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A Tailor in a Small Pomeranian Town (1870s)

Franz Rehbein (1867-1909) was a farm laborer whose principal legacy was his autobiography—one of the rare personal testimonies of the agrarian working class of the late nineteenth century. Rehbein’s text was published in 1911, edited by the former Protestant minister and social reformer Paul Göhre (1864-1928). In another section of the text, Rehbein tells of his work on a north German farm, but in this excerpt he describes his difficult childhood as the son of a tailor and a washerwoman in a small town in the Prussian province of Pomerania.

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[ . . . ]

My father was a tailor. I can still see him before me: tall, lean, old-fashioned; a good soul but unfortunately weak and sickly – the neighbors called it chest trouble. He himself was not at all averse to being addressed as “master.”

He did not, however, have a workshop with journeymen and apprentices. Our small rented apartment had just one room that served simultaneously as a living room, bedroom, and kitchen for our family of six and – on top of that – as my father’s workshop as well. There he sat at his table between rags and patches, pecking and pecking [with his needle] from dusk until dawn; mother helped out.

Certainly in those days – the 1870s – sewing machines had already been introduced into eastern Pomerania, but my father thoroughly mistrusted those “new-fangled devices.” His guild aphorism was, “Machine work is nothing compared to handiwork!” He might have changed his mind, however, had the sewing machine not been quite so expensive.

Thus, as a “hand tailor,” he continued pecking, year after year, for the urban dwellers who farmed in the countryside, for the workers, and also for the farmers in the surrounding villages, always working tirelessly and industriously – until he could manage no more. During severe coughing attacks, he would wheeze: “It’s right here, right here,” grabbing his chest and gasping for breath.

He strove to provide for his family, doing as much as the meager circumstances in eastern Pomerania allowed any small master to do. These circumstances, though, forced one to become accustomed to meagerness from the get-go.

A bit of money went farther in this industry-poor region than in the modern industrial towns of western Germany. Anyone who lived in this small town and boasted an income comparable to that of a skilled big-city worker could easily count himself among the town’s “better people”; like it or not, he would rank among the respected members of the bourgeoisie. One can well imagine what it must have been like for the truly poor.

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