Berlin street with a fruit stand, 1937. By Thomas Neumann; collection of the National Archive of Norway. Image PD.

Wherever he went during his 1937 trip through Germany – and Berlin in particular- the Norwegian engineer Thomas Neumann always kept his Leica camera ready. He knew the city quite well: he lived and worked here from 1928 until 1933. Now, happy to be back, he sauntered through central Berlin, taking photos of the swastika-filled cityscape.

Only few of his photographs are free from visible Nazi symbols – which in itself reflects the atmosphere in the city pretty accurately. This is one of them. The scene captured by Neumann at the Zeughaus (today the seat of the German Historic Museum) on the corner of Unter den Linden and the street Hinter dem Gießhaus, is stunningly peaceful and dynamic at the same time. The colours are beautifully understated but clear. And the fruit vendor’s cart loaded with bananas and oranges invites the passers-by to “Eat more fruit” to “stay healthy”. Ironically Germany had already entered the most unhealthy period in its own and the world’s history, but the people in this picture as well as nearly everyone around them were still happily unaware of the approaching end of their world.

For his Leica Thomas Neumann chose a fairly new product offered by a German manufacturer, the Agfacolor Neu film first released one the market a year before. Until 1932 Agfacolor products were sold under the name Agfa, a company established – you guessed it – in Berlin. But that is not the only “small revelation” concerning Agfa (between 1873 and 1897 it was still known under its original name, Aktien-Gesellschaft für Anilin-Fabrikation – later replaced by its acronym). Established by two entrepreneurs whose paths crossed in the Berlin university chemistry lab, Carl Martius and Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. From the Mendelssohn-Bartholdys – the descendants of the philosopher and great promotor of the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment), Moses Mendelssohn, who arrived in Berlin as an impoverished teenager on foot and was refused entry at the southernmost city gate known as Hallesches Tor (at the time Jews were banned from using any other city gates but the northern Rosenthaler Tor).

Agfacolor Neu 35-mm film and roll film, 1937. Image via Chemiepark Bitterfeld-Wolfen GmbH, CC 3.0 Licence

Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was not only Moses’ great-grandson. His father was none other than Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, musician and composer enjoying world fame and undying devotion of many fans until this day. After Felix’s early death at 38, followed by that of his beloved wife, Cécile Sophie Jeanrenaud (she sadly died of tuberculosis at 35), Paul – born and bred Leipziger – lived in Berlin at his uncle’s house in Französische Straße. His passion for chemistry was at the root of the future world-famous brand.

That passion also helped Thomas Neumann capture this incredible, cinematic moment in Berlin’s life in the spring of 1937. Without Agfacolor neu film (soon to become the favourite for big Hollywood productions such as Gone With The Wind – many of you might have noticed the resemblance already), the photos made by the Norwegian engineer might have lacked that gentle breath of life.

You can learn more about the history of Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, of Agfa and their breakthrough products (one of which is the longest used photography material in history) reading my Tagesspiegel column “Aus der Zeit” – as always, about everything you never even knew you wanted to know about Berlin. The text about Agfa (in German) is available here: Farbfilm ab 1893: Mit der Berliner Agfa zum scharfen Bild (

Lesser Ury, Bülowstraße am Hochbahn (1922) (image in public domain, via Manfred Heyde at Wikipedia).

Es ist ein Jammer*... Forget your flip-flops, picnic blankets and straw hats. It is wellies and umbrellas this summer in Berlin. While only last year the city was sizzling under merciless rays of unforgiving sun, begging for shade and cooling beverages, in July 2023 the city saw rainfalls of approximately 75 litres per one square metre – that’s over 20 litres more than the median. It is August now and the wet blanket has not been lifted yet. It’s raining cats and dogs.

Luckily, the city’s well-functioning system of stormwater mains, detention tanks and sewers – a system, which whilst still imperfect, has been protecting Berlin from deluge for the past 150 years and is being heavily modernised as we speak – came a long way from the days of knee-deep gutters and regular flooding. And Berlin used to see enough of the latter as it was.

