Friday, December 19, 2008

Nikolaus, Knecht Ruprecht, and the "Cheeky" Girl

In past posts, I've written about Saint Nikolaus Eve, both in the early centuries and in more recent times. But I can't resist one more St. Nikolaus story, this one from perhaps 50 or so years ago. You've probably heard of the film "The Nightmare before Christmas." This one could be called "The Nightmare before St. Nikolaus Day". A woman who lived in Irsch as a child and experienced a fearsome Nikolaus visit tells her story like this:

The Nikolaus Eve at our Home

For my siblings and me, the observance of Nikolaus Eve was full of stress because Nikolaus brought his assistant, the servant Ruprecht (Knecht-Ruprecht in German*). And he left behind a very fearful impression on me.

Now the evening was here and the banging and chain rattling on the wooden steps outside our door were so great that it was frightening and we were afraid. The kitchen door was flung open with great force and Nikolaus and Knecht Ruprecht came inside.

Knecht Ruprect's red tongue showed all the while because he let it hang out of his mouth. On his back he lugged a sack that was so big that a child would fit inside. Two long, stuffed stockings with shoes sewed to them were stuck to the outside of the bag, a sight that scared me stiff because I thought I would be stuck to the bag in the same way. I started to bawl.

Nikolaus took his big book and quickly leafed through it as if he already knew what the devil had written in it. He looked at me and then said that I had been rude to my Aunt Lena. And he had observed that, in the street, I was a cheeky child. He was going to take me with him, just as I had feared. But before he took me away, I should pray the "Our Father."

As I finished the Our Father, Knecht Ruprecht tugged at me. But I held on to the cutlery drawer. I pulled on it with force and it swung out of the cupboard with a dreadful clanging.

My grandma came down the stairs and helped me out of my jam. In that moment, I loved my grandma more than ever.

As a punishment, Nikolaus gave me a stick and he and Ruprecht started away. But my grandma wasn't finished with them; she snatched a gift from Nikolaus. Face beaming, she brought it to me

Thus ends the story submitted by Hedwig Rice to the monthly Irsch internet newsletter - sent free to subscribers with an interest in reading it.

My family, descended from ancestors who once lived in Irsch, also celebrated St. Nicholas Eve. After reading Frau Rice's story, I'm grateful that St. Nicholas came alone to our Wisconsin farm home and the only sound we heard was of his sleighbells. Never did our cutlery drawer suffer from a visit from St. Nicholas!

*For more on the history of Sankt Nikolaus and Knecht Ruprecht, use the search box at the top of the page.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Salt Lake City Discovery

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Temple in the foreground, the Tabernacle in the center, and our hotel (the Plaza) and the Family History Library at the far left (Photo by Carole Kortenhof)

Eliminating possibilities - that's mostly what I did during my stay in Salt Lake City last month. I can't complain, or course, because previous visits have given me the names and stories of my ancestors from Irsch, Zerf, and Serrig in Kreis Saarburg. By now, though, I am seeking bits and pieces, looking for hints to collateral line relatives whose success at hiding from me could stymie Sherlock Holmes himself.

One interesting snippet that I discovered was from The Antwerp Emigration Index by Charles Hall. I had never paid much attention to it because it covers only one year, 1855, and only one port. This time I picked it up on the offhand chance that it would help me solve a mystery that so far has me totally frustrated.

I am searching for the younger sister of my 2nd great grandfather, Johann Meier. When he emigrated in 1860, he told the Mayor of Beurich, who was taking his application, that he was going to America to improve his life and that he already had two brother-in-laws in America. One brother-in-law was Matthias Rauls, the brother of Johann's wife, Magdelena. The other had to be the husband of his sister Anna. Unfortunately, Anna did not marry in the parish church of Irsch, her home parish. It's possible that she married in her husband's parish and then the two left for America. It is also possible that she decided to emigrate when she was still single and left before any real emigration records are available, marrying somewhere in her adopted homeland. Thus I don't know if I am searching for Anna Meier or Anna _______. Complicating my life is the fact that emigration records from the Trier area before 1856 do not seem to have been kept.

