales potential in the United States.”[18]

One family anecdote by Matthias Hohner recalled how his wife came up with the initial idea:

When I had finished half a dozen [harmonicas], I tried to sell them on my occasional trips to Tuttlingen and Villingen – but I had had difficulties [when constructing the harmonicas] with the fine tuning! When I came home completely depressed, my Anna said: “Never mind, just send ’em over to cousin Hänsle in Canada – they won’t be as critical over there!” Canada then sent back six dollars, [and] I gathered my courage again.[19]

The first client base consisted of German immigrants, as the harmonica with its elongated sounds was perfectly suited to the expression of sorrow and nostalgia. At this point, manufacturing harmonicas relied on very precise craft work to process its two main elements, wood and metal, and especially the last step in the production—“riveting reeds to the plates accurately—so that they were neither too loose nor too tight—required enormous skills in precision metalwork.”[20] Correspondingly, in the first phase of Hohner’s expansion to the American market the harmonicas were purpose-built individual items distributed by individual expatriates. The second phase, which started in the 1860s, was in contrast characterized by cooperation with professional importers and required entrepreneurial courage: “At first, this new partnership was rather risky, as the merchants would accept the instruments only on a commission basis.”[21]

Hohner took the risk and made two deals which became the final bridgehead for the company’s entry into the United States mass market: in 1865, a New York wholesaler came to visit Hohner in Trossingen and eventually ordered 500 harmonicas—the biggest export consignment for the company up to date.[22] The second deal was the above-mentioned bargain with the Nuremberg toy exporter who bought six months’ worth of Hohner’s output. At first, the harmonica was primarily sold as a child’s toy and was not yet fully accepted as a musical instrument. In the course of the 1870s, however, the harmonica expanded its initial client base of German expatriates and children and was discovered as a musical instrument, particularly by African-Americans living in the Southern parts of the United States.[23]

This development was fostered by the introduction of semi-industrial modes of production: reed-cutting machines took over the task of milling and hammering harmonica reeds and the small metal tongues could then be stamped from sheets of brass and bronze alloy. With this change in production methods, “prices fell and quantities rose. A cheap mass consumer item emerged, one that probably had the lowest price of any musical instrument sold.”[24]

Correspondingly, the distribution of the product came to be conducted on a larger scale:  Hohner distributed the harmonicas to importers, all of whom were located in New York. The importers then sold the product to different wholesalers specializing in segments such as musical instruments, children’s toys, and simple housewares and “notions.” They were then sold on to retailers all over the country.[25] In order to not depend on a few large customers, Hohner distributed his products more or less equally among several of them; for example, by 1899 Hohner was supplying 35 large customers.[26]

Given this successful distribution network, Hohner almost completely concentrated his exports and sales on the American market in the following years while increasing the company’s annual production. In the early 1890s as much as 75% of the production was exported to the United States.[27] The expanding harmonica market, however, soon came up against several challenges. First, the growth of its regular clientele came to a standstill due to a fifty-percent drop in the number of immigrants; secondly, the purchasing power of the population decreased, especially for expendable items like the harmonica; thirdly, the McKinley Tariff of 1890 significantly increased the tariff on imported musical instruments from 35 percent in 1883 to 45 percent.[28] Finally, a severe financial crisis that began in the 1890s due to a constellation of factors—including the overbuilding of the American railroad network; a series of bank failures; and a run on the gold supply—led to the “Panic of 1893,” followed by the worst economic depression the United States had yet experienced.[29] Due to Hohner’s reliance on the American market, this crisis had an important effect on the company’s development.

At the onset of these crises, Matthias Hohner tried—in vain—to keep up prices, sending his son Hans to visit the company’s most important importing firms in 1892. But his son’s wholehearted engagement could not make a difference as the disappearance of the consumer demand for harmonicas was too obvious. The effort, however, was of major importance for the company’s history as it was the first time that a personal representative of the Hohner firm went on a business trip to the United States. Previously, Hohner had attained its market position through an unprecedented stance in the seller’s market; correspondingly, customers from the United States were welcomed to placid Trossingen.[30] Hans’ business trip not only presaged his subsequent permanent stationing in New York, it can furthermore be seen as part of the emerging focus on personal networks in the economic realm in the twentieth century. Michael B. Miller has laid bare how globalized markets were essentially fostered through personal interactions between business partners across national and natural borders. The business trips which initiated these interactions in the first place were thus “a mechanism for identifying, then exploiting, new routes and territories, in effect assembling additional networks for wider markets.”[31]

Another major consequence concerned the distribution network: the cut-rate importers were able to dictate prices to Hohner, as the company did not have its own distribution system to directly reach United States wholesalers. In order to regain control over this problem, which had been accelerated by the disappearance of the surplus demand, Hohner established a so-called “combination” in 1892. This partnership guaranteed a single set of concessionary fares and terms to the approximately 30 affiliated importers joining. They, in turn, promised to adhere to minimum prices on their resale and to price controls on their customers. Through this organizational form Hohner managed to work against the worst excesses of price-cutting on the part of the importers.[32]

The Hohner firm’s strategies for reacting to the 1890s depression included expansion into new foreign markets, the enhancement of personal ties with its American distributors, and the creation of a business organization in the United States. The second major consequence of the American depression was a wave of expansion to new markets such as the United Kingdom, France, and Russia. The United States however remained the main export market.[33] These measures helped ensure the company’s future prosperity. In 1900 founder Matthias Hohner retired at the age of 66 and turned over the management of the company to his five sons, dividing responsibilities between them. His oldest son, Jacob, asserted himself as being the senior decision-maker of the company and ran the business in an authoritarian manner comparable to his father’s management style. Business-related communication between the brothers was at times difficult and controversial matters were often discussed in exchanges of contentious letters.[34]

Nevertheless, the sons managed to unify their efforts and breathe new life into the internal and external structures of the company by introducing innovative concepts that further enabled Hohner’s expansion. One of the first significant moves of the new leadership was the establishment of the first foreign branch in New York in 1901. Hans, accustomed to the business mentalities in the United States, supervised this branch. He became the driving force in the introduction of several significant changes in the Hohner business philosophy, which had not only far-reaching consequences for the American branch but for Trossingen’s main firm as well. As Hans came to visit Germany only approximately once a year, he therefore had to rely almost entirely on correspondence to make his ideas be heard at Trossingen.[35]

It was Hans who realized clearly that the company was losing much profit due to the importers and this problem had not vanished in the course of the founding of the “combination.” Therefore, he steered the company toward cutting out the middleman—that is, toward direct distribution of the company’s goods to American wholesalers. This transition took place in the years leading up to World War I and was a controversial subject within the family. Against the opposition of his older brothers, who recoiled from alienating their longstanding business partners, Hans reached out directly to the wholesalers and began to leave out the commission agents. A milestone in this process took place in 1904 when Hans personally contacted the mail-order companies Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, the two largest enterprises of their kind.[36]

While his brothers were afraid of the devaluation of the Hohner brand, Hans recognized the potential of this distribution outlet and pushed the company to prioritize deliveries to catalog companies over deliveries to traditional commission agents and eventually prevailed. This was one of the primary examples of the fundamental conflict between the caution of his more traditional brothers and the risk tolerance Hans had acquired during his education and visits to the United States.

