Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin


Little door in the wall

Since we moved in some three years ago I have been praising our flat for numerous things: generous size; not too dark, not too bright; with ceilings I am not bumping my head against and a kitchen than wasn´t designed by Seven Dwarfs and Tom Thumb Ltd (in our old kitchen I significantly contributed to the national statistics for home injuries, mainly by re-shaping my skull and face on the low-hanging cupboards). It is airy, it is placed in a house slightly off the beaten track (if you can say that about any place in Kreuzberg) and it is in the first floor – brilliant news for someone who spent her first pregnant months climbing up to the 4th floor with no lift, walking inside a body next to which Moby Dick would look like Fred Astaire.

But our flat has its secrets: rooms have been added where other rooms used to be, walls have been removed or put up, oak panel floor has been made complete again by filling in the hole left by the ripped out room oven and in such a way that you do not see the difference. A hundred-year-old floor with a skin-graft. But one of my favourite things is the storage above the bathroom. It is big enough for all five of us to sit in. That is, if we wished to climb up the ladder one day and spend the day in complete darkness, testing ourselves and our offspring for claustrophobia and later for possible traces of Kaspar Hauser Syndrome. The room cannot be bigger than 3 m2 with the height of around 1 m. It is hardly possible to believe that this tiny space used to be a house to at least one person. Our storage room used to be a Hängeboden for house maids.

Servants 1908

In his book Die Lage Der Weiblichen Dienstboten in Berlin (“The Condition of Female Domestic Servants in Berlin”, published in 1902) Oskar Stillich writes about around 1.3 million people working as servants in Kaiser´s Germany and 20 percent of them in Berlin (do your own maths, will you). 96% of them were single young women – every year 44,000 of them arrived in Berlin straight from out in the sticks. Many of those coming must have been younger than 18. In fact, in 1895 32,653 German domestics were under 14 and actually should have been going to school instead (I am only so clever because I am reading a brilliant if not very optimistically entitled book by Anneliese Neef Mühsal Ein leben Lang. Zur Situation der Arbeiterfrau um 1900 or “Lifelong Suffering. On The Condition of A Working Class Woman Around 1900”).

The lowest among the domestic servants were the so called Mädchen für Alles or maids-of-all-work whose day started at around 5.30 am and required their full mental and physical capacities until more less 9.30 pm (stressing MORE here). In the meantime they were supposed to (after getting up, dressing themselves up and neatly arranging their hair):  start the fire in the stove and the heating ovens, clean her room (called “a room” even if she slept in the cellar on a narrow wooden bunk or on the floor in front of her Master´s and Mistress´s bedroom door), clean and tidy the dining room, lay the coffe table, make and serve breakfast, wash Master´s and Mistress´s clothes, polish the shoes; at 8.30 am serve coffee, clean the remaining rooms, start preparing lunch; at 11.30 washing up; coffee at 4 pm, dinner at 7.30; washing up and make the bedrooms ready for all.

That might not seem like very much – apart from polishing shoes and starting fires at home that is basically what I should be doing if I cared to and had any idea of how to become a Wee Wifey otherwise known as The Home Godess. But add to it the little supplementary list of tasks as published in the Deutsche Hausfrauenzeitung AD 1900 and the picture gets a little sharper: clean all the windows and polish all silver, clean all the lamps in the house, beat and wash all the carpets, wash/scrub and polish the floors, clean the bathroom (not a fun job by any means, neither today and nor especially back then), beat all the cushions and upholstery, dust the whole furniture and if wooden treat it with wax or another usually pretty smelly concoction; clean the stove, baking oven, grill and Co.; beat the pillows and eiderdowns, change the bed linen in all beds; wash the soiled bed linen and hang it to dry if no laundress available; double scrub the floor in the kitchen and in the pantry. Not everything had to be done every single day but if you think about the amount of time YOU need to clean YOUR flat, you will see the sheer humungousness of the task those girls were facing. And we are not done here yet: since running water was not common goods at the onset of the 20th century, they had to fetch bucketfuls of water from downstairs (lucky those whose employers lived on the ground floor or in belle etage), lug baskets full of coal to then heat up the water they dragged upstairs first (there was a lot of water to be heated on daily basis as you can imagine), make sure the fire in the stove and ovens hasn´t died, light all the lamps after filling them up with oil first… And some of housemaids had to take care of the kids, too.

