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The Alan G. Bates Harmonica Collection

Alan Bates in his Harmonica Museum at Home

Highlights of the Collection...

The Alan G. Bates harmonica collection contains a fascinating and eclectic assortment of more than 2,500 instruments, display cases and harmonica-related ephemera.  Until they were donated to the NMM, Alan's harmonicas were artfully displayed at his home (see panoramic photo above by Robert Gilberg, New York City).

During the 175 years since its invention in the form we know it today, the harmonica has been called a pocket piano, a french harp, a band in your pocket and just plain harp for short.  Alan tried to obtain representative examples of every known type and subvariant.  In a relatively brief 10 years, Alan's goal was largely accomplished.  His earlier experience collecting coins, ice skates and antique tools showed Alan that best results were achieved by casting a wide net.  Of course, he combed flea markets and antique malls.  But above all he advertised--in many antique papers and magazines.  This bore fruit beyond his fondest expectations.  Rare and unusual harmonicas of every description found a home in Alan's collection in response to ads.

The soul of antique and obsolete harmonicas, as with any instrument, is the music they produced.  Capturing a wide variety of harmonica sounds, the Bates collection includes about 600 recordings--from early 78 rpm platters to LP's and even a few CD's.  Every style from country-cowboy to classical can be heard on these disks.  Player harmonicas were popular in the 1930's and Alan acquired 240 rare playable paper rolls for the various types of crank-operated harmonicas in his collection, each roll playing a different tune.

Alan's favorite instruments were the early ones, made before 1900.  Among the earliest free-reed instruments in the Bates collection are three rare examples, all made ca. 1829-1831: a triple Ĉolina, made by Charles W. Wheatstone in London; a very rare symphonium, also by Wheatstone; and, an Ĉolina made by Lewis Zwahlen in New York City. All three were made just a few years after the harmonica, as we know it today, was invented in Germany.

Other favorites included harmonicas that didn't look much like what most people think of when they hear the word.  To sell more harmonicas and remain competitive, the hundreds of mostly German makers dressed up the exteriors of their instruments by adding bells, or horns or fancy metal side plates.

From the year 1857, the M. Hohner company of Trossingen, Germany has been the leading producer of harmonicas around the world.  As part of their advertising, Hohner issued many colorful posters such as those shown below from Alan's collection.  The "Erika" poster shows the founder, Matthias Hohner himself, selling harmonicas to eager buyers from around the world.

Hohner Poster with Sailors Hohner Poster for Erika Assortment Hohner Poster with Flamenco Dancers

About the Collector...

Born near Boston, Massachusetts, one year before the 1929 stock market crash, Alan grew up in modest circumstances.  Thanks to the GI bill, he studied at MIT, graduating with a Master's Degree in Chemical Engineering in 1951.  His first career took him to the VP level with a major chemical company in Wilmington, Delaware.  He retired from that job at age 54 and moved to Canada as President of a start-up biotechnology company.  The weekly air commute to Toronto became a bit much after three years, so Alan pursued other ventures, including being Executive Director of an international tool collectors' association.

Alan G. Bates

The collecting "virus" infected Alan in the 1940's when his grandfather left him some old American coins.  Those led him into English and German coins, with side ventures collecting old ice skates and vintage clarinets.  Then his interest took a sudden turn to antique woodworking tools.  For 20 years Alan built a specialized collection of old wooden planes made in Philadelphia and also in England.  The challenge of planes waned when he had all the maker names he could expect to find.   What next?

As he scoured the flea markets for tools, Alan discovered harmonicas.  He found them fascinating because of their great variety of different shapes, sizes and decorative features.  Besides, music was a special interest of Alan's, having played clarinet and sax since his teen-age years.  He never learned to play harmonica (not very well anyway) but that didn't matter.  He soon realized these small musical wonders were a special part of American history.  First imported in quantity in the early 1860s, they became popular with soldiers from both north and south.  Many harmonica remains have been found around Civil War camp sites.

After he owned 100 instruments or so, Alan heard about a harmonica collection which had been donated to the Smithsonian Institution by a collector named Peter Kassan.  He arranged for a behind-the-scenes visit to see the Kassan harmonicas.  How could so many marvelous instruments have been collected by one person?   This discovery offered an irresistible challenge.  Alan resolved to build the best harmonica collection in this country.  Fortunately, this proved to be do-able in 1991.  Back then, harmonicas were fairly easy to find, mostly at modest prices.  Even with an unlimited budget, such a feat would be impossible today.  Unusual harmonicas have become highly sought after and the internet auction website, eBay, has assured that no bargains will be had. The best ones have been absorbed into private collections where they will stay for decades.