Take the Panke. With winter slowly coming to an end and snow melting along the riverbed, the rather gentle little river arriving in Berlin from the north and mouthing at the Spree at Schiffbauerdamm, tended to lose its grip on itself. The 29-kilometre long Panke – one of Berlin’s six rivers (next to the Spree, the Dahme, the Havel, the Erpe and the Wuhle) – would turn wilder, and wider, and louder, and sooner or later would leave its regular bed, flooding the nearby areas. Elsewhere in the city the situation wasn’t much better. Every heavy outpour was a potential catastrophe. Since until the second half of the nineteenth century Berlin had no proper sewerage system to speak of and Berliners had to rely on pits, gutters and sluices, during heavy rains, most of the rainwater would have ended up sloshing down the streets and courtyards, washing up whatever unappetising matter the above contained straight under your feet.

Flooding in Yorckstraße after the heavy storms over Berlin in April 1904 (here, on the border between Kreuzberg and Schöneberg; elsewhere in the north of the city several buildings collapsed). For 10 Pfennig you could navigate the deluge sat on a horse-drawn cart.

As you can imagine, that was not only highly unpleasant – it was also potentially life-threatening (think typhoid or cholera). For that reason, Prussian physicians, engineers, and social reformers, like Rudolf Virchow and James Hobrecht – to mention just the two among hundreds, if not thousands – raised alarm: without a functioning, reliable sewer system Berlin would soon become a cesspit.

On top of suffering the consequences of rapid population boom without an infrastructure to match, quite a few Berliners also resorted to straightforward cheating. To save the costs of emptying their cesspits – which in often heavily overpopulated tenements would fill up quite fast – the night-pots and buckets were emptied into the up to one metre wide and some 60 cm deep street gutters before their house. Or straight into the river Spree. Plumpsklos (very basic wooden outhouses erected in the courtyards) were the most popular form of a toilet – in 1871, the year when Germany became an empire and King Wilhelm I turned into Kaiser Wilhelm I, this was the most common facility used by around one million Berliners. The city had only 16,000 water closets and in most of them the foul water drains ended either over street gutters or – yes, you have guessed it – over or in the Spree again.

Both, the authorities and the residents were quick to recognise the problem; however, planning and arriving at the solution took decades. Before that happened, among the usual disputes over costs and responsibilities, many plans had been rejected, including the one presented by Eduard Salomon, the architect of the Prussian Ostbahn – Eastern Railway – connecting Berlin and the East-Prussian cities of Königsberg and Eydthkuhnen.

Eventually, in 1873 the construction of the Berliner Kanalisation began. It took over twenty years to complete the system, but when it was ready, it was quite a thing. James Hobrecht’s Radialsystem, with Berlin divided into twelve sections where wastewater could be transported outside the city using a system of brickwork mains, drains, pumping stations and gravitation, was ingenious. The wastewater ended up on one of the Rieselfelder – or septic drain fields – created on the city’s own estates. The latter had been purchased by Berlin outside the city limits especially for that purpose. Seeing how well the system worked, the then independent municipalities and communities such as Charlottenburg, Schöneberg or Spandau followed suit and did the same. Hobrecht’s Radialsystem became known as the highly effective „Berlin System“ and was duly emulated by other cities abroad, like Cairo, Tokio and Moscow to name just a few.

The 1884 map of Hobrecht’s twelve Radialsysteme for Berlin (fromt he collection of Berliner Wasserbetriebe and Water Museum in Berlin-Friedrichshagen).

The generously designed and built mains and sewers – the city was, after all, expected to expand further – could also take in plenty of rainwater from heavy outpours. Next to the sewers transporting household or commercial wastewater, the network was also fitted with rainwater sewers, and later even with massive subterranean tanks for “temporary parking” of the stormwater that would otherwise threaten to flood the streets when the outpour was particularly heavy.

