Friday, September 6, 2013

Letters from 1929

I've written previously about my musician and inventor great-grandfather, Harry Edward O'Brien. A few weeks ago I found a reference to Harry in the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music at the University of Illinois. After requesting a copy of the file, a packet arrived last Friday. Below is a transcription of four letters between Harry and Albert Austin Harding, the band director at the University of Illinois in 1929.

The letters have been transcribed (typos and all) from the file and all credit is given to A. Austin Harding Papers, 1895-1958, Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Letter from Harry E. O'Brien to A. A. Harding

Harry E. O'Brien
Manufacturer
Reed Instrument Mouthpieces
920 East Riviera Drive
Indianapolis, Ind.

February 26, 1929

Band Dir. Un. of Ill.
Urbana, Ill.

Dear Mr. Harding:

You, no doubt, will remember me as of many years ago when I made a little trip with you and played Eb Clar.

Under separate cover I am forwarding to you a few copies of my sixteen page booklet "What's What In Mouthpieces". It contains a lot of scientific information relative to the construction of mouthpieces which should be of great interest to the clarinet and saxophone players in your band.

It is only recently that I have advertised mouthpieces under my own name as I have been a manufacturer for fifteen years making for the leading houses of the world, but as I feel that I am getting along in years its time that I build up a business under my own brand, hence the reason for publishing the booklet that I am sending you.

The clarinet players as well as saxophone players are to a great extent kept in ignorance of the things they should know about the instrument that they are trying so hard to learn. Practically no valuable information is ever seen on the subject, nothing but sales talk. I have tried to get at the heart of the thing of most interest to the player and have given him some mighty useful knowledge that I have labored for years to obtain.

Mr. Harding, if you will be kind enough to send to me the name of the Solo Clarinet in the band, I sould be very glad to make him a present of a very fine crystal mouthpiece. Just ask him to fill out the order blank following the direction strictly as given. He need not send me any money. I am sure that if I can prove to him that he will get something most unusual from me, that others will be interested, and in a way it is proof of my product.

I should like to have a representative in Urbana and if you know of one who would like to represent me please ask him to drop me a line. And will you [page 2] be kind enough to pass to the reed instrument players thx booklets I am sending to you. I am sure they will appreciate my efforts to pass along some very much needed knowledge, to those who are seeking progress on their instrument.

Most sincerely yours,

Harry E. O'Brien

O'B-BL

P.S. Birney Hite, whoom you will remember as an early member of your band, is still the Express Agent at Anderson Ind. Now married and has two very fine children. HOB

Letter from A. A. Harding to Harry O'Brien

March 6, 1929

Mr. Harry E. O'Brien
920 E. Riviera Drive
Indianapolis, Indiana

Dear Mr. O'Brien:

I am in receipt of the package of booklets as well as your letter and was glad to hear from you again.

I glanced over your interesting booklet and will be glad to distribute them to our clarinet players.

Mr. Neil A. Kjos is my first chair solo clarinet this year and I will have him fill out one of the blanks as you suggested in order that you may send him one of the mouthpieces. Mr. Kjos might be interested in acting as your representative here. I will speak to him about it and will be glad to cooperate with him in the matter. You might advise me regarding any concessions in price you would care to make to me or to the University, as I may be placing some orders for mouthpieces myself.

I am glad to have some word concerning Bernie Heit. Bernie was a very likable chap as well as a good musician and I was sorry that he did not stay longer here at the University. If you see him give him my kindest regards.

We have just returned from our annual concert tour and I am sending you under separate cover some programs, etc. as I thought you might be interested. You will note that may whole solo clarinet section played Weber's Concertino in unison.

Very truly yours,

A. A. Harding

Letter from Harry O'Brien to A. A. Harding

March 8, 1929

Mr. A. A. Harding
Dir. U. of Ill. Band 
Urbana, Ill.

Dear Mr. Harding:

I was very glad to get your letter of the 6th, and to know that you are still with it.

As soon as I hear from Mr. Kjos, I will forward to him one of my newest crystals.

I can allow you the same as I give to dealers, 40% off on crystal and 50% of on hard rubber silver faced saxophone mouthpieces.

I have perfected for Selmer (confidently) all of their crystal mouthpiece and the measuremtns of their facings. They were without crystal mouthpiece from 1914 until 1926, at the time when I perfected a crystal clarinet mouthpiece and turned over to them to market. This I labored on for ten years. My arrangement with them permits me to sell the same mouthpiece under my own brand, and this I am just beginning to do. I also invented the Henton mouthpiece and manufactured over 40,000, as well as the Clarion metal lined crystal mouthpieces for Selmer, of which I have made many thousands. I am trying to produce the worlds very best in crystal mouthpiece for clarinet, and I know that I have certain refinements of measurements not incorporated in any other crystal mouthpiece.

I have perfected a new measurement on the crystal clarinet and have called it lay No 5, this with the assistance of Mr. Roy Schmidt, Solo Clar with Sousa one season, Conway two seasons, and one season with Minneapolis, now with the Dertoit SyM, and is considered to be one of America's best. I am very anxious to have your Mr. Kjos try this facing. It is simply great for band work. I will be glad to supply you at no cost a full line of sample mouthpieces.

Very sincerely yours,

H. E. O'Brien

O'B-B*

Letter from A. A. Harding to Harry O'Brien

March 9, 1929

Mr. Harry E. O'Brien
920 E. Riveria Drive
Indianapolis, Indiana

Dear Friend:

Your letter of March 8 just received. I had Mr. Kjos fill out one of your blanks and I am enclosing it herewith.

I am asked every once in a while to get mouthpieces for the reed players in my bands so I will be glad to represent you personally (I represent the C. G. Conn Company in Champaign-Urbana, also Champaign County). It would be helpful if you would, as you suggest, send me a full line of sample mouthpieces. Just a few days ago one of my clarinet players asked me if I could get a number of mouthpieces in the different facings for him to make a selection from.

This summer I will order an especially made mouthpiece for our octavin, as I understand you have made mouthpieces that will make them play in tune.

Very truely yours,

A. A. Harding
Director, Bands & Orchestras 
University of Illinois
--
Neil Kjos later went on to create the Neil A. Kjos Music Company, which exists today run by his family. Perhaps the material provided by Harry O'Brien had an impact in influencing his decision to create an educational publishing company for beginning musicians.

On 7 January 1922, the Music Trade Review included a description of the patent received by Harry O'Brien for mouthpieces for clarinets and saxophones:

H. Benne Henton, cited in the description above and half-owner of the patent developed by Harry O'Brien, was from Harry's hometown of Shelbyville, Illinois (see Henton's Findagrave entry), and became a highly regarded saxophonist. Birney Hite, mentioned in O'Brien's letter, was also from Shelby County, Illinois.

The letters above show Harry reaching out to his musical contacts to help promote his line of crystal clarinet mouthpieces. A photo below shows Harry & son Lowell O'Brien manufacturing musical instruments & equipment in their shop in Indianapolis.
Photo source: Mike O'Brien - Harry O'Brien & son in undated photo

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