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Large Dresden Family Living on 1,000 Marks per Annum (c. 1880s)

Illness and unforeseen circumstances could always jeopardize the welfare of working-class families in Imperial Germany. But as this excerpt from the autobiography of a working-class woman in Dresden shows, even a modest income sometimes allowed parents of large families to give their children better prospects for the future – particularly if the family followed a strict savings regimen and received support from relatives. Despite its affected cheerfulness and references to self-sacrifice, this mother's account still manages to show that workers’ everyday lives were not always uniformly dull and dreary.

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Starting with our first child, I began depositing money into savings accounts. The child was only two years old, but money was already going into a school account, for I had told myself that if I only started [saving] when the money was needed, it would be too late. By then, we might have also grown accustomed to too much “luxury,” and I believe that scaling back is more difficult than the opposite.

And how fortunate that was! We had five children at two-year intervals. When the fifth child was three months old, the third one, a sweet little girl of four and a half, caught diphtheria and unfortunately died, despite the doctor’s efforts. That cost a lot of money, because the second child also fell seriously ill. I went to the savings bank with a heavy heart, but was glad that the money was available, and I withdrew from the contingency fund the amount needed to pay for the doctor, the pharmacy, and the funeral. Three years later, the same misfortune befell us: the youngest child, a three-year-old boy, fell ill. After being sick for one day, the dear boy was taken from us.

In this instance, we also had to take money from the contingency fund. However, I never lost my courage, thank God, to continue saving, even though the money disappeared time and again in such a sad way. I thought that one day it would be used for something good after all. After opening my savings accounts, I immediately saw to it that my husband and I joined the “Dresden General Health Insurance Company” [Allgemeine Dresdner Krankenkasse], so that in case of illness the doctor and the pharmacy would be free of charge, and a bit of sick pay would be granted to us as well. This included a death benefit (paid from the additional charge fund). How nice it was when the account statements arrived and all the money was there. – When the children started school, they were admitted to a confirmand’s savings plan. The two older daughters were subscribed with five pennies each. When the eldest daughter completed school, the second one had her contribution raised to ten pennies. The third child, however, a boy, was set up with 20 pennies right away. I put away the deposits from the money I had available for board. Each confirmation disbursement was wonderful, like hitting the jackpot. The money was then used for educational purposes; the children were allowed to learn what they felt like. The eldest daughter trained as a childcare worker at the Fröbelstift and is now married. The second one also got proper training and now has a good position. The boy was able to acquire all the books he needed at the seminar. – But the most important thing, however, was that my loved ones were very modest; great was the delight on birthdays when sausages and buns were served for breakfast, along with a bag full of goodies that grandmother bought from the confectioner for 15 pennies. As a girl, I had learned some tailoring, which now turned out to be very practical. I made everything myself, dresses and hats, and thus I had the advantage of being able to re-use second-hand garments after they had been washed and ironed. I made the boys' suits up until their confirmation, using all of their father’s old things.

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