Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
He was born in Berlin exactly 200 years ago, on February 11th, 1816: Ernst Litfaß, the man who gave Berlin one of the city´s most remarkable symbols – the advertising column commonly known as the Litfaßsäule,
There are exactly 3,151 of them in Berlin at the moment of writing: 2,536 commercial ones, 30 private ones, 17 used uniquely for posters announcing cultural events (most of them stand in former East Berlin) plus 568 modern, digital City-light Säulen. The Litfaßsäule, a classic Berlin advertising column (the equivalent of the Parisian Colonne Morris) is as much a symbol of the city as the historic octagonal public toilets and the U-Bahn stations designed by Alfred Grenander.
Ernst Litfaß, a printer and publisher but also actor and theatre owner – his was the “Theater Lätitia” in Rosenthaler Platz, later known as the “Vorstädtische Theater” – decided to help the authorities solve an acute problem. Too buildings, fences and walls, also in the most prominent areas of the capital, were illegally plastered with hundreds of posters and notices. With no permit or regard for aesthetics. Ernst Litfaß offered to provide custom-made, elegant, wood-and-iron advertisement columns, supplied with a little roof and capable of holding, for instance, a water pump or a pissoir inside. They were to be used as message boards: gratuitously by the city and at a fee by private businesses.
A necessary permit was issued on December 5th, 1854 allowing the clever businessman to produce 150 such columns: 100 new ones and 50 already standing items, built around street pumps and the said pissoirs. However, the latter function was soon given up to be given a new purpose: telephone switchboards and electric power transformers.
On April 15th, 1855 the first new Litfaßsäule, as they soon came to known, was installed in Münzstrasse 4 in front of the old Ziegenbockswache. Each of Litfaß´s columns was unveiled during a small ceremony accompanied by a tune composed especially for the occasion, the Annoncier-Polka.
Ernst Litfaß, who – perhaps a little ironically considering their irritating prevalence today – also produced the first large-format (6.28 m x 9.42 m) posters in Berlin, held monopoly for advertising columns in Berlin until 1888, when his heirs lost a court case against another advertising company, Nauck & Hartmann. Soon Litfaßsäulen became a regular sight in most of big German cities – today there are said to be 67,000 of them. However, the original ones, however rare, are still easy to spot.
The oldest original Litfaßsäule which survived the mass dying of the species in the 1990s (sadly, the old advertising columns were not listed heritage objects) stands in Mexikoplatz in Berlin-Zehlendorf, right in front of the S-Bahn station. It was installed there in 1909.