Today is the birthday (1833) of Matthias Hohner, a German musical instrument maker and founder of the musical instrument company Hohner. Hohner’s father was a weaver, but when he was 15 he was apprenticed to his brother-in-law, watchmaker Johannes Kohler, in Trossingen. Because the watchmaking business suffered from competition from more established businesses, Hohner had to travel by foot great distances to sell watches from the training workshop. Unhappy with the development of the trade, he withdrew from watchmaking in 1855 and worked in his parents’ workshop, where, with the decline of the weaving mill, other handicraft orders were also carried out.
In his spare time, Hohner built his first mouth organ modeled after designs by Christian Messner and Christian Weiß. After the death of the mother in 1857, Hohner’s father handed over the property to his four children. Matthias received a share of 682 guilders, which he used to start an instrument making business which became his main occupation and henceforth called himself a Harfenbauer (harp maker). He married and had six sons and nine daughters, most of whom lived into adulthood. From 1879 to 1885 Hohner was mayor of Trossingen.
Production expanded through the use of machine tools and assembly line production (with increased staff). Hohner was known for high quality products and easily outstripped the competition. By 1875 Hohner already had 85 employees, and the size of his company had already exceeded that of older companies such as Messner and Weiß. The main sales initially went to the US, until the economic crisis of 1893 required reorientation. Subsequently, main sales shifted to Germany. Hohner also owned a farm of about 25 acres in addition to the instrument shop. Proceeds from the farm supported Hohner’s 20 to 25 apprentices. In 1900 Hohner handed over the company to his five surviving sons: Jacob, Matthias, Andreas, Hans and Will, while he remained a partner. He died in 1902, one day before his birthday.
In the 20th century Hohner diversified considerably. The diatonic mouth organ is a free reed instrument that operates on the blow/suck principle (i.e. one note when you blow and a different note when you suck). It was a simple step from mouth organs to button accordions that operate on the same principle except blow/suck is replaced with a push/pull of the bellows, and bass chords can be added with the left hand. I played a G/D Hohner melodeon for 35 years, and would still play one if I had one. Sadly all my instruments got put in storage when I moved from New York 10 years ago. Hohner also began making bandoneons for Argentine tango music and piano accordions for polka bands. Nowadays, the company also makes instruments besides the free reed family, including guitars, banjos, and kazoos.
Trossingen where Hohner was founded, and still headquartered, is in Baden-Württemberg, where there is a solid local cuisine. Käsespätzle is a great favorite – a comfort food along the lines of US mac and cheese, but much richer and more flavorful. This video is in German but with English sub-titles.