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Commercial Marriage Brokerage and Bohemian Life in the Big City: Excerpts from Ernst Dronke, Berlin (1846)

This passage from Ernst Dronke's (1822-1891) Berlin (1846) introduces two phenomena regarded as typical of big cities. First, Dronke addresses the commercialization of marriage through marriage brokers and "contact ads." Second, he describes the city's Bohemian intellectuals, who scorned traditional moral and religious conventions governing marriage and gender roles.

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However, speculation extends its reach not only to commerce proper, but even to the most intimate conditions of life. Marriage solicitations by way of the “no longer unusual” means of public advertisements in newspapers are well known. In this no longer unusual way, a man in the prime of life looks for a companion who, in addition to other personal qualities, can bring a specific sum of money into the marriage. “But I am concerned less with beauty than kindness of heart. Utmost discretion. Responses under X.” One would think that nobody would take up such crazy offers, yet they do; if you don’t set your standards too high, you can expect at least five to eight responses. A friend once placed such an ad in the paper as a joke, and by the next day he had already received four responses. He had made “moderate” wealth a condition. Among those who answered was one government official, who offered him not one but three daughters to choose from. Then there was a young woman who, if memory serves me right, wrote with extraordinarily beautiful handwriting and in an elegant style that she lived a deeply unhappy life with a tyrannical stepmother and a weak father, and would seize every opportunity to escape this situation. At the end, this letter had evidently been moistened by tears, and it was painful to see a girl throwing herself in such desperation at the first stranger. Two other responses had been written in a terrible scrawl and with countless Berlinerisms and misspellings. The social status of the authors was unmistakable in these letters. There are also complete marriage bureaus, though they are still being run more or less quietly and cautiously. Most commission bureaus of any kind are built on fraud, [ . . . ]

At the end of these reflections we shall mention a small group of people who seek to find an outward expression in public life for their contempt for contemporary moral and ethical ideas. These are the so-called “liberated” or “emancipated.” They are not content with having recognized the immorality of the moral notions of today and fighting against the conditions that have given rise to them in a way that is proper for them. Instead, they want to demonstrate in public life that they are “beyond” this. This is the characteristic trait of the Berliners that we have encountered before – shrugging something off. What they have processed and recognized in themselves, through critical examination, they regard as being done with; it not longer “exists” for them. This negation of something which, though reprehensible, still exists in society, must seem childish and ridiculous in the actual expression of life. Only the emancipated ones don’t care if they clash with the power of Philistinism and the police; in fact it is to them exalting proof of their own “finished” consciousness. And so in Berlin you can see women sitting in some public places, smoking their cigars and drinking beer, wine, or even a small glass of absinthe. In doing so they in no way intend to inveigh against a custom they have recognized as narrow-minded and philistine by using the

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