Take my picture with my ROLMONICA

When I bought this vernacular photograph I kept staring at the little girl wondering what the heck she was holding. I couldn't make it out. Maybe a camera, but it didn't look like any sort of camera from that time period. I figured I'd scan the image and get a better view. So that's what I did and I still didn't have a clue as to what she was holding. 

Well, it's a Rolmonica. Once I saw the crank on the side I googled "crank harmonica" and lo and behold up comes some information about this antique instrument. I never knew anything like this existed. I found the following information:
Rolmonica player harmonica, circa 1929

These interesting instruments were made in Baltimore in the late 1920's.  They employ a modified harmonica in which the instrument plays the same note on the draw as it does on the blow (so that the instrument can be played continuously without pausing to take a breath), and paper rolls with holes are passed over the harmonica holes to determine which notes will be played.  These instruments were one of the first commercial applications of bakelite, an early plastic-like material that proved very important as an electrical insulator. (SOURCE: http://www.billsbanjos.com/rolmonica.htm)
I love the photo. The mother is clearly doting on her son who has some crumpled tissues in his hand. A tender moment? Not as far as the sister is concerned. She's not putting down her Rolmonica for any tender mushy stuff. I can just imagine her wandering around in that garden, busily playing Turkey in the Straw, in her own world, when she's called over to take the photo. She stops cranking long enough for the shot to be taken and then skips around the fountain back into her own little world.

girl playing Rolmonica with brother and mother_tatteredandlost
Click on image to see it larger.

There were quite a variety of songs available on music rolls. You can see a list here. I would especially like to hear Sidewalks of New York. Always loved that tune. I even see the Hoagy Carmichael song Lazy Bones listed. Quite a variety, including Christmas and patriotic songs. So she could have driven people nuts all year long, through every holiday.

Here are a couple of fun videos of gentleman showing how the Rolmonica works. I certainly learned something new today.


  1. Oh, wow! She reminds me so much of Briony in the movie "Atonement"!! Same time frame!

  2. Willow, you're so right! I knew there was something about her. This adds a whole new dimension. Thanks!

  3. Anonymous7/27/2009

    Hey I missed this entry.
    What a surprise to see it here.
    I like the photo. Maybe the girl is playing a farewell song for her brother.
    I am surprised that the still of the man in the last video looks so much like the close up of the girl.
    Must be something about playing the Rolmonica.

  4. Oh, you'd missed this one? That'll never do! I thought you'd like her. I think Willow has it exactly right. She's Briony from "Atonement". Exactly who she is.

  5. I do so enjoy watching these fellows play their rolmonicas. Especially the second. There is sort of a non-expression expression that seems to happen when playing.