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 (

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).

A walk through Berlin’s historic district Luisenstadt down to the block around Ritterstraße might be refreshing but not exactly aesthetically pleasing. This neighbourhood has never ranked among the prettiest. It does make an effort but fails. The problem is not new. Back in 1903 the English edition of the renown Baedeker guide warned Berlin visitors: „The industrial Luisenstadt, to the South and South-East of the Spittelmarkt, is the most densely populated and least interesting among Berlin districts“. Again, from the aesthetic point of view – perhaps. However, the area around Ritterstraße has also been interesting, lively and cosmopolitan. But, of course, it wasn’t Unter den Linden or Kudamm.

Luisenstadt dies- und jenseits des Kanals (Luisenstadt on Thsi and On The Other Side of the Canal) on a Berlin map.

At the same time as Baedeker recommended its readers better head for the „Wintergarten“ and Stadtschloß, crowds of visitors from all over the world flocked to Berlin’s „Goldene Meile“ (Golden Mile). From the 1880s on a whole export district grew around Ritterstraße in what is today Berlin-Kreuzberg: textile industry, electro-technical workshops, bronze ornaments manufacturers, cardboard-box factories as well as printers and stationary product entrepreneurs had been settling there for decades. Soon the future SW68 (old postal code for the area, like SO36, traditionally used as its nickname) – which became not so much a postal code as a seal of approval – small and medium-sized factories began churning out screws, pipes, lamps, bath tubs, toys, gramophone plates and even wheel spokes for the first racing cars in Germany.

The industry ruled the Kiez (Berlin word for a neighbourhood) but it lived – even if not exactly smoke or noise-free – in the background.

Aerial image of the area along the old Luisenstädtischen Kanal (filled in in 1926) with Engelbecken and Wassertorplatz – then still an inner-city harbour – as well as Oranienplatz between the two). Source: 1925 book “Im Flugzeug über Berlin : 48 Luftbilder mit Text” by Erich Ewald.

The term Kreuzberger Mischung, or „Kreuzberg Mix“ (sometimes also referred to as Berliner Mischung), is almost forgotten today but according to many Berlin historians this is where its cradle stood: in the former Luisenstadt. Within the approximately 25-hectar area divided into more or less regular blocks, the city tested the new “living-and-working” concept on a larger scale: the plot fronts along the street were lined with residential buildings, many of which had at least one side-wing and/or what is known as a Quergebäude built parallel to and behind the courtyard separating it from the front house.

The back and the sides of the long plots were occupied by small workshops and factories, which with time expanded, swallowing most of the free space on the site. Gradually, the said plot became nearly completely built-over and the small gardens some of them had at the beginning became the song of the past.

But business boomed. Sample stores, warehouses and the famous show rooms – whose owners planning to set up shop windows in the 1890s had to apply for a special permit as shop windows were actually something for Unter den Linden or Leipziger Straße. Company agents set up their offices, door to door with shippers and carriers.

Names such as Butzke, Massary, Pelikan and Deutsche Gramophon Gesellschaft appeared. Advertisements, reps and sample stores, produced the air of a professional trade fair. The electrifying, pulsating atmosphere of the neighbourhood attracted crowds of business people, traders, inventors and even tourists.

By 1914 no fewer than 1,344 foreign companies offered their goods and services in and around Ritterstraße. In total the area was home to 1,391 factory owners, almost 3,000 agents, 92 export companies and 21 shipping businesses. The name Rollkutschenviertel (Haulier District) said a lot about the quality of living there.

Still, no-one really complained. Jeschäft (Berlinerisch for business) was good, money flowed and everything was going so well that in the first half of the 20th century almost every single building in Ritterstraße housed a show room or a factory or workshop.

In spite of the heavy recession during and after the First World War, in 1936 the Exportviertel Ritterstraße had a sales turnover worth over 100 million Reichsmark!

The ruins had been removed by 1954 when this aerial photo was taken – the round plaza is today’s Mehringplatz in Berlin-Kreuzberg (photo by Hans Richter via FIS Broker Berlin; image in public domain).

And then the next war began and six years later, on February 3, 1945 it blew the whole district off the face of the Earth. The air-raids that night pulverised nearly the whole Luisenstadt and the southern end of the neighbouring Friedrichstadt (north of the Landwehrkanal and to both sides of Friedrichstraße). Gone were the crystal vases, the leather goods, the bathroom fixtures, wall carpets and telegraphs. Gone, too, were small munition factories that replaced all the school-furniture manufactures, steel wire and paper bags workshops which instead of offering their usual goods, had began to produce cartridge shells and explosives. What remained after the cannons stopped spitting fire and went silent in the end was a neighbourhood that never managed to pick itself up again. What also remained were the curious vases sold by Herr Weckmann, a businessman from Ritterstraße 37, after the war. He recycled the no-longer needed metal cartridge shells – you could take Ritterstraße out of business but you could not take business out of the street.

The text was originally written in German for my weekly column "Aus der Zeit" in Berlin's newspaper the Tagesspiegel.