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Working-Class Boarding Houses in Chemnitz and Berlin (1890)

Germany’s explosive population growth and urbanization made housing a social problem of immense proportions. In the 1860s tenements were built, first in Berlin, then in other larger cities, but four out of five unskilled workers in Berlin still lived in tiny apartments with just one heated room. Many apartments also had to accommodate a lodger [Schlafgänger] or meal-time boarder [Kostgänger]. The excerpt below describes such living conditions. The author of this account is Paul Göhre (1864-1928), a Protestant pastor and social reformer who spent three months as a factory worker in Chemnitz to experience working-class life and study class relations. His observations were published in the book Three Months in a Workshop: A Practical Study [Dreieinhalb Monate Fabrikarbeiter und Handwerksbursche. Eine praktische Studie]. Here, Göhre describes the housing conditions he encountered and discusses the impact of lodgers and boarders on the families who were forced by economic necessity to accommodate them.

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And now as to the interiors, which were comfortable, indifferent, or wretched, depending on many and varied causes. A sofa, a round table, a chest of drawers, a good-sized mirror, some cane-seated and more wooden chairs, and a few pictures were almost always to be seen; not seldom, too, a sewing-machine, a hanging lamp, and a wardrobe of showy appearance but very flimsy construction. In the corner or at the side where the stove stood, hung the few cooking utensils; in the small room adjoining, which was usually almost wholly filled by bedsteads, were pots, old shoes, and other rubbish, perhaps also another press. In the case of young married people, one or another of the above named articles would often be missing, the sofa, the mirror, or the clock, circumstances not allowing their purchase, since, in this section of the population, the marriages are portionless. But, in such a household, the number of the children and their ages, the morals and manners of the husband, the employment and, above all, of course, the character of the wife, her natural ability, and her bringing-up, decided whether or not the reigning spirit should be one of order, neatness, intelligent management, and inviting friendliness, in spite of narrow quarters and the utmost simplicity. I have been in the homes of many of my comrades who earned but a few more pfennigs hourly than I myself did, and who had many children and few possessions, but where it was a pleasure to stay. I have visited drillers and polishers, piece-workers, earning from forty to fifty marks weekly, in homes no plainer than my father’s own, with white covers on sofa, table, and commode, white curtains before the flower-filled windows, and many pictures on the spotless walls; and I have seen the opposite of all this among people with incomes large or small, children few or many, furniture new or old.

However – and I desire to state this sharply and emphatically – the families who, with all the restrictions of their circumstances and their dwellings, yet sought to maintain a certain standard of decency and refinement, and did actually maintain it, were very much more numerous than those with whom, for whatever reason, this was not the case.

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