People seem to marvel that a collection of 2,500 diverse models, display cases, etc. could have been assembled in 10 years or less.  But Alan claims it wasn't hard--just time consuming.  Preparing ad copy, weekly flea market visits, forays to distant antique shows--even to Europe--occupied much of his time.  Hard work and persistence really worked.  The collection grew to about four times the size of the Smithsonian's, with a special emphasis on quality.  Alan became expert at repairing harmonicas and their little cardboard boxes (which often are more appealing than the instruments themselves.)

In about 1997, Alan decided the collection was too important to break up by selling the harmonicas individually, as he had done with the coins and tools.  Then began a search for the best museum in which to house them.  The NMM came out far ahead of the other candidates and the commitment was made.  In late April 2000, NMM director Dr. André P. Larson drove to Delaware in a University van.  He and Alan loaded scores of boxes and several large display cases.  Off went the collection on a 1,300 mile trek to South Dakota.

The Alan G. Bates Harmonica Trade Literature and Ephemera Archive

Hohner 'Cinderella Stamp,' ca. 1905 Hohner Harmonicas made for U.S. Navy, 1946 Hohner Harmonica catalog, 1939

To complement his encyclopedic harmonica collection already housed at the NMM, Alan G. Bates shipped his entire documentary collection of harmonica trade literature and paper ephemera to Vermillion late in the summer of 2008. The Bates Trade Literature and Ephemera Archive includes approximately 2,000 pieces, including antique and vintage harmonica catalogs (particularly strong for the Hohner company), price lists, early instruction books, photos of famous players, sheet music, postcards, lobby cards, calendars, posters, sound recordings, video recordings, and related materials. Shown above are (left to right): a "Cinderella stamp" created by Hohner for advertising purposes, ca. 1905; a post-W.W. II catalog of harmonicas and accordions specifically produced by Hohner under contract with the U.S. Navy, 1946; and, a Hohner catalog of 1939 featuring 3 new models designed by John Vassos (1898-1985), American industrial and graphic designer.

Alan says he has never once regretted the decision to part with his "labor of love."  In his mind there is only one better harmonica collection in the world, considering variety and quality rather than just numbers of items.  That's the Deutsches Harmonika Museum, Trossingen, in the Black Forest area of southwest Germany, whose instruments were mostly given by the Hohner company--the world's foremost manufacturer since 1857.  If his collection can be enjoyed by future generations at its new home in the NMM, Alan will know the venture was worthwhile.

To keep from having extreme withdrawal symptoms, Alan continues to buy harmonicas that are not in the collection.  Those too, will join the South Dakota collection someday.

Articles About the Bates Collection

Margaret Downie Banks, "From the Four Winds . . . A Rare Triple Ĉolina and a Typotone Both Added to the Alan G. Bates Collection," National Music Museum Newsletter 30, No. 3 (August 2003), pp. 4-5. Reprinted in The Trumpet Call (A Publication of Harmonica Collectors International) 5, Issue 3 (September 2003): 4-5.

André P. Larson, "Documenting the Music Industry  .   .  .  The Alan G. Bates Harmonica Collection Donated to Museum," America's Shrine to Music Museum Newsletter, Vol. 28, No. 4 (November 2001), pp. 1-3.

-------, "The Alan G. Bates Harmonica Collection," Harmonica World, April/May 2002, pp. 7-9.

Lee Raine Randall, "Harmonicas from the Alan G. Bates Collection: Trumpets, Zeppelins, Touring Automobiles, and One Last Cartridge!" America's Shrine to Music Museum Newsletter, Vol. 28, No. 4 (November 2001), pp. 4-5.

-------, "Rare Harps," Harmonica World, April/May 2002, pp. 9-10.

More instruments from the Alan G. Bates Harmonica Collection can be seen on the NMM's Virtual Tour!

A selection of harmonicas from the Alan G. Bates Collection is on display on the second floor of NMM.  Others are currently in a major exhibition, "Ya Gotta Know the Territory: The Musical Journey of Meredith Willson," that the NMM designed and installed for the Meredith Willson Museum in Mason City, Iowa.

Other harmonicas from the Bates Collection are available for examination by appointment (see access guidelines).

National Music Museum
The University of South Dakota
414 East Clark Street
Vermillion, SD   57069

©National Music Museum, 2001-2009
Most recent update:   September 1, 2009

The University of South Dakota
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