How do I deal with my housemaid

Berlin maid around 1900 -
Auguste on the loft

Hardly anyone still knows the chambers that housed the sleeping quarters for the maids in bourgeois apartments in Berlin around 1900. Small and relegated to the most unattractive corners of a floor plan, these tiny rooms have long since been added to the rest of the apartment space in the course of modernization. If they survived, they still serve as storage rooms today. Nobody would think that someone used to have their room here. Even the notorious loft floors in the hallway and kitchen are only familiar to hearsay, they are also history.

There were penniless young girls and single women up to about 30 years of age who moved from the country to the big cities in order to “take up positions” there, as it was called at the time. At the turn of the 20th century, maids were the largest female occupation, and almost 70 percent of the bourgeoisie had at least one maid. In most large cities, servants were housed outside the apartment in unheated attic rooms on the floor. In Berlin, on the other hand, where laundry rooms and drying floors were housed in the attics of the apartment buildings, most of them slept in the apartments of their masters. If the size of the apartment allowed it, however, a spatial separation from the staff was very important. Servants only had access to the apartment through the separate delivery and rear entrance. The side entrance could be reached via a second flight of stairs.

In the apartment floor plans of the Wilhelminian era, the chambers for the staff are usually next to the kitchen, pantry or bathroom - a small space that had been squeezed from the rest of the space. In this tiny room, the furniture was limited to the bare essentials: an iron bed, a chair, a couple of coat hooks on the wall and a clothes horse could be found in it. If the cut was a bit larger, a cupboard, chest of drawers or washbasin was added. In addition, bed covers and linen were provided by the rulers. The only furniture the servants brought into town from the countryside were lockable travel baskets woven from wicker - which you could tell when they arrived at the train stations. Since many girls were forbidden to lock their rooms, the wicker baskets were often the only way to store personal belongings and to keep their wages.

Privacy not provided

The bedrooms with their spartan furnishings were not intended as a private refuge for their own living requirements. So it says admonishingly in the contemporary guidebook “The housewife in her switching and rule”: “From time to time the housewife also has to make sure that the girls, after cleaning up the kitchen in the evening and doing the last business, their room visit, don't stay up late, maybe chat with other servants from the house or even read in bed. Quite apart from the other inconveniences and dangers associated with such nocturnal hustle and bustle, consideration for the health of the servants, who are on their feet from at least 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. and longer, dictates that they be one indulge in sufficient sleep. "

A large part of the country girls made no great demands on the accommodation because of their origin. It was enough if the room had a window and contained the necessary furniture. Often from home or from their jobs on the farm they were used to poorer sleeping conditions.

On the other hand, compared to other sleeping options, a girls' room meant almost luxurious accommodation. Often the maids only had their sleeping quarters on the notorious loft. These were small alcoves that were created in the high apartments by inserted false ceilings above the pantry, bathroom or hallway, which could be accessed from the kitchen or hallway with the help of a ladder. They were provided with doors, and only a few could stand or have daylight. Most were no taller than five feet and so small that there was only room for a bed and a travel basket.

Theodor Fontane immortalized such a loft in his novel “Der Stechlin” in 1897, in which the maid Hedwig reports: “When I came to Berlin, there were still the lofts. They are always in the kitchen, sometimes close to the stove or across the street. And now you climb a ladder and if you are tired you can also fall down. But mostly it works. And you open a door and push yourself into a hole, just like in an oven. And it's worst in summer. It's 30 degrees outside and the stove has been on fire all day; then it is as if one were being laid on the grill. But I don't think they are allowed to build something like that anymore. Police ban. "

Even among contemporaries of the 19th century, opinions about this sleeping place were very divided. In 1862 the conservatively oriented “Kreuzzeitung” railed against the grievance, while for a Berlin authorized representative when planning the interior design of his new apartment in 1875, there was no doubt that “Auguste must of course go to the loft”. It was only when the building police ordinance of 1887 set the minimum height for such rooms at 2.70 meters for health and hygiene reasons that the erection of mezzanine floors in new buildings was stopped. However, the existing crates were of course still used. A few years later, Oskar Stillich, economist at the Berlin Humboldt Academy, presumed farsightedly that this form of accommodation, which is still so widespread, was "a fact of which the historiography of the future may one day be amazed".

By 1900 54 percent of 432 maids surveyed in Berlin had a room to themselves. The rest of them had to be content with the loft or had no private area at all. They were only assigned a generally accessible room, which was set up as a laundry or ironing room or as a bathroom. This is how a Berlin maid describes her situation: "In the same there is my bed, nightstand, washstand, a cupboard for my clothes, my laundry basket, the bathtub and a column stove."

"Pressure to change"

Last but not least, these working and living conditions meant that, according to a contemporary statistical survey, over 90 percent of Berlin maids wanted to “change”. Many maids chose employers based on where they could find a suitable room to sleep in. Today, at best, the position of an au pair is a distant reminder of the times of servants who had to spend day and night under the roof of their rule.

Jens Sethmann


At your service 16 hours a day

For the young rural women there was basically only a servant position in the city as an opportunity to earn money, as this was also accepted and supported in bourgeois society. It was found that this house- and family-related women's work came closest to the “real destiny of women”. At the same time, starting as a maid also promised a roof over her

Head, eating regularly and socializing. At 16 hours, maids had the longest working hours of all employees and were most dependent on the employer's family. The rights and, above all, the duties of the maids living in the house of their employers were regulated by the Prussian servants' order of 1810. Fixed working hours were not provided for. Even after the servants' order was repealed in 1918, the eight-hour day was not applied, and there were no rules on vacation, nighttime rest, free time or the granting of a whole day off.

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literature

Heidi Müller: Servant Spirits - Life and Work of Urban Servants. Dietrich Reimer Verlag, Berlin 1985

Violet Schultz: In Berlin in position - maid in Berlin at the turn of the century. Edition Hentrich, Berlin 1989

Ingrid Schaub: Between the salon and the girls' room - women in Biedermeier and imperial times. Goldmann, Munich 1998

Hartmut Lindenberg
22.12.2018