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A Young Berlin Noblewoman Recalls a House Ball, Skating, and Bicycling (c. 1890)

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[ . . . ]

Skating played a considerable role. Since several of our dance partners were regimental and battalion adjutants, we managed things quite freely on Rousseau Island or the Neue See. Whenever we pleased the band was booked earlier; one nod sufficed and they played for a contre or quadrille. A skating dance like that required a lot of room, but the rest of the crowd did not protest; they stood crammed around us, looking on. Grouped in long chains or lines, often in double formations – a threatening phalanx – we dashed through bridges. There was one occasion when one of the gentlemen “drilled” us. We were about twelve couples, everything went smoothly and properly, and in the end the lengthy row swept like a storm across the lake. The police officer watched us – he was actually supposed to forbid such diversions – but he had not the slightest intention of intervening. He just grinned quietly to himself. That’s how easygoing Berliners were in 1880. All this time, our mothers walked along the shore – shivering and freezing, turning bluer and paler, patiently and dutifully.

German women’s sport is not quite as new as is often portrayed nowadays. We, as well as most of our girlfriends, swam, rowed, hiked, did gymnastics, and skated. The daughters of senior officers and landowners went riding; only some old-fashioned fathers would not allow it. [ . . . ]

In the winter of 1896, I began bicycling, a bold step at that time. The well-paved Knesebeckstraße – not yet built up – was the favorite spot for lessons. Like many Berliners, I had my first experience of falling off, both to the right and the left, until I eventually got the hang of it. Berlin was quite backward in this respect – of the ladies belonging to high society, the wife of Ambassador von Keudell and I were, as far as I know, the first to appear on a bicycle in public. Initially, though, this was limited to 8 o’clock in the morning in the Tiergarten,* because one still had to put up with snide remarks from riders and pedestrians.

Bicycling, however, soon caught on and was practiced with great enthusiasm; it was at the center of our interests, and the bicycle definitely had to accompany all journeys. Berlin, however, was caught up in a storm of indignation over this danger to pedestrian traffic. Wildenbruch and others issued strong protests – every pedestrian crosswalk had supposedly become a serious threat to life! [ . . . ]

By that point, I had certainly already been granted a lot of freedom, but for the adolescents in our circles, bicycling truly had the effect of tearing down barriers. Several mothers learned the new skill alongside their daughters, but many did not have the courage; and so the young girls, together with their brothers and cousins, and even with their dance partners alone, sped off into the distance.

*Berlin’s extensive central park – trans.

Source: Marie von Bunsen, Die Welt, in der ich lebte. Erinnerungen 1860-1912 [The World in Which I Lived: Memories 1860-1912]. Unrevised new edition. Biberach, 1959, pp. 50-54, 140.

Original German text reprinted in Gerhard A. Ritter and Jürgen Kocka, eds., Deutsche Sozialgeschichte 1870-1914. Dokumente und Skizzen [German Social History 1870-1914. Documents and Sketches], 3rd ed. Munich: C.H. Beck, 1982, pp. 362-65.

Translation: Erwin Fink

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