After searching for Anna's marriage record in the parishes neighboring her home village of Irsch and finding nothing, I decided to see if the 1855 Antwerp Emigration Index showed any trace of her. Once again, no Anna Meier. But what I did find delighted me. In that year, 37 residents of Zerf/Frommersbach left Antwerp for America on the ship Daylight.
I have a 662 page book about the history of Zerf (in German) and it lists all of the emigrants who were found in emigration documents filed in the Koblenz Archive. Not any of the thirty-seven passengers on the Ship Daylight are named in that history. So even though I did not find anyone I was looking for, I'm able to write my own personal addendum to "Der Hochwaldort Zerf am Fuße des Hunsrücks" by Edgar Christoffel. And I'll keep looking for Anna.
We know that people from the Rhineland began to emigrate in the 1840s. Passports were issued at that time, but the Archive at Koblenz does not have the paperwork which made those passports possible to locate for the Trier and Saarburg region. It was not until about 1857 that a systematic effort was undertaken to keep emigration papers.
Before the completion of the Trier to Saarbrucken railroad in 1860, Antwerp was the most accessible seaport for emigrants leaving the Trier and Saarburg area for other countries.
According to the introduction to the book, The Antwerp Emigration Index was extracted and compiled by the non-profit organization, Heritage International. “It deals with emigrants from Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, France and the Netherlands…There are in excess of 5,100 immigrants whose origins are given here.“ Heritage International used the passenger records of 38 ships which left the port of Antwerp in the year 1855. “…Destinations of the emigrants were New York, Boston, New Orleans, Rio Grande & Australia.”
Unfortunately, the researchers did not give the destination of each one of the 38 sailings (most of the ships sailed two times from Antwerp to their destination), nor did they give sailing dates, except that they gave each ship a number according to its first departure date of the year. The Zerf emigrants were on Ship No. 28, the Daylight. It left Antwerp during the last third of the sailing season and yet this was its first sailing from the port of Antwerp.
The passenger list information furnished in the Antwerp Emigration Index gives: 1. Passenger Name 2. Age 3. Place (whether of residence or birth is not clear) 4. Ship Number 5. Place Where Passport Was Issued. (These were people who were emigrating legally and almost all of them had a passport that was issued in Trier)
Aboard the Ship Daylight
1. Johann Allmescheid, age 57, from Oberzerf
2. Mary Allmescheid, age 51, from Oberzerf
3. Johann Baermohen, age 28 from Zerf
4. Johanna Baermohen, age 39 from Zerf
5. Nikolaus Bernardz(y), age 26, from Oberzerf
6. Susanna, Brixus, age 44, from Zerf
7. Johann Peter Christ, age 52, from Zerf
8. Gert. Christ, Gert., age 47, from Zerf
9. Matthias Eiler, age 53, from Zerf
10. M. Eiler, age 50, from Zerf
11. Matthias Lillig, age 37, from Zerf
12. Sus. Lillig, age 40, from Zerf
13. Johannes Lillig, age 39, from Zerf
14. Margaretha Lillig, age 37, from Zerf
15. Michael Maier, age 32, from Zerf
16. Sus. Maier, age 33, from Zerf
17. Johannes Maier, age 56, from Zerf
18. Helena Maier, age 47, from Zerf
19. Nic. Merz, age 48, from Zerf
20. M. Merz, age 43, from Zerf
21. Jacob Muller, age 58, from Zerf
22. Johannes Muller, age 38, from Zerf
23. Cath. Muller, age 42, from Zerf
24. Joh. Muller, age 39, from Zerf
25. Moore Muller, age 48, from Zerf
26. Joh. Palm, age 57, from Frommersbach
27. A. Palm, age 57, from Frommersbach
28. Johannes Schneider, age 39, from Zerf
29. Barb. Schneider, age 39, from Zerf
30. Nic. Schneider, age 53, from Zerf
31. Johannes Schommer, age 42, from Frommersbach
32. A. Schommer, age 36, from Frommersbach
33. Math. Schwindling, age 53, from Zerf
34. Cath. Schwindling, age 56, from Zerf
35. Pet. Schwindling, age 30, from Zerf
36. Susanna Schwindling, age 27, from Zerf
37. Johannes Wagner, age 58, from Zerf
A few random thoughts about this boatload of Zerf villagers. The average age of the emigrants was 47.7 years old and 30 per cent of the emigrants were over 50. And something seems to be missing - no children are listed - and I have no explanation why!

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Village School

Top: "Auf der Eselbank" (the donkey bench for fools), woodcut from around 1880
Bottom: A music lesson

As teachers return to their classrooms for the school season, it seems a good time to step back into history and look at the typical classroom in small villages in the Saarburg area. There is a wealth of material about education in the villages of Irsch, Zerf, and Serrig (Kreis Saarburg), taken from three village history books written by Ewald Meyer, Edward Christoffel, and Klaus Hammächer as well as from the Roscheiderhof on-line museum tour.