The displacement of commission agents and the creation of direct relationships between Hohner and the wholesalers, however, presented the company and especially Hans as the company’s representative on the spot with the challenge of meeting the strict, timely schedule of this mass delivery. The semi-industrial manufacturing process which still took place in rural Trossingen inevitably clashed with the standardized mass production of Sears, Montgomery Ward, and other catalog companies who demanded strict punctuality and absolutely uniform products.[37] Despite occasional conflicts, Hans’ fundamental business decision to get into direct contact with the wholesalers prompted the Hohners’ rise to market leadership in the harmonica production, which had already begun in the 1890s.

The Hohner company’s rise to leadership in the musical instrument business can be ascribed to its ability to adapt to current developments while maintaining some core characteristics. Among the latter was the outstanding quality of the product. In order to ensure this status, the company’s branding policy was very strict. In contrast to their competitors, Hohner harmonicas had protective metal covers from the beginning, engraved with “M. Hohner” in distinctive lettering. As early as 1886 Hohner registered its trademark in the United States. Professionals and amateurs alike especially liked the very affordable “Marine Band Model,” which received a United States patent in 1897. This harmonica was officially endorsed by John Philip Sousa, leader of the United States Marine Band.[38]

In general, Hohner’s innovative marketing and advertising strategies were developed under Hans’ guidance for the United States branch but soon spread back to the main firm in Germany. The techniques of Hohner’s advertising can be classified according to the form of media used, such as mass media, promotional events, and direct advertisement.[39] At the turn of the twentieth century, mass media opportunities included popular periodicals and outdoor posters and billboards. This form of advertising targets no specific clientele but the general audience via long-range campaigns. Advertising events like exhibitions, presentations or concerts reach only a small number of participants, although they can spark awareness among a wider audience due to media coverage. Direct advertisement in contrast is aimed at the retail segment and its customers and it is furthermore advantageous because of relatively small costs.

Hans Hohner first made use of scattering medium in a widely publicized poster campaign to accompany the diversification of Hohner into accordion manufacturing, for a long time a specialty of Saxon and Italian producers. In 1903 Hohner introduced its first accordion model into the U.S. market. Due to the high costs of hiring a professional advertising company, the campaign was conducted independently. Although the campaign was much-noticed, Hohner decided not to continue using mass media because of its high cost and instead to focus on event-focused advertising in the years to come.[40]

Starting with simple public relations events, the company also used publicity stunts to permanently mark the music environment with their name, including “concerts and competitions centered on its product,” “organizational frameworks such as clubs and school orchestras,” and “new mass media such as motion pictures and radio.”[41] In the 1900s, as the harmonica scene was developing, Hans Hohner started organizing concerts in public arenas. Under his leadership, the company organized harmonica concerts in the Madison Square Garden to directly target musicians and to raise consciousness for the Hohner brand. To further establish the relationship with these important customers, the company began establishing harmonica clubs from 1907 onwards.[42]

But it was the third medium—direct advertisement—that Hohner focused on the most in the early 1900s. Besides its cost-effectiveness, it was the immediate focus on the clientele base, which attracted Hohner. Correspondingly, catalogues and advertisement newspapers like the 1904 Hohner News (published with a circulation of 8,000 copies and introducing new models and prices) were designed to stimulate retailers to acquire the specific products. Addressing these distributors soon became one of the main aspects of the company’s advertising campaign, as they functioned as indispensable middlemen to get the products to the end consumer. Accordingly, Hohner published seven different catalogues—each of them with distinct product categories—for the United States market by 1913.

In the same vein, the Hohner company worked through its distribution partners to provide retailers with advertising materials to facilitate their sales with appealing stands and displays. These items came in different forms and shapes and with attractive designs. Their usefulness led to the nickname “silent salesmen.” The harmonica’s small size made it easy for shoppers to overlook; thus, eye-catching displays were used to “attract the attention of a passer-by or visitor to the small goods department” and lead to impulse purchases.[43] One of the standout products was the “Obelisk,” a 30-inch-high, automatically rotating display tower. It was so popular that shortly after its introduction in 1911 over 1,000 models had been ordered. In the first year alone 15,000 of these devices were sold in the United States.[44] The fact that Hans himself had designed the obelisk demonstrates his innovative leadership in the development of the company’s advertising strategies. The company also created its own mascot, the “Hohner Boy,” who was featured in an innovative full-color cutout that retailers could display in their windows. The company also sponsored window display competitions in which the retailers were supposed to decorate their windows solely using Hohner products.[45] This competition was described as a selfless promotion aiding the shop owners in their advertising and selling abilities. Eventually, of course, the Hohner company was the one who profited from the campaign.

On the other side of the spectrum, customers were directly reached at home via circular letters and price lists; the company’s North American distribution list, which contained 50,000 addresses in 1903, swelled to 300,000 by 1913. In order to not only reach the individual customer but to also offer the product most likely to attract his attention, Hohner adapted fluidly to different markets, cultures and mindsets. According to the season for example, current fashion trends, or even specific political and athletic events, Hohner produced a great variety of packaging and design for their products. For instance, for Texans, it produced their very own Texas model, and at the height of enthusiasm for Karl May (an early twentieth-century German author of children’s novels with American Indian lead characters), fans could purchase a Wild West-themed harmonica.

While Hohner devoted considerable attention to marketing in the United States, it had to continually deal with a business threat close to home: the other harmonica manufacturers of Trossingen, who were in a state of permanent conflict and competition with the company. Between 1902 and 1909, there were nevertheless ongoing talks about the possibilities of cooperation between the town’s firms. All the Hohner brothers agreed to this plan, except Hans. In correspondence with them, he rejected the proposal, accusing them of betrayal of the family dynasty and overall weakness: “You would sin against your families and in case your children would rebuke you later on, they had actual reason to do so… Keep the gold. It is the legacy of your parents for the family.”[46] Eventually, Hans prevailed once again and the proposed cartel agreement was not implemented.

Despite Hans’ successful stand-alone strategy, political and economic circumstances most dramatically influenced the balance between domestic sales and exports. The depression between the years of 1907 and 1913 in the United States led to a slump in the export business that finally resulted in plans to merge the entire Trossingen harmonica industry into a single company.[47] The Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act, which slightly modified the tariff on musical instruments and enacted an income tax on corporations, also made the American market less attractive.[48] Correspondence between the Hohner brothers on both sides of the Atlantic between 1911 and 1913 illustrates their chagrin over these developments. Prompted by the difficult economic circumstances, the Hohners accelerated the process of buying other German musical instrument and mouth-organ companies which had begun in 1909.