Today Berlin has over 3,300 km of rainwater canals – if you placed them in one line, they would reach Egyptian Luxor. And they are just one element of the system protecting Berlin from the yet again increasing number of floodings: add to it around 1,900 km of mixed sewers that serve that purpose, too. Those are usually the older canals built mostly in the city centre for, first and foremost, household wastewater, but serving as a kind of an emergency or back-up system in stormy weather. The problem is, these sewers cannot be made bigger, or longer, or wider – they were built under Mitte, or Moabit, or Kreuzberg and it is easy to imagine, how tricky subterranean construction in those areas is. It is quite full down there. And the need to find a solution becomes clear with every heavy rain hitting Berlin, when not only the streets and cellars get flooded but when passing under the railway viaducts becomes a risky venture. The internet is full of short videos showing stormwater deluge at Berlin’s U-Bahn stations. Or those showing tens of thousands of dead fish floating on the surface of the Landwehrkanal – another practically annual occurrence, caused by contaminated stormwater flowing from the streets into the canal as well as by releasing contents of mixed sewers into the city’s bodies of water after a particularly heavy summer storms. Oxygen levels in the city canal plummet and the fish suffocate as a result.

Two waterworks employees manually cleaning the rainwater sewers under Hohenstaufenstraße in Berlin-Schöneberg, 1930). Image via Berliner Wasserbetriebe.

The answer to both problems are giant – humongous! – underground stormwater tanks, like the one built under one of Berlin’s most popular city parks, the Mauerpark. It can hold up to 7,500 m³ of stormwater. By 2026 another such facility, lovingly dubbed “Berlin’s largest rainwater butt” – the stormwater detention tank with the capacity of 17,000 m³, will take up its work. It will intercept the excess of stormwater from the district of Berlin-Mitte, preventing it from spilling into the river Spree instead. New concepts are being tested, too – like the one in Berlin-Grünau, in the residential estate known as “Quartier 52° Nord”, where rain- and stormwater falling onto the roofs and the pavements is re-directed into the large open basin. It doubles up as both a landscape feature (a pond) and a natural water-processing facility. The body in charge of rain- and stormwater management in the city, one whose purpose is help it become the Schwammstadt (Sponge-City) of the future, is Berliner Regenwasseragentur (Berlin Rain-Water Agency).

We have every reason to believe that Berlin will be able to deal with this challenge just like it did with similar challenges back in the 19th century. One thing is certain: Herr Virchow and Herr Hobrecht would have approved.    

*Es ist ein Jammer = It’s a crying shame

A shorter, German version of this text was published in my weekly Tagesspiegel column “Aus der Zeit”.

Original drawings of Gustav Niemann´s invention (Kaiserliches Patentamt – the original patent in private collection of the author)

On the hottest day of 2022 mercury levels in Berlin’s thermometers hit 37.5°C. That was the official reading. The unofficial ones – as in many places in the city the temperatures exceeded the latter – had both guests and residents perspire profusely and gasp for air in sizzling desperation. And by the look of it, with our climate spinning even further out of control, this year we are likely break that record.

Headgear galore in this 1906 photo of the junction Unter den Linden / Friedrichstraße made by Max Missmann and published “Berlin Leben” magazine. Image in public domain via Zentrale Landebibliothek Berlin.

What you need to survive such scorchers are, first and foremost, water plus protective headgear. The latter has, however, one significant disadvantage: most hats tend to develop sub-tropical conditions inside the crown. You sweat, you suffer and eventually you use the hat to fan yourself with in order to cool down the overheated scalp. But what if your headgear cannot be used for that purpose? If you cannot take it off or if frantic flapping fails to produce the desired cooling effect? A Berlin inventor, convinced he had solved that problem, applied for a patent as early as in 1878.

In the 1870s no respectable person ventured into the public space bareheaded. Only children and the poor would have been seen with no hat or bonnet in the streets. However, although a covered head might have been a marker of one’s social standing (those who could afford a hat, made sure to wear it) but, from the practical point of view, it could also be a blessing and a curse. While ladies’ hats tended to be rather “airy”, providing a tad more ventilation to the often highly decorative (and it itself rather tricky in the heat) hairdos, men’s hats caused their wearers’ scalps to swelter and sweat. The greatest culprit among those headpieces was at the same time the then sacred symbol of Prussian militarism: the Pickelhaube. Its wearers, clad in thick uniforms and marching up and down Berlin’s exercise fields, often ended up feeling unwell und even collapsing. The spring and autumn army manoeuvres on the Tempelhofer Feld (former site of the Tempelhof airport, where the largest Berlin park spreads today) were nothing for the weak-hearted…