“Our” (not literally though) Hängeboden before the flat was done up

Then, after their exhausting day was over, they could retire to a space sometimes as small as 2.2 m2 or two be exact: 1.50 m long, 1.50 wide and 3 m high. 3 metres high men it could not have possibly been a Hängeboden (a wooden landing a bit like a cupboard hanging from the ceiling). But the heights of 1.25 m, 1.30 m, 1.35 m or even 1.52 m quoted by Stillich in his book suggest a ladder was needed to reach one´s haven. And one often had company in there, too. For instance, in the household of one Fritz Liesecke, a restaurant owner who lived in Riehmers Hofgarten in 1897, his two female servants had to share such a Hängeboden installed for them in the corridor of his flat: Their “room” was 1.94 m high, 1.44 m wide and 3.54 m long. So far so good but if we consider the fact that 1.20 m of the length was the “entrance platform” and that the metal beds were placed one on top of the other, leaving the owner of the top bunk with exactly 50 cm of space to squeeze herself into AND remember that those beds were usually 80 cm wide, it left Herr L´s domestics with 64 cm to wash themselves and get dressed. We know this from a complaint lodged with the local police by some sympathetic neighbour and from another impressive book Rund Um Riehmers Hofgarten.

Here is what Theodor Fontane, a pharmacist who turned a famous German writer at the end of the 19th century, had to say about Hängeböden:

They [die Hängeböden] are always in the kitchen, sometimes right above the stove or directly opposite from it. You climb a ladder and when you are tired, you can easily fall of it. But mostly you manage. Then you open the door and squeeze yourself into the hole, just like into an oven. That´s what they call “sleeping accommodation”. And I will only tell you one thing: you would be better off in a hay-stack even one full of mice. And summer is the worst. Outside it´s 30 degrees and in the stove fire keeps burning the whole day long; so it is like laying down on a grill. That´s how I saw it when I visited Berlin. But I believe they are not allowed to build those things any more. It´s forbidden by law. (Der Stechlin, 1899)

Well, it might have been forbidden by law but that did not stop the tight-fisted and often simply spiteful employers from forcing their servants to use them for sleeping. The law said that a minimum height of 2.70 m for such rooms in new buildings must be provided but in fact had nothing to offer if the building was old. In 1904 another restaurant owner, Max Krüger of Yorckstrasse 85 faced charges of having four (!) servants sleep in the space of 1.60 m x 1.91 m.

All that for a truly lousy pay of 667 Marks a year and even worse food and accomodation. Despite what many in those days believed, quite few of the girls were able to save enough money to be able to leave the service. If they were lucky to marry, they could do all of the above things for free for their ever-extending family. If they remained domestics, they continued eating scraps from their master´s table and drinking “Dienstbotenkaffee” or “servants coffee” lovingly mixed from leftovers and dross by an inventive coffee manufacturer and purchased for them by the caring employers yet again on the advice of such as authorities as the Deutsche Hausfrauenzeitung.

I have spent exactly 3 minutes in our storage above the bathroom today. And how glad I was it was not 1901.


  1. strytllng
    Aug 10, 2011

    Cruelties of humanity.

  2. claudia
    Aug 11, 2011

    touching, informative, inspiring

    need these things in hard copy (book????????) for me and my guests in the flat (many international groups, all certainly interested in the area they stay in!)

    get in touch doll

    and drink some wostok

    • notmsparker
      Aug 11, 2011

      Your wish is my command! Sitting right down to pen it. Actually…


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