Meanwhile, in 1908 Hans’ nephews Ernst, the son of his oldest brother Jacob, and Matthias (known in the United States as Matthew), the son of Andreas Hohner, arrived in the United States for an extended visit. A trade publication noted that the two young men had arrived for an “indefinite” stay “to learn American ways and methods of doing business.” While Ernst eventually returned to Germany to complete his military service and settled in Trossingen, Matthew became affiliated with Hans in New York and lived there permanently from 1909 onward. The 1910 Census found Matthew Hohner boarding with Elias Kohler, a manager of the Hohner showroom, in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn.[49]

The next big challenge for the company was World War I. At first, the “seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century” did not slow harmonica sales down, but rather expanded them. This unexpected development was made possible through the creation of specific and different harmonica models to individually target the British, American and German armies.[50] The company smartly calculated that the small, portable instruments would allow soldiers to maintain their memories of their homelands while deployed in the trenches or at sea, and eventually the harmonica was once again successfully promoted as a quintessential instrument for expressing nostalgia.[51] In 1928, Dr. Will Hohner—another member of the third generation who was part of the company’s executive committee—cynically noted that, looking back over the company’s history, “the first ruffle of [war] drums augured prosperity.”[52]

Despite the company’s smart business strategies during wartime, the fate of the American operation shifted dramatically. After June 1915, the New York office could no longer receive shipments of merchandise from Germany and its business essentially came to a standstill.[53] But a few years earlier Hans Hohner had acquired control of C. Bruno & Son, Inc., a distributor of Victor phonographs and other musical merchandise, and this allowed the Hohner office in New York to conduct a prosperous business throughout the war years, making in 1919 gross sales of more than $1 million (or $12.6 million in 2010 dollars).[54]

Hans Hohner, however, was stuck in Europe throughout these events. He had left New York for his annual trip to Germany on June 16, 1914. He typically combined business and visits to sanitariums on these trips, and packed to spend only a few weeks in Europe. When the war broke out, he was still in Germany. His nephew, Matthew, who was also visiting Germany that same summer, arrived back in New York and reported back to his family that his ship had had to evade French warships in order to make it across the Atlantic. Hans Hohner concluded—and his relatives in Germany agreed—that, lacking a safe-conduct guarantee, he might be “taken off and interned” if his ship to the United States were stopped and searched by one of the Allied countries, and that this might exacerbate the rheumatism and other illnesses from which he suffered.[55]

The passage of the Trading with the Enemy Act in 1917 allowed the property of citizens of belligerent countries to be turned over to a new government entity, the Office of Alien Property. The office was given authority to request statements from banks, insurance companies, private individuals, and other entities about their business relationships with German citizens; the office would then establish a trust account which was intended to maintain control over the assets until the war’s end when, depending on the extent to which a given company or individual was believed to have contributed to the hostile war effort, it might either be returned to the “alien” or confiscated.[56]

In December 1917, Hans Hohner’s business associate William J. Haussler (a native-born American of German descent) followed through on the requirement to report on Hohner’s assets as he was an alien citizen of Germany. But Haussler insisted that Hohner should not be treated like other German citizens and included a number of affidavits meant to show that Hohner had intended to return to New York and “spend his remaining days here and to become an American citizen.”[57] Haussler established a new firm called Haussler & Kienle which carried on the Hohner firm’s non-harmonica business in the United States. In May 1918, the Office of Alien Property officially demanded the placement of Hohner’s property in a trust administered by the Alien Property Custodian, and in November 1918, Hohner and 323 other German citizens were named in an executive order by President Woodrow Wilson as “enemy aliens.” Hohner’s ownership stake in C. Bruno & Co. was specifically stated as liable for sequestration by the Office of Alien Property, and an order to sell this stock was issued in September 1919.[58]

Hans Hohner (who was still in Germany early in 1919) fought the order through an attorney in New York. Hans Hohner’s nephew Matthew, meanwhile, had already been naturalized and was unaffected by the Alien Property Custodian’s actions. But he grew dissatisfied with William Haussler’s business decisions, which made obvious his wishes to take over the American branch. Matthew Hohner wrote concerned letters home complaining about the outsider’s “abrasive demeanor.”[59] Eventually, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, but in spring 1920, before it could go to trial, the Alien Property Custodian announced that it had decided to accept Hohner’s insistence that he had intended to become a citizen as sincere and declared that his “enemy character was purely technical.”[60] Upon his delayed return to New York in December 1919, Hans took over again. After resuming control of his American holdings, the New York firm began using the M. Hohner name again, and it was incorporated in 1924 with a capitalization of $500,000 (5,000 shares of $100 each; 2010 U.S. dollar value of $31,400,000). The new branch was given the founder’s name: M. Hohner, Inc. Hans Hohner finally became a citizen in 1925.[61]

Marketing and Business Strategy

During the initial phase of Hohner advertising in the United States, the focus was on direct advertisement measures in order to spread awareness of the instrument and eventually establish the brand. Throughout Hans Hohner’s career, he and his staff developed most of the company’s initiatives themselves, with minimal direction from professional advertising firms, such as the design of the “Hohner Boy” cutouts. The company practiced a strategy of “unstinted” use of cutouts and window displays in order to win attention to the product that far outstripped comparable products.[62]

A reorientation of the advertisement strategy took place in the early 1920s, prompted by a change in prices forced by a new wave of American protectionism: a 1921 tariff bill reclassified harmonicas as toys, rather than musical instruments, which changed the tariff from 40 percent to 70 percent.[63] The new advertising campaign, which reached its first climax in 1923–24, was characterized by a mixture of established and innovative methods.[64]

In the 1920s, Hohner evidently began hiring musicians to serve as spokesmen for the product to the general public. Fred Sonnen, for example, a “crack harmonica soloist” born in the United States but raised in Germany, toured through the Midwest and Texas in 1923 on behalf of the Hohner company. The advent of the radio made it possible for the company to spread awareness of the harmonica to new audiences. In October 1923 Sonnen visited a radio station in Dallas and gave a concert over the air that reportedly reached more than a dozen states. The broadcast included an announcement that free information booklets about the harmonica would be sent to anyone who requested one, and the company sent out more than 150 booklets in response to the demand. Sonnen also gave smaller public performances with local music clubs in Dallas.[65] A company salesman noted after a visit to Oregon that a combination of radio concerts and live events put together with the cooperation of the Oregonian newspaper and a local music center had helped boost demand there.[66] In 1924, the company began sponsoring a weekly program, the “Hohner Harmony Hour,” on the WEAF radio station in New York City. The program relied on subtle advertising techniques, with the company’s name mentioned only at the start and ending of the program. The closing announcement invited listeners to write in for a free booklet on learning the harmonica. In a trade publication advertisement, the company encouraged local music dealers to “‘cash in’ on the growing demand for Hohner harmonicas.” In a report to Trossingen, Hohner noted that the program was expensive but that because prosperous households were the most likely to own a radio set it was probably reaching a demographically desirable audience.[67]

Hans Hohner also formed strategies to create new markets and demands by triggering a kind of cultural movement tied to the harmonica: the Harmonica Orchestra movement. The most important marketing innovation was the systematic promotion of harmonica bands. Under Hans’ guidance, the advertising campaigns surrounding the Harmonica Orchestras not only increased the company’s profits but also fostered a cultural movement. There were four strategic considerations which prompted the company to pursue this path: first, in contrast to the promotion of individual players, sales could be increased faster by focusing on orchestra groups; second, music teachers and band leaders functioned as multipliers who acquainted teenagers with this instrument and naturally influenced the brand choice; third, the company wished to free the harmonica from its still-prevailing image as a musical instrument for the poor; and fourth, the promotion of orchestras would implement higher-quality standards in the market, as even the smallest amount of negligence in production could be heard when several harmonicas were playing together.[68]