Autumn manoeuvres at the Tempelhofer Feld in early 20th century. Author unknown, image in public domain via

According to Berlin’s 1879 address directory, potential help was to come from Admiralsstraße 15 in today’s Kreuzberg. The neighbourhood where Herr Niemann lived and worked, a stone’s throw from Kottbusser Tor, was also in a walking distance from several famous army barracks. It is, therefore, not unlikely that the engineer saw a sound business opportunity in his venture. Selling a functioning Pickelhaube ventilation system, or what Niemann described as Ventilationseinrichtung für Kopfbedeckung, to the Prussian military would have set him up for a lifetime. It is equally possible that Herr Niemann, professionally active in the field of ventilation anyway (sadly, History largely ignored the undoubtedly fascinating life of Gustav Niemann) simply wished to alleviate the pain of all profusely and uncontrollably sweating hat-wearers.

His invention was meant to offer relief in that air would be able better to circulate between the inside of the hat’s crown and the outside world. A small wind wheel or turbine – with ten wings made of a “light yet sturdy material” – was to be installed on top of the crown. The leather sweatband – which every Pickelhaube was fitted with to make it sit on the head firmly –  was to have small, approximately 1-centimetre wide sections carved out at regular intervals to create small openings. The leather sweatband would be held together by a cleverly inserted wiring. According to Herr Niemann’s computations, the rotating wind wheel inside the hat would have helped transport the “perspiratory vapours” outside, thus preventing draught inside the hat, “conserving” one’s hair and helping keep rheumatism, nausea and sunstroke at bay. As to whether it produced the desired effects, the patent offers no answers. The press, too, failed to report any potential triumphs.

Six months later two other gentlemen, Herr Block and Herr Günther, applied for a patent of their own. Registered under the number 6073 in the same category, it safeguarded the inventors’ rights to a “Sponge wreath – where but several drops of Schnaps [for soaking the sponge with, author believes] would be enough to lower the temperature through alcohol’s evaporation”. Did the sponge and the Schnaps help? Alas, yet again our curiosity must remain unfed and doubting. However, the Schnaps – in whichever form it might have been applied – was guaranteed to bring light, if temporary, relief to the sufferers.

And today? A quick search in the EPO (European Patent Office) databank shows that the exhausting race of human kind against the sweaty scalp has not been decided yet. However, with the next scorcher ante portas and no reliably functioning hat-ventilation in sight, remember: a glass of cold beer, enjoyed in the shade while fanning yourself with a just-read, folded newspaper is a perfectly reasonable alternative. And it’s completely patent-free.

“Berliner Weisse Beer Garden at the Gabriel Jager Brewery in Berlin”, painted by Franz Skarbina around 1878. The painting currently in the collection of Berlinische Galerie.

An abridged German version of the text was published in Berlin’s most popular daily, the “Tagesspiegel”, where you will find my weekly (new stories each Saturday) Berlin-history column “Aus der Zeit”: Kühler Kopf 1878: Ein Belüftungssystem für die preußische Pickelhaube (

Students at the Marienfelde garden academy of Elvira Castner photographed by Martha Wolff for the “Berliner Leben”, Oct. 1907. Image in public domain via Zentrales Landesbibliothek Berlin.

An old Chinese proverb says: „If you want to be happy for an hour, get drunk. If you want to be happy for a lifetime, become a gardener. “ When in 1823 first Royal Gardening Academy was set up in Potsdam at Prussian King’s, Friedrich Wilhelm III’s behest, no fewer than eleven young men entered the lush green path towards eternal bliss. There were, however, no women among them: gardening and especially garden design were a “man thing”. Even abroad (for Prussia was many things but progressiveness was never really its forte) females who ventured into their territory were few and far between. And nearly all of them suffered scorn, ranging from the good old avuncular “there-there-girls” to outright loathing. But they risked losing more than just their fair, porcelain teint – often their good reputation was at stake, too, as soon as they dared more than pick the roses. Not much had changed until late into the nineteenth century (of course, with commendable exceptions) – still, even before that more and more ladies began to grab spades and garden forks and tell others what to do with theirs.