Ewald Meyer and Edward Christoffel were teachers in Saarburg before their retirement, and it isn't surprising that they looked at schooling from the perspective of both the school teacher and of the students whom they taught. Because their books overwhelm me with information, I'm going to cherry pick the facts that appeal to me and that I may want to find again later. What a nice feature of Blogspot that anyone can "word search" the entire blog with words like "school" or "teacher" or "1849" or"eselbank" (the donkey bench was the equivalent of wearing a dunce cap)

Education in early times

Ewald Meyer describes the beginnings of the occupation of schoolmaster in the very early days of the village of Irsch. He says that in the beginning, there were no schoolhouses. The schoolteacher went from house to house to teach, probably receiving payment in kind at each place that took him in. The first reference to a salary for a teacher is found in the 1302 when Irsch was governed by the Electors in Trier (Archbishops who were princes of the church and who participanted with the secular princes in governing the German states). The mention of salaries for teachers does not occur in any further documents until the end of the 17th century.

By 1780, Irsch and Serrig, which were sister parishes, had school houses that were rated as "good" upon an inspection by Pastor Canaris from Konz, who had been designated as school visitor by the Trier Archbishop. The school in Beurich, about a mile from Irsch, was not completely finished. The children of Ockfen and Krutweiler received their education in the main room of various houses in those villages. There were 31 boys and 25 girls enrolled in the Irsch school; approximately the same number in Serrig. The emphasis was on reading. None of the children in Serrig could write or do arithmetic; in Irsch there were five boys who could write as well as read.

The teacher/sacristen of Irsch was paid in money (the alb) and grain for his church duties such as grave digging. He received more for digging an adult parish member's grave than for that of a child. He had a small piece of meadow land, enough to give him about a wagonload of hay and three very small pieces of garden. He shared in the drudgery and duties of any ordinary citizen of the village except that he did not have to take a turn as village watchman. When a storm was approaching, he would be the one to ring the church bells. Each child taught to read and write brought him 14 alb; reading only brought him 12 alb.

Teaching School in the "French Time"

Irsch and Zerf became a part of France when Napolean redrew the map of Europe. Under the new regime, the children were to be educated with the ideals of the French revolution, says Edgar Christofel. Every community was to have a primary school. In Zerf, the municipal administrator, who had the reponsibility for hiring a teacher, chose Nikolaus Goetten, the son of the retired Caspar Goetten, who had been the village teacher in the time of the Electors.

The curriculum was ambitious in the early years of the French government. In addition to reading and writing in both German and French, the students were to be taught arithmetic, natural history, health and how to be a "moral" citizen of this new French Republican government. Religious instruction was not to be given.

This ambitious educational curriculum was hindered greatly by the lack of education of the teachers (a common problem in most villages) as well as the meager pay. There were courses designed to improve instruction offered by the Catholic Church, and Herr Goetten of Zerf had taken the short training course offered by the seminary at St. Mathias in Trier. That first curriculum initiated by the French government fell by the wayside by 1802. The revised curriculum consisted of reading, writing, arithmetic, and French (if the teacher was knowledgeable in that language). By 1809, the curriculum had been reduced to reading, writing, and "a basic understanding of arithmetic." Religious instruction was again allowed, since almost all the schools were still connected to the village churches.

Most of the Zerf teachers at this time had to supplement the pittance they received from the villages for their work as teachers. They lived in the schoolhouse or taught out of their own homes. The Zerf teacher, Nikolaus Goetten, lived in a cold damp schoolhouse which was badly built and covered with a straw roof.

Schools in the Early Days of Prussian Rule

According to the Irsch parish history, there was a school inspection in November of 1816. The report on school conditions identifies Matthias Romey as the only teacher for the school. It says that this teacher "earned very little in the way of money or produce" and lived, with his wife, in the school building. Since he taught only from mid-November until Easter each year, he supplemented his income by spinning wool. The report then noted that he did his job happily and was "loved and treasured" by the community.

Most teachers in village schools had to have additional work, especially in the months when school was not in session, a period from Easter until the feast of St. Martin on November 11. Such jobs as pig herder or broom binder provided supplementary income so that the village teachers could support their families. One school report noted that the teacher carried out his trade as a broom binder whenever his class became too clamorous, leaving the classroom to get away from the noise.

In 1816 there were about 100 children in the Irsch schoolhouse which, as just mentioned, was also living quarters for Herr Romey and his wife. It was much too small to be a satisfactory place of learning. The priest who oversaw the school villages tried to help the community develop a plan for a larger building in 1819. However, there was so much poverty that the villagers could not come up with enough money for such a project and no help was forthcoming from the Prussian government. Finally, in 1828 a new "double schoolhouse" was built. The village added another teacher's house in 1833 when a second teacher was hired. The principal subjects taught were reading, writing, arithmetic, and Bible instruction.