All four of these aspects can be seen at work in the numerous orchestras the harmonica enthusiast Albert Hoxie founded beginning in 1921 when he organized a harmonica contest in Philadelphia. By 1925, he had organized about 40,000 pupils in Philadelphia alone and gathered the best of them in his Boy Council Harmonica Orchestra. Hohner welcomed the opportunity to sponsor this leisure movement which seemed to have a finger on the American cultural pulse. The number of children longing to play the harmonica rose significantly after the group had toured the United States in 1926 and they had become so popular that they received the honor of being named the “official band” of the American Sesquicentennial celebrations of 1926.[69] Another high point was a concert given for President Hoover in 1929.[70]

Hans Hohner developed advertising strategies to make use of the increasing popularity of the harmonica in order to target the young players directly, including “sending harmonica experts into the Philadelphia schools.”[71] Trossingen executives were so impressed by the success of the program that they spoke of beginning a similar effort in Germany.[72] A 1925 report on the firm’s activities in Chicago noted that a representative had visited 25 schools with almost 22,000 students over the course of eight days, and reported enthusiasm for the harmonica which had not been present on a previous visit two years earlier.[73]

These advertising events also led to publication series like Sam A. Perry’s Modern Harmonica Method with Piano Accompaniment which stressed the educational value of the harmonica for children: “The influence of music seizes the soul of a child when it is most susceptible and molds it into forms of beauty and sincerity.”[74] The claim of the overall significance of the harmonica for a child’s intellectual development was certified by different panels of experts in these publications. In The National Survey of Harmonica Bands and Classes: Digest and Summary of the Experience of Those Who Have Conducted Them, for example, statements from several school teachers like Miss M. Stein from Baltimore are included: “Our harmonica band has aroused the interest in other forms of music and has led in some cases to more serious study of music.”[75]

These publications meant an innovative step in Hohner’s advertising strategy as the brand was not promoted directly and aggressively, but was kept in the background while a seemingly objective presentation of the harmonica’s advantages was put forward. A perfect example is the brochure The Harmonica as an Important Factor in Modern Education, which was issued by the company and aimed at persuading educators of “the general educational value of the harmonica.” Besides pointing to the harmonica as perfect tool for creative self-expression, its health-related merits were evidenced by the president of a medical association who endorsed the harmonica as “a therapeutical agent… in developing the chest and respiratory organs.”[76] These publications accompanied and stimulated the movement and further prompted the founding of harmonica bands in many schools, which accordingly boosted sales for the Hohner company. One New York City school principal praised the harmonica for its low cost, portability, and for offering broad scope for self-expression: “the taste of the performer, growing with his increase in proficiency, is his guide in rendition.”[77]

Hohner also encouraged the creation of harmonica bands and helped improve their feasibility by designing new products for their use. One of the most renowned bandleaders was Borrah Minnevitch (or Minevitch), an emigrant from Ukraine, whose group was known as the Harmonica Rascals. The members of the Rascals changed over the years, with those who left going on to establish their own independent bands. One component of the strategy was to try to shift the harmonica’s image so that rather than being seen as an instrument for working-class music it would be seen as a natural fit with “high” culture. Towards this end, the company helped sponsor a concert by the Minnevitch band at the Metropolitan Opera House. A report to Trossingen estimated that 5,000 wealthy people attended.[78]

These strategies were continued by Matthew Hohner after he assumed oversight of the American market after his uncle’s death in 1927. These practices included product placement, creating promotional material and distributing it to drugstores and other retailers, and personal visits by Hohner company salesmen. Matthew Hohner oversaw these activities through extensive business trips. In a 1930 letter to his uncle Will, for example, Matthew explained that he was planning to visit Baltimore, Cincinnati (to visit the Wurlitzer company), and Detroit over the following week, and then travel on to Toronto to review the company’s promotional efforts there. After his return from Canada, he planned to make a visit to Philadelphia to see a performance of Hoxie’s harmonica band before sailing for Germany, via Hamburg, to visit Trossingen.[79] Like his uncle, Matthew Hohner also prodded the Trossingen office to be an active developer. In one letter, he complained that the company was too prone to “foot-dragging” and resistant to producing new products if they cost more. He urged the company to produce new innovations and not to follow its competitors but “rather be the leaders.”[80] He warned that the company was also alienating its large customers by being slow to meet delivery schedules.

Over time, Hohner’s strategy shifted towards seeking out testimonials from players who had become popular in their own right. In 1935, for example, the company introduced two models named for Larry Adler, a Baltimore-born soloist who had launched a successful career in the United Kingdom and created a boom in demand for harmonicas there. More than 300,000 advance orders were reported for the new models.[81] Larry Adler’s younger brother Jerry also became a renowned harmonica player and made a career as a soloist in Hollywood films, bringing attention to the instrument on another front. Carl Freed, leader of a group known as the Harlequins, was also featured in advertisements as a user of Hohner harmonicas exclusively. Meanwhile, the company shifted its marketing strategy in a more populist direction, advertising harmonicas as “a short cut to popularity” rather than as a means of cultivating refined taste in music.[82] Spreading interest in the harmonica led to its adaptation into a variety of American musical genres, including country music and blues music in the Southeast. In addition, Hohner accordions were integral to the sound of the Tejano music traditions developing among Mexican-Americans in the Southwest.[83]

The company’s marketing strategies became more difficult with the rise of the National Socialist regime in Germany. M. Hohner in New York reported in March 1936, for example, that it was unable to convince American theaters to show “Liebe zur Harmonica” (“Love for the Harmonica”), a promotional film made by the company that combined German dance scenes with depictions of the harmonica production process in Trossingen. Aside from the fact that it was considered heavy-handed advertising, the film was also caught up in increasing hostility towards Germany in the wake of its occupation of the Rhineland. The following year, the New York firm reported that the harmonica’s prominent “Made in Germany” labeling was becoming a liability, thanks in part to the boycott campaign against German goods due to anti-Semitism led by prominent attorney Samuel Untermyer.[84] Notwithstanding these setbacks, the harmonica orchestras and Hohner’s advertising campaigns flourished until the onset of World War II in Europe, when Germany’s export ban not only deprived the company of its largest consumer market but also put an end to the orchestras; “youth groups disbanded and school music programs stopped using the harmonica.”[85] Although a new band scene emerged in the 1950s, including harmonica trios (bass, chord, and lead chromatic), of which Jerry Murad and the Harmonicats were the most popular example, their popularity never matched that of the interwar harmonica bands.[86]

Business Organization after 1920

Throughout their company history the Hohners were generally indifferent to the contemporary political system and its leaders—as long as their business was not hindered. This attitude only changed and prompted at times opportunistic pragmatism when serious consequences for the business had to be expected. This reasoning can be seen in the family’s farsighted reaction to the German state crisis in the fall of 1923. In reaction to the combination of hyperinflation, separatist movements, bloody street battles and the crises of the Weimar parliament, the Hohner company made a strategic move which turned out to be one of the key decisions of the family’s business history: on November 1, 1923, one year before the New York branch became incorporated, the Hohnika AG was founded in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, by Hans, Will, and Matthew Hohner, as well as three Swiss men. Its most important asset was Hans Hohner’s Hohner AG stock.