Miss Dr Elvira Castner in the “Zeitschrift für Garten- und Blumenkunde” 63. Jahrgang, 1914. Photographer unknown. Image in public domain. Here via Wikimedia.

Elvira Castner was one of the first female dentists in Germany – unable to study medicine in Prussia, she gained her Zahnkünstlerin (literally, “tooth artist” as stomatologists were listed in Berlin directories at the time) diploma in Baltimore. She was also an avid gardener, having grown up with a mother who herself drew her happiness from caring for carrot beds and flowers. It was there, in the USA, that Castner saw a window of professional opportunity for women in Prussia: she took walks down to the Baltimore harbour where she watched tonnes of US apples being loaded onto ships to be dispatched over to Europe – to Germany.  Why not grow more of your own apples there? Why not leave this job to women? Wasn’t gardening a perfect way of earning your own money for middle-class females who cannot or want not to rely on their family to support them? For women who did not wish to be forced to choose between “married” or “widowed”? Or for those who saw garden design as a way of combining the Aesthetic with the Practical.

Once back in Berlin, Castner – whose dental career took off at once – began to work out the details. In 1894 in Fregestraße, in what is now Berlin-Friedenau, she opened her private gardening academy for women. Soon the first seven students were joined by the ladies from Hedwig Heyl’s Housekeeping Academy in Charlottenburg, where they had taken a course in pot plants and bouquet-making. Elvira Castner’s academy offered them a chance to venture beyond the pots and ribbons. Perhaps in the future they could even start their own gardens? Or – should that future be kinder to females – find employment as head gardeners? It did not take long for the academy to become of interest to many of the Höhere Töchter (literally “higher daughters” or daughters of upper-middle and upper class families) and the student numbers to grow.

Planting artichokes in Marienfelde school gardens. Photo by Martha Wolff for the “Berliner Leben”, Oct. 1907. Via Zentrales Landesbibliothek Berlin.

In order to expand the gardens as well as offer proper boarding to that growing number of students, Elvira Castner invested in 8.6 acres of land in Marienfelde in what is now Berlin-Tempelhof.  Her new academy could offer theoretical and practical education to 70 students each year; forty of whom lived in the brand-new boarding house paid for, to a great extent, by the academy’s mother. After two years of diligent work and passing the exams, the ladies (aged 16 to 50) left the academy with a professional diploma.

But that did not prevent their male colleagues from treating them with hostility and/or disdain. In their eyes, opening the market to female gardeners would lead to a dangerous “surplus in production”, “further price-drops” and – something that is still being preached in certain circles – to an actual End of the World as we know it.

That end, by the way, did take place – between 1914 and 1918 it changed Prussia, Germany and, in fact, the whole world for ever – but not because women marked garden paths, put up trellises or grew zucchini. They ploughed on, metaphorically and literally speaking: somebody had to feed the famished nation.

The school building and the dormitory of Castner’s Gardening Academy for Women in Marienfelde. Image via Archiv Arbeitskreis Historisches Marienfelde.

In 1919 Elvira Castner’s Gardening Academy for Women registered its one-thousandth student. The school continued for another three years until the hyperinflation and crisis raging in Germany because of the war and the government’s blinkered financial politics during the Ruhr Crisis, forced Castner and her co-workers to sell the school grounds and gardens. Elvira Castner, who had been awarded the silver Cross of the Order of Merit (with a white ribbon) and became a member of the German Gardening Society, died on July 13, 1923.

A hundred years later, in April 2023, the Königliche Gartenakademie (Royal Gardening Academy) in Dahlem – an academy established on the grounds of Berlin’s Botanical Gardens by two women, Gabriella Pape and Isabelle Van Groeningen – celebrated its 15th birthday. Gabriella Pape is the only German gardener to have been awarded a medal at the gardening event worldwide, Chelsea Flower Show. A true Dame of Spades that Elvira Castner would be more than proud of.

The text was originally written in German and published in my weekly column “Aus der Zeit” in Berlin’s leading newspaper, the “Tagesspiegel”. The column appears weekly on Saturdays in the section “Berliner Wirtschaft” (Berlin Economy).