Zerf too needed another teacher. The school population was as high as 100 students in 1826. As in Irsch, school subjects were reading, writing and arithmetic along with religious instruction. The children were divided, boys in one section, girls in another. But by 1837 the students were separated in a new way, into a lower school and an upper school. It seems, from Herr Christofel's account, that both sections were instructed by the one teacher, Nicholas Goetten until 1833 when another teacher (unnamed) was hired. Herr Goetten was 60 years old at that time. In addition, he performed the duties of a sacristan for the church. Nikolaus Trapp began a teaching career in Zerf when he was engaged to teach the older children in 1837. At this time he also took over the duties of sacristan. Herr Goetten continued teaching because he had no pension and no other means of support. This was the situation for most teachers well past the mid-point of the century.

Klaus Hammächer, in his history of the village of Serrig, the sister parish of Irsch, says that the schoolrooms of the early 19th century were usually also the home of the teacher, since most villages could not afford a separate residence for him. The teacher's workroom was also the living quarters for him and his family and inadequate for either one. Often the classroom was narrow and humble, cold and damp, not a good place for instruction or for hygiene. Its furnishings were paltry; there was no regulation of what equipment a schoolroom should have. Long planks served as school benches, and the students were crowded on to them. Their writing table served double duty as the eating table of the teacher's family or a worktable for whatever occupation the teacher had to supplement his income. The teacher's desk might be a small wall table, if such a thing was available at all.

School in the Second Half of the 19th Century

"Wooden benches arranged in even rows, blackboard rags tied to the slates, and a slightly raised desk in front of the class - this is how a classroom looked during the Empire." Roscheiderhof Museum describes its recreation of a village classroom that dates from sometime around 1890.

The guide to the Roscheiderhof Museum says that by the midpoint of the 19th century, the concept of universal education and teacher training was common in all areas of Prussian Empire. Usually schools in the country had only one class, where the village children were taught by one teacher only, from the first year of schooling to the eighth. This meant the schoolroom was often bursting at the seams. The guiding figure for class size was 60 pupils, but often there were up to 100 children sitting on the benches. It is therefore understandable if lessons seemed to be taught by rote: the teacher presented the material, the pupils learned it by repeating it or copying it.

Apart from reading, writing and arithmetic, music and religion were very important subjects in the schools of the Empire. Not only were hymns practiced in music lessons, but also patriotic songs which were sung on high holidays such as the Emperor's birthday. Physical exercise was considered part of the school's contribution to pre-military training, and this is why only boys had it. They had to line up in pairs and practice marching on the teacher's orders. Girls had handiwork lessons at the same time. They usually crocheted, knitted and darned, but also cooking, baking and preserving were taught.

Religious instruction was usually given by the pastors. A distinction was made between Bible history and "Catechism". In addition to this religious instruction the church had a great influence on school life. Educating the children to be good Christians was the goal. In order to achieve this, the village youth were subjected to the authority of the pastor and teacher beyond the school room. Anyone who was caught stealing apples in the afternoon or seen out on the streets at a late hour, or who did not attend mass before school was punished with a caning. School was supposed to instill discipline, and a good upbringing was considered more important than education.

By the 1890's, schools were improving as the economy all over the Prussian empire got better. There were schools with the proper furniture and with lists of materials that every single-class school must have, such as a globe, wall maps, pictures for the study of natural science, violin, abacus, and two large blackboards. Especially in the cities, a child beginning school was given a Schultüten, a large, cone-shaped parcel filled with pencils, rulers, crayons, candy and other small items to mark the special occasion.

Christoffel, Edgar. Der Hochwald Zerf am Fuße des Hunsrücks. Verlag W. Rasier, Saarburg 1981.
Meyer, Ewald. Irsch/Saar: Geschichte eines Dorfes. Ewald Meyer, 54451 Irsch, 2002
Hammächer, Klaus. Serrig: Landschaft, Geschichte & Geschichten. 2002
"The Schooling of German Youth," Der Blumenbaum. Sacramento German Genealogy Society, Nov.,Dec. 2005

Saturday, August 02, 2008

When They Stepped Ashore

April 9, 1861. What an unforgetable day it must have been for my Meier ancestors and the other immigrant from the village of Irsch bei Saarburg when they saw their adopted country for the first time.

After more than four weeks in the cramped and dark steerage quarters of the ship Rattler with only the endless ocean as their scenery, land appeared on the horizon. They were nearing the bay of New York where the ship would drop anchor. Soon Johann and Magdalena Meