Peeps At Great Cities: Berlin in 1911

As the gentrification debate continues to rage around Berlin, Paul Sullivan hand-picks some extracts from Edith Siepen’s 1911 Berlin guidebook to see what’s changed – and what hasn’t – in the last 100 years…

“No city in the world has so rapidly developed as Berlin. Twenty years ago it was of comparative unimportance, and not particularly interesting in any way.”

Peeps At Great Cities: Berlin (1911)

“One of the first things that strikes the visitor in Berlin – if it does not happen to be winter – is the wealth of green everywhere…Berlin air is very fine and clear – quite free from smoke and “smuts” – and the flowers flourish well. You are at once struck with the scrupulous cleanliness everywhere; dirt is swiftly swept away by the city scavengers in their neat uniform – black cap, belted tunic, and boots to the knee.”

“Berlin drinking water is excellent, so clear and pure and refreshing that it is a wonder the working classes to not prefer it to beer, but they unfortunately do not.”

“There are no street beggars in Berlin, and you are at once impressed by the tidy appearance of the poor people. No tatters and no cheap finery, but clean and decent clothing is the invariable rule…Berlin’s trim appearance is increased by the lack of disfiguring advertisement posters, such as cover every available inch in London, and render the railway stations labyrinths of mystery to the bewildered foreigner.”

“A Berlin policeman is a very important individual indeed in his own estimation, and there is no trifling with him. He looks very imposing too, with his shining helmet and short sword.”

“Getting about is cheap in Berlin. You can go a distance of nearly ten miles in an electric tram for a penny, and the horse omnibus will take you quite a long way for half that sum. Motor buses are now very frequent, but the principal public vehicle of the Berlin streets remains the huge electric tram, the majority with a rear car attached, which, if the streets were not very broad, would be dreadfully in the way. Hansom cabs are never seen here, with one solitary antiquated exception. Dogs often draw little carts in Berlin, as in other parts of Germany, for the poor people.”

“The Berlin fire brigade is one of the best in the world. Very seldom indeed is anyone burnt to death in Berlin, though the houses are four and sometimes five stories high.”

“It has often been said that the Berliners never go to bed. It is certainly a matter of astonishment that they can manage with so little sleep. The Friedrich Strasse, the longest street in Europe, presents at one o’clock in the morning almost as lively as appearance as at noon. Notwithstanding the enormous quantity of beer consumed in Berlin, you very seldom see a drunken man on the streets, and never a drunken woman.”

“Berlin people themselves still have a great deal to learn. They are only just beginning, for example, to walk on the right, despite repeated requests from the authorities to do so. Then they are given to walking in the horse road at times, imagining no doubt that Berlin is still the rural village it once was, and when they get run over, they are the most illogically indignant.”

A postcard from Berlin, 1911

“Berliners are particularly kind and hospitable towards foreigners. As they are fond of gaiety too, the English boy or girl who comes across to study usually has quite a good time, and generally looks back upon his or her sojourn in Berlin with pleasure ever after.”

“Berlin flats are always admired by English visitors for their comfort.”

“Berlin is very cold in winter. The east wind blows across from the Russian Steppes with no mountain range to break the force.”

“There are dogs in abundance, in spite of the disgracefully high tax of thirty shillings a year…Berlin people do not care for cats, and you rarely see any.”

“The Berlin people are very fond of gaiety…the men smoke and talk business and politics after a meal is over, while their wives gossip about their intimate affairs and criticize the fashions of the other ladies. Nowadays, the ladies smoke a cigarette too.”

“Berlin people have very loud voices and they don’t mind discussing their private affairs in public.”

“In many respects Berlin, compared with other great capitals, is a city of silence.”

“The Berlin dialect is never to be confused with any other, once you have heard it. It is not elegant, but like the people, it is gemütlich, and as there is no word in English that quite expresses gemütlich, I must leave you to guess its meaning.”

“The royal carriages passing to and fro help to keep the (Unter den) Linden lively. It is very interesting to see the Emperor riding his handsome grey horse, or, sometimes, the well-known chestnut with the white socks, attended by a number of officers in uniform, and followed by the equerries and grooms in gorgeous liveries…if you make a very nice curtsy, you may perhaps get a special salute all to yourself.”

“German students drink far more beer than is good for them; but the Emperor and Crown Prince are so opposed to the practice that it is gradually lessening.”

“The Schloss contains over 700 rooms altogether. The floors of the rooms being all highly polished, walking boots would scratch them, and therefore all visitors are compelled to don huge felt slippers. It is great fun shuffling across the big rooms, and, of course, when the guide is not looking, everyone yields to a temptation to slide.”

“Boys and girls in Germany have to work very hard indeed at school…his own language is so difficult that it is years before he acquires it properly.”

“The German schoolgirl of about fourteen is termed for no obvious reason a Backfisch.”

“Little girls make a curtsy when greeted by grown-up people, and well bred boys always kiss a lady’s hand.”

“The Germans love Shakespeare, and his plays, it is said, are more frequently performed here than in England.”

“Germany is the home of music and Berlin is the acknowledged center of it. The music schools are famous all the world over, and boys and girls come from every part to study.”

“At the cheap popular concerts you can, if you want, have supper while the music is going on.”

“Germans are such indefatigable dancers that is has been computed an average dancer at a ball of seven hours’ duration covers twenty-eight miles…you may be sure they will dance all night, and go straight to work in the morning.”

“Of late years mixed bathing has been permitted in a secluded part of the Wannsee Lake beach. It is a tremendous success.”

“In the restaurants much of the beer is served in picturesque mugs of grey or blue stone, with pewter lids. They keep the contents very cool in summer, but, if you don’t want a second filling, be sure to close the lid. If it is left open for a moment the waiter whisks it off and brings a fresh supply. This is an unwritten, and by no means unpopular, law of German beer gardens.”

“Berlin possesses the most beautiful flower shops anyone can imagine, and a very large number of them. Flowers play an important role in German social life, and few people owning gardens or conservatories, the majority are dependent on the florist.”

“On Sundays the cemeteries are crowded, and the little benches are all occupied. Children, in their best frocks, are taken to put flowers on the grave of some loved one who has gone from the family circle. Nobody is sad or morbid; it is rather a pleasant outing for the Berlin people.”

“There are more cigar shops than any other kind in Berlin…Germans are inordinate smokers and cigars are very cheap, because they are made on a large scale and the tobacco is grown in the country.”

“The Zoological Gardems are a very popular place of amusement, and on the first Sunday in the month, when the entrance fee is reduced to threepence, you can scarcely see the animals for the people.”

“Tempelhof Field is a great resort for football players. It is a capital place for games of all kinds, because you may go on the grass, as it is uncultivated land…it is said Tempelhof Field is large enough to hold the whole standing army of Germany, but there is talk of building on part of it before long.”

“During proper Christmas weather – hard frost, blue skies, and plenty of snow – you will see a good many sleighs in the Tiergarten. They are very smart little vehicles and the horses fly along at a great pace, as the sleigh runs so easily.”

“German cakes are delicious, and the Berlin confectioners’ shops are a source of delight to the juveniles.”

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Comments

  1. Fun to read these statements. So much has changed to worse (especially cleanliness and manners), but still it’s the place I love to live at. :-)

  2. ebe says:

    Wow- this is powerful. It’s incredible to look around and see history in every corner of the city.

  3. Giulia says:

    “…the English boy or girl who comes across to study usually has quite a good time, and generally looks back upon his or her sojourn in Berlin with pleasure ever after.”

    I absolutely love to read how much hasn’t changed at all!

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