Music may be the food of love, and most kids love music from very early on. And one of the big thrills is being able to make your own. If you were growing up in the 50s, if you learned music in elementary school, you probably learned by playing the tonette.*
The tonette was invented in 1938 by Zienger Swanson of the Chicago Musical Instrument Company** in 1938 and quickly caught on in schools and in other places where a simple musical instrument was in demand.
The tonette was a plastic flute. You blew in one end, which had a mouthpiece like a whistle. There were seven holes on the top (for your fingers***) and one on the bottom (for your thumb), so you could play a bit more than an octave. Fingering was simple: the scale was played by lifting one finger at a time to get to the next note. Thus Middle C require you cover all the holes, D would be all but the lowest, E would have the two lowest holes open, and so forth.
The music was simple, but most kids loved being able to play “Three Blind Mice.” It has occasionally shown up in professional contexts; it can be heard in the background in Cream’s “Pressed Rat and Warthog,” played by Felix Pappalardi.
The instrument faded in popularity in the 60s. Supposedly, it’s still being used now, but I can’t find any indication online that anyone is selling them, other than an occasional one on eBay.
*Or the Flutophone. Our school switched at some point: I used the Tonette, but my brothers used the Flutophone. Tonettes were black; Flutophones white with red trim, and tonettes didn’t have a bell (though they eventually added one; in both cases, the bell was for show and had nothing to do with the sound).
**Manufacturer of Gibson guitars for many years.
***The left pinky was placed in a ridged circle to hole the instrument. The right thumb had the same sort of arrangement.