The decision to create the Swiss holding company proved crucial as it enabled the family to retain its ownership of the company despite the ever-present danger of confiscation in the wake of the economic crisis in Germany and the still-ongoing reparation negotiations between defeated Germany and the victorious World War I allies. The Swiss banks and the Hohnika AG served as a pipeline between the German headquarters and the United States branch. By shifting shares and ownership between its German and foreign entities, the Hohner family could escape another confiscation of goods as, given the circumstances, nobody in Germany would dare to seize American property assets.[87]

The founding of the Hohnika AG also took place against the backdrop of a generational transition within the family business as the third-generation Hohner sons became members of the executive board: Ernst (1886–1965), the eldest son of Jacob Hohner, became the leading figure of the executive committee, and Matthew eventually succeeded his uncle Hans as president of the New York branch in 1927. Born in Trossingen on June 28, 1886, Ernst, as the eldest son of the founder’s eldest son, was considered to have a quasi-hereditary right to lead the company. His education was comparable to that of his uncle Hans: after secondary and commercial school, he spent three years in Stuttgart, Lausanne, Paris, and London before entering the family business in 1905. Between 1908 and 1910, as noted earlier, he acquired experiences in the foreign branches in New York, Mexico, and Toronto, and in 1920 he became the first third-generation executive board member.[88]

Ernst Hohner kept his position as the company’s primary leader until his death in 1965; correspondingly, he had to guide the family business through the National Socialism era. The company’s general stance towards the Third Reich followed the pattern which had beforehand guided the company through political and economic tumult: the primacy of business required tactical adjustments on the one hand, but also prevented full absorption by the regime on the other. The company adjusted to the political guidelines regarding production and advertisement while Hohner’s relative independence can be traced in arising conflicts with the cultural-political apparatus of the regime towards the end of the 1930s.[89]

In the 1940s, however, the factory was mobilized for military production by the Nazi government and two-thirds of its production capacity was shifted to arms production, especially weapons-grade fuses. While this left one-third of capacity for instrument production, World War II brought a halt to the flow of harmonicas to the United States and the other Allied nations.[90] Not only was the German company unable to export any longer, but its Argentinian branch was blacklisted by the American government due to concerns that it might be acting in the interest of the Axis forces and serving as a cloak for financial transactions.[91]

For the Hohner company the war ended with the French occupation of Trossingen on April 21, 1945. Due to the smart redeployment of capital in the 1930s, the majority of the Hohner shares—68% of the company’s capitalization of 9 million Reichsmarks (roughly $3.6 million in 1945 dollars, or $43.6 million in 2010 dollars)— belonged to members of the Hohner clan who had become naturalized as citizens of other countries. Thus, United States citizen Matthew Hohner possessed a share worth 544,900 Reichsmarks and Frank Hohner, of the third generation (a son of Will), owned a share valued at 773,900 Reichsmarks. He had naturalized as an Argentinian citizen just prior to the end of the war in 1945 and thereby internationalized his deceased father’s shares before they could be seized.[92]

This procedure led to an investigation by the Property Division of OMGUS (Office of Military Government United States Zone), as there was reason for suspicion of enemy interest in the Hohner AG. The External Assets Investigation Section was responsible for making investigations on German ownership of property outside of Germany and especially in the United States. The French military expressed an interest in acquiring the company on behalf of a French company. An investigation into the company’s ownership, however, concluded that while the largest share of the company was owned by Ernst Hohner, a German citizen, because the second- and third-largest shares belonged to Frank, a citizen of Argentina, and Matthew, a U.S. citizen, the company was sufficiently “international” that it was not considered appropriate for takeover by one of the Allied powers.[93]

Matthew Hohner returned to Trossingen in May 1947 to help reestablish the company’s base of operations. Under his direction the international market was recaptured quickly: exports to foreign countries were once again possible and the first delivery reached the United States in August of the same year.[94] The company quickly regained its former status and the United States remained their main market as “few players were lastingly converted to American[-made] harmonicas.”[95]

Gottlieb Hohner, the grandson of the founder’s brother Paulus Hohner, designates Frank Hohner as mainly responsible for the company’s rise after World War II, as he had friendly relationships in the United States that included many Jewish businessmen.[96] Even before the war, many of the company’s most important business partners were of German-Jewish heritage and contacts were reestablished quickly after the war was over. Matthew Hohner’s longstanding friendly relationships with these distributors, Paulus Hohner suggested, meant that the company escaped the stigma initially attached to many other German companies in the postwar years. The fact that neither Matthew nor Frank were at that point officially German might as well have been helpful.

The company’s position in Trossingen and Ernst Hohner’s personality explain Hohners’ smooth transition into the new political system in West Germany.[97] Ernst entered local politics and promised pragmatic reforms similar to the ones he had carried out during the Weimar Republic. He was perceived as a man of honor, the adversary of local Nazi functionary Fritz Kiehn and the savior of the city from destruction by the French army, all of which gained him the trust of the local population.[98] Moreover, the company’s status as the biggest employer of the city played an important role combined with the social services it provided to the local community. Finally, the company established a reliable working relationship with the French occupiers as well as with the new mayor. Given its solid regional base, quasi-international ownership structure, and Hohner’s still-prevailing brand recognition and supreme quality, the company’s fast comeback was, in sum, unsurprising.[99]

Social Status, Networks, Family and Public Life

Founder Matthias Hohner was deeply rooted in the rural life of his hometown Trossingen. He did not like to travel and never even visited the United States. His conservative socialization also facilitated the rise of his company. The first exports to the United States were only made possible through the personal network of Trossingen which extended to the new world through the emigration of friends and neighbors. In fact, when “Hohner Harmonikas” developed into a worldwide brand, his social status rose accordingly and with it came societal responsibilities and power. Trossingen developed into a Hohner “company town,” particularly after the company took over the surrounding manufacturers. Most citizens came to be employed in the firm, many public institutions were founded or supported by the Hohner brothers, and the family had an influential say in regional politics. The fact that Hohner became mayor of Trossingen and acquired a separate area in the Trossingen cemetery for the family as early as 1891 (supplemented by a small chapel in 1896) testifies to this illustrious reputation. Hohner’s successes enabled him and his family to climb the social ladder and become part of the regional upper class, which in turn enabled a more cosmopolitan education for his sons.

