A few years ago I did a lot of research while writing the liner notes to Sam Hinton's excellent "Master of the Solo Diatonic Harmonica" CD. That's when I read this often repeated story:
"Indeed the popularity of the instrument had even extended as far as the White House. During the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, when worried friends told Lincoln that Stephen Douglas was bringing along a big brass band, Lincoln drew a harmonica from his pocket and grinned, "the harmonica will do for me!"
This made me wonder if the Hohner company might have imported harmonicas to the USA as early as 1858. I continue to seek documentation of this.
Someone named Bill Otten posted this on the harmonica list on 2/13/09. Bill's date of 1868 for the importation of Hohner products to the USA does not seem correct, as there is some documentation of the popularity of the newly imported harmonica among Civil War soldiers of both the Union and Confederate armies.
Bill wrote "Winslow wrote that others had debunked the idea that Abe Lincoln smoked "sweet hemp" and that he couldn't have played a Hohner since they weren't imported until 1868, fours years AFTER Lincoln was already dead. This quote from the Huffington Post states ""Two of my favorite things are sitting on my front porch smoking a pipe of sweet hemp, and playing my Hohner harmonica." - Abraham Lincoln (from a letter written by Lincoln during his presidency to the head of the Hohner Harmonica Company in Germany). Hohner was making harmonicas as early as 1857, and could easily have supplied a harmonica to Lincoln as a gift during his presidency. As to the hemp, Lincoln may WELL have used it often. He was easily a depressive person, and historians note often of his gloominess. The hemp may have been an escape. After a breakup with his eventual wife Mary Todd, he wrote: "I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.
"Now then, having said all that, Abe was not known to be a smoker. So whether he made an exception for hemp is a question. The original quote about his letter stated he wrote the letter in 1855, which could not be right because Hohner wasn't producing harmonicas then, and Abe wasn't President yet either. Hohner historians, the curator of the Hohner museum, state no letter from Lincoln was ever posted on the walls of the museum. So the two issues will probably remain myth, remain unresolved and lost in history.
I have read a lot of books about Lincoln. Some 15,000 have been published since his death. It's pretty clear that his earliest biographer (and former law partner) Mr. Herndon, made certain conclusions and assertions that are not supported by historical events (my favorite being that Lincoln's early mental collapse was related to the death of Ann Rutledge, a girl he didn't know very well). I have discovered that even my beloved Carl Sandburg was a careless biographer when it came to the subject of Lincoln.