The sons were eager to uphold the family’s reputation. Their societal Lebenswelt was overwhelmingly limited to the narrow space of rural Trossingen, which manifested itself particularly in the fact that all four of Hans Hohner’s brothers chose to marry women from the surrounding area.[100] Though Hans lived in the United States, he illustrated his adherence to his local roots by deciding to marry Carrie Birk, the daughter of Jacob Birk, a prosperous owner of a Chicago brewing company who was originally from Trossingen.[101] There is no information to shed light on Hans Hohner’s social or recreational interests, but a biographical article mentions that Hans Hohner belonged to the Arion Society, a German-American musical society, perhaps reflecting a combination of both professional and personal interest.[102]

Hans Hohner, however, was sincerely committed to living away from Germany. The evidence that Haussler marshaled to protest the government’s attempt to sell off Hohner’s assets sheds light on his life in the United States. First, Hohner’s attorney noted that his wife was American. The couple had married in 1903 and traveled together on Hohner’s annual business trips to Germany. From 1904 to 1906 they lived in the storied Ansonia apartment building, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and in 1907 moved to another elegant apartment building, the Severn, a short distance away.[103] Hohner applied for naturalization in 1905, but never completed the citizenship process. He apparently suffered from a variety of ailments, including Bright’s disease and loco-motor ataxia, and was occasionally confined to his bed by his condition and unable to follow through on his application.[104] After Hans Hohner had been unable to return to the United States for more than a year and a half, he and Carrie Birk Hohner reached a separation agreement in which he agreed to pay her $375 per month ($7,700 in 2010 dollars). When the Alien Property Custodian seized Hans’ property, the office’s responsibilities included ensuring that the alimony continued to be paid from the funds it held.[105]

Shortly after Hohner returned to the United States he applied, again, to become a United States citizen, in December 1919. After the requisite five-year waiting period had passed, he was naturalized on April 20, 1925.[106] He had meanwhile resumed his annual trips to Germany and died at Bad Rothenfelde on May 21, 1927, a little over a month after sailing from New York.[107] His estate was valued at just under $475,000 after the payment of his debts (or $6.1 million in 2010 dollars). In his will, he left the bulk of his estate to his sisters, with most of the remainder going to his surviving brothers, nieces and nephews. Carrie Birk Hohner, whom he had never divorced although they lived apart, sued to receive a portion of his estate and eventually received a small settlement.[108] An editorial in The Music Trade Review memorialized Hohner for his “broad vision and progressive spirit,” noting that although he was “not a mixer” and “not so well known personally” he had nonetheless been “back of every forward movement in the industry.” His aggressive and creative promotion of the harmonica, the trade magazine declared, had helped not only his own business but also to inculcate a broader interest in music among American children.[109]

Matthew Hohner, as a member of the third generation to enter the family business, transcended the tight local culture of Trossingen. He married a woman named Frieda who was from Bremen but had immigrated to the United States independently. The couple lived in an apartment on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and also had a weekend home in an exclusive country club development in Putnam County, north of New York City.[110] Like his uncle, he retained a strong attachment to Germany but was also an important figure in the American musical instrument trade. Both Hans and Matthew Hohner retained strong ties to Germany, perhaps enhanced by the fact that their large, prosperous family remained rooted in a mostly rural region which itself changed only little over the years. It is possible that because both men were childless they did not have to face the common dilemma of managing assimilation for their children’s sake. Their cousin Frank Hohner, by contrast, who lived in Argentina for several years and then moved to the United States after World War II, had three daughters and apparently became more integrated into the American upper-middle-class. Frank Hohner’s daughters were educated in American universities and all married Americans.[111]

The Hohners’ foremost commitment was to business success, which went hand in hand with their revered reputation in Trossingen. Nevertheless, it was the company’s commitment to their region’s traditional religious values—particularly the local emphasis in rural Trossingen on traditional pietism—that prevented the family and the company leadership from wholeheartedly embracing and supporting the National Socialists.


As early as 1951, the company was again selling 20 million harmonicas and accordions per year and exporting them to virtually every corner of the world, literally making Trossingen “a city that lives from music.”[112] Only ten years after the end of the war, 25 million Hohner harmonicas were in use in the United States alone. The common buyer paid very little—the average harmonica sold for as little as 50 cents (which corresponds to $5 in 2010 dollars) while more complex chromatic instruments ranged from $4.50 to $7.00 (i.e., between $36 and $57 in 2010 dollars). Total harmonica sales in the United States were between $7 million and $10 million ($57 million and $81.4 million in 2010 dollars) in 1955.[113]

In the following years, Hohner’s business success came under further pressure with the rise of pop music and widespread ownership of radios and record players, which shifted consumer interest away from musical instrument purchases to make their own music and greater interest in reception technology. Hohner tried to counteract these trends by introducing harmonicas branded with popular pop stars’ names, such as the Beatles, and paying entertainers like Johnny Cash for endorsements. The company capitalized on the news that an astronaut had smuggled a harmonica aboard the shuttle Gemini VI in one 1966 ad.[114]

Eventually, in 1997, after being on a long downward slope for many decades, KHS Group, a Taiwanese instrument producer, finally bought the majority of the company’s shares. While most harmonicas are manufactured in Asia now, the company is still headquartered in Trossingen; its sales and marketing efforts in the United States are managed from a subsidiary office in Nashville. After years of losses, the Matthias Hohner AG is nowadays once again making small profits.[115] There are still enthusiastic harmonica players all over the world but they form a small subculture rather than a mass phenomenon. Throughout the history of the company it can be seen that the expansion into the American market has played a decisive role. Without it, Hohner would never have taken off nor maintained its leading position in the business. The company temporarily even reached up to 96% market share in 1896.[116] The United States remains the most important market for Hohner up to the present day, still accounting for more than half of the company’s sales. Nonetheless, the days of the mass market between the 1900s and the 1950s, when a harmonica was considered the natural Christmas gift for boys, were over.

The “Americanized” Hohners, Hans and Matthew, were greatly influenced by the business environment in the United States. The difference between their American readiness to assume risks and embrace novelties and their German relatives’ traditional austerity and caution led to a lot of tension. But finally these conflicts, together with the efficient cooperation and communication between the American branch and the German mother firm, led to an equilibrium that ensured the company’s success even through the political upheaval of the twentieth century. This remarkable resilience did not, however, long survive the rise of a mass consumer society.


[1] Stella Danek and Robert Winkler contributed to writing this biography. Additionally, Atiba Pertilla of the German Historical Institute, with interns Felix Wander and Alexander Ziehe, provided additional research support for this article.

[2] Hartmut Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt: Hohner und die Harmonika 1857–1961. Unternehmensgeschichte als Gesellschaftsgeschichte (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1997), 44–47.

[3] Martin Häffner, Harmonicas: Die Geschichte der Branche in Bildern und Texten (Trossingen: Hohner-Verlag, 1991), 11.

[4] Hartmut Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 52–53.

[5] Hans Jaeger, “Hohner, Matthias,” Deutsche Biographie (accessed September 9, 2014).

[6] Hartmut Berghoff, “Marketing Diversity: The Making of a Global Consumer Product – Hohner’s Harmonicas, 1857–1930,” Enterprise and Society 2 (June 2001): 338–372, 343.

[7] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 69–72; Berghoff, “Marketing Diversity,” 343–344.

[8] Berghoff, “Marketing Diversity,” 347.

[9] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 132–133.

[10] Hans Warschauer, “Hans Hohner Nachruf,” Musik-Instrumenten-Zeitung.-Aeltestes Berliner Fach- und Anzeigeblatt für Musikinstrumenten-Fabrikation, -Handel und-Export mit Sonderteil: Schallplatten und Sprechmaschinen (1927): 87.

[11] “Petition for Naturalization: Hans Hohner,” New York Naturalization Records 1882–1944, available on Ancestry.com (accessed October 28, 2014).

[12] Matthias Hohner to Hans Hohner, quoted in Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 132–133. Translation by the authors.

[13] Hartmut Berghoff, interview with Jakob Schuler, Trossingen, June 23, 1993.

[14] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 133–134..

[15] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 338–339.

[16] John Shepherd et al., Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, vol. 2, Performance and Production (London: Continuum, 2003), 245.

[17] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 69.

[18] Berghoff, “Marketing Diversity,” 344.

[19] August Lämmle, Matthias Hohner – Leben und Werk (Stuttgart: Cottasche Buchhandlung, 1957), 23–24. Translated by the authors.

[20] Berghoff, “Marketing Diversity,” 342.

[21] Berghoff, “Marketing Diversity,” 344.

[22] Martin Häffner and Haik Wenzel, Legende Hohner Harmonika. Hohner The Living Legend (Bergkirchen: Edition Bochinsky, PPV Medien, 2006), 18–19.

[23] Berghoff, “Marketing Diversity,” 344.

[24] Berghoff, “Marketing Diversity,” 344.

[25] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 145.

[26] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 81–82.

[27] “Focus on Industry: the Hohner Story,” Music Journal, July 1971, 29–30.

[28] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 87.

[29] Samuel Rezneck, “Unemployment, Unrest, and Relief in the United States during the Depression of 1893–97,” Journal of Political Economy 61 (August, 1953): 324–345.

[30] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 87.

[31] Michael B. Miller, “The Business Trip: Maritime Networks in the Twentieth Century,” Business History Review 77 (Spring 2003): 1–32, 30.

[32] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 88.

[33] Kim Field, Harmonicas, Harps, and Heavy Breathers: The Evolution of the People’s Instrument (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 27.

[34] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 143–145 and 210.

[35] Hans Warschauer, “Hans Hohner Nachruf,” 87.

[36] Sears, Roebuck was managed at the time by second-generation immigrant entrepreneur Julius Rosenwald. See Stephanie Deutsch, “Julius Rosenwald,” in Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 3, ed. Giles R. Hoyt. German Historical Institute. Last modified August 28, 2014.

[37] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 146–149.

[38] On the career of John Philip Sousa, a second-generation immigrant entrepreneur, see Patrick Warfield, "John Philip Sousa," in Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 4, ed. Jeffrey Fear. German Historical Institute. Last modified May 27, 2014.

[39] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 169–173.

[40] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 170.

[41] Berghoff, “Marketing Diversity,” 370.

[42] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 171–172; Hartmut Berghoff, “‘This Is an Age of Advertisement’: Absatzwerbung und Unternehmenswachstum am Beispiel Hohner, 1900–1914” Zeitschrift für Unternehmensgeschichte / Journal of Business History 40 (Winter 1995): 216–234, 223.

[43] “A Policy of Co-Operation,” Music Trade Review, Dec. 6, 1913, 125.

[44] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 175f; Hans Hohner to Matthew Hohner, May 3, 1913, Bü 541, Bestand Hohner (collection B 35 II), Wirtschaftsarchiv Baden-Württemberg (WABW), Stuttgart-Hohenheim, Germany, hereafter referred to as Hohner Records.

[45] Berghoff, “‘This is an Age of Advertisement,’” 226.

[46] Hans Hohner to M. Hohner, Trossingen, March 4, 1908, Hohner Records, quoted in Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 180. Translation by the authors.

[47] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 179.

[48] Under the act, the tariff was placed at 45 percent. See Protective Tariff Cyclopedia (Revised) (New York: American Protective Tariff League, 1918), 85.

[49] “Young Hohners to Learn Our Ways.” Music Trade Review, Nov. 21, 1908, 49, “Send Off for Hohner,” Music Trade Review, Dec. 17, 1910, 45, and 1910 Census, Brooklyn, ward 31, Kings County, New York, enumeration district 1406, page 1A, available on Ancestry.com. On Kohler, see “Harmonica’s Golden Jubilee,” American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, Nov. 11, 1907, 324.

[50] Field, Harmonicas, Harps, and Heavy Breathers, 27–28.

[51] “Die Trossinger Musikinstrumenten-Industrie,” Engros und Export - Deutscher Messhandel - Zeitschrift für Industrie und Handel, Import und Export (May 1921): 2.

[52] “Harmonica Maker Needs a War as Greatest Aid to Business,” New York Times, Feb. 28, 1928. See also Hartmut Berghoff, “Patriotismus und Geschäftssinn im Krieg: Eine Fallstudie aus der Musikinstrumentenindustrie,” in Gerhard Hirschfeld, Gerd Krumeich, Dieter Langewiesche and Hans-Peter Ullmann, eds., Kriegserfahrungen: Studien zur Sozial- und Mentalitätsgeschichte des Ersten Weltkriegs (Essen, 1997), 262–282.

[53] Transcript of Record, Hohner v. Garvan (Records and Briefs of the Supreme Court), 8.

[54] Transcript of Record, 41. See also Report of the Alien Custodian, 1922, pp. 172–176. All calculations of currency values are based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index; see MeasuringWorth.

[55] Transcript of Record, 13–14; Matthew Hohner to his family, Trossingen, August 10, 1914, Hohner Records.

[56] Kathryn Steen, The American Synthetic Organic Chemicals Industry: War and Politics, 1910–1930 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 149–152, 156–159, 331n27, provides an overview of the history of the Trading with the Enemy Act and the Office of the Alien Property Custodian. See also Mira Wilkins, A History of Foreign Investment in the United States, 1914–1945 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004), 46–52, 112–114.

[57] See also Benno Loewy, deposition, Dec. 28, 1917, in Transcript of Record, 16.

[58] Transcript of Record, 36–41, esp. 36–37. See Executive Order #1503, Nov. 29, 1918, reprinted in Trading with the Enemy Act… together with Proclamations, Executive Orders … Issued Thereunder to and Including April 8, 1919 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1919), p. 84. While combat ended in November 1918, the United States and Germany did not sign a peace treaty until 1921, and Office of Alien Property confiscations continued into 1919.

[59] Matthew Hohner to Mr. Beunderman (Trossingen), April 19, 1919; Matthew Hohner to Andreas Hohner, Trossingen, June 19, 1919, both Bü 886, Hohner Records

[60] Annual Report of the U.S. Attorney General, 1920, p. 135.

[61] “List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States, S.S. Rotterdam, Dec. 5, 1919,” reel 2708, New York, Passenger Lists, 1820–1957, available on Ancestry.com; “Hohner Name Back in Trade,” Music Trade Review, Jan. 1, 1921, 16.

[62] John Allen Murphy, “Assortment Selling Plan Gets Immense Retail Distribution… How M. Hohner Sells Its Harmonicas to 260,000 Dealers in This Country,” Printers’ Ink, Sep. 21, 1916, 65.

[63] M. Hohner, New York to M. Hohner, Trossingen, Sep. 21, 1922, Bü 891, Hohner Records.

[64] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 288–291.

[65] “Sonnen Playing the Harmonica in State of Texas,” Music Trade Review, Nov. 3, 1923, 33.

[66] “Hohmann on Pacific Coast,” Music Trade Review, Nov. 10, 1923, 45.

[67] M. Hohner, New York to M. Hohner, Trossingen, Dec. 2, 1924, Bü 897, Hohner Records.

[68] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 292.

[69] Field, Harmonicas, Harps, and Heavy Breathers, 35.

[70] Häffner and Wenzel, Legende Hohner Harmonika, 69.

[71] Field, Harmonicas, Harps, and Heavy Breathers, 35.

[72] M. Hohner, Trossingen, to M. Hohner, New York, April 17, 1925, Bü 896, Hohner Records.

[73] M. Hohner, New York to M. Hohner, Trossingen, Nov. 23, 1925, Bü 898, Hohner Records.

[74] Sam A. Perry, Modern Harmonica Method with Piano Accompaniment, officially endorsed by M. Hohner Inc. (New York: Klassay Music Co., 1925), foreword.

[75] National Bureau for the Advancement of Music (New York: ca. 1931), 61.

[76] The Harmonica as an Important Factor in Modern Education (New York: M. Hohner, Inc., 1931). See also Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 295.

[77] “Hear the Conquering Harmonica via Radio,” Radio in the Home, May 1925, 31.

[78] M. Hohner, New York to M. Hohner, Trossingen, Dec. 2, 1924, Bü 897, Hohner Records.

[79] Matthew Hohner to Will Hohner, Nov. 7, 1930, Bü 908, Hohner Records.

[80] M. Hohner, New York to M. Hohner, Trossingen, May 18, 1928, Bü 900, Hohner Records.

[81] Field, Harmonicas, Harps, and Heavy Breathers, 79.

[82] See, for example, “Are You the Popular Boy in Your Crowd?,” advertisement, Boys’ Life, April 1930, 49, and “How Jack Learned the Secret of Being Popular,” advertisement, Popular Mechanics, Feb. 1936, 27A.

[83] Field, Harmonicas, Harps, and Heavy Breathers, 115–200; Teresa Palomo Acosta, “Martinez, Narciso,” Handbook of Texas Online (accessed April 25, 2015).

[84] M. Hohner, New York to M. Hohner, Trossingen, March 18, 1936, and Feb. 6, 1937, Bü 911, Hohner Records.

[85] Field, Harmonicas, Harps, and Heavy Breathers, 38.

[86] Häffner and Wenzel, Legende Hohner Harmonika, 76.

[87] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 336–337.

[88] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 338–339.

[89] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 615–616.

[90] Häffner,Harmonicas, 44; Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 479–488.

[91] “List of Latin-American Individuals and Companies Put on the Blacklist by the President,” New York Times, July 18, 1941, 28.

[92] Häffner, Harmonicas, 49; Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 490. In order to provide a realistic comparison, this calculation is based on converting the company’s capitalization from Reichsmarks into U.S. dollars using the prewar rate of 2.5 Reichsmarks to the dollar and then converting from 1945 dollars to 2010 dollars. For German conversion figures, see Herbert Marcuse, “Historical Dollar-to-Marks Currency Conversion Page” (accessed April 9, 2015).

[93] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 490–491.

[94] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 496.

[95] Field, Harmonicas, Harps, and Heavy Breathers, 39.

[96] Hartmut Berghoff, interview with Gottlieb Hohner (Trossingen), October 5, 1993.

[97] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 520–522.

[98] Hartmut Berghoff and Cornelia Rauh, The Respectable Career of Fritz K.: The Making and Remaking of a Provincial Nazi Leader, 1885–1980 (Oxford and New York: Berghahn, 2015).

[99] Field, Harmonicas, Harps, and Heavy Breathers, 39; Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 521.

[100] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 210–212.

[101] Cook County, Illinois, Marriages Index, 1871–1920, May 9, 1903, available on Ancestry.com.

[102] George von Skal, A History of German Immigration in the United States and Successful German-Americans and Their Descendants (New York: F.T. & J.C. Smiley, 1908), 162.

[103] Transcript of Record, 11–12.

[104] Although the statements are oblique, it is possible that Hans Hohner was morbidly obese; it is mentioned that he was a “very large and heavy man” and missed appointments because of “inability to get to Court, even in an automobile.” (Transcript of Record, 12, 14). On the other hand, Hohner was able to travel to Europe annually for visits to “baths and sanitariums,” indicating he was not completely immobile.

[105] Berghoff, Zwischen Kleinstadt und Weltmarkt, 338. See Louis W. Osterweis to Alien Property Custodian, Dec. 26, 1917, case file 1710, box 77, Records of Investigations, entry 199, Records of the Office of Alien Property, RG 131 (National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md.).

[106] Petition for Naturalization, #57869, roll 286, Petitions for Naturalization from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, 1897–1944, microfilm M1972, National Archives and Records Administration, available on Ancestry.com.

[107] “Death of Hans Hohner Occurs in Germany,” Music Trade Review, May 21, 1927, 14.

[108] “Mrs. Hohner Settles Will Suit for $250,000,” New York Times, June 26, 1929.

[109] “The Death of Hans Hohner,” Music Trade Review, editorial, June 24, 1927.

[110] 1930 Census, Manhattan, New York, enumeration district 1186, page 11A, reel 1558, microfilm series T626; 1940 Census, New York, New York, enumeration district 31-898, page 7B, reel 2645, microfilm series T627, both available on Ancestry.com; on the Hohners’ entertaining at their weekend home, see for example “Sports Dinner at Carmel Country Club,” Putnam County Courier, Sep. 18, 1941.

[111] See “Erica M. Hohner Is Married Here to Leland James,” New York Times, Nov. 26, 1961; “Ines M. Hohner, William Mahon Marry on L.I.,” New York Times, August 25, 1968; “Karen Hohner Bride of Randall Keith,” New York Times, June 13, 1982, and “Frank Hohner, Harmonica Manufacturer, 81,” New York Times, Oct. 5, 1990.

[112] Erich Anwärter, “Sie lebt von der Musik…,” Die Zeit, July 26, 1951.

[113] Alexander R. Hammer, “Harmonica Holds as a Mighty Mite,” New York Times, July 22, 1956.

[114] For a study of the accordion business during the same period, which dealt with many of the same challenges as the harmonica, see Marion S. Jacobson, “Searching for Rockordion: The Changing Image of the Accordion in America,” American Music 25 (Summer 2007): 216–247, esp. 232–237. In fact, Hohner was hit doubly hard by these trends because of its accordion manufacturing arm.

[115] Dietmar H. Lamparter, "Ein Bläsle für Freund und Feind,” Die Zeit, Oct. 9, 2003 (accessed August 18, 2014).

Cite this Entry

APA Style

"Hans Hohner." (2018) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved February 25, 2018, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=251

Chicago Style

Berghoff, Hartmut. "Hans Hohner." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 4, edited by Jeffrey Fear. German Historical Institute. Last modified November 19, 2015. http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=251

MLA Style

"Hans Hohner," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2018, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 25 Feb 2018 <http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=251>

Obelisk displaying Hohner Harmonicas

  • Hohner factory in Trossingen, ca. 1924-25
  • Hohner billboard in New York City, 1924
  • The Hohner office in New York in the 1920s
  • President Herbert Hoover with Albert G. Hoxie and His Harmonica Band at a concert at the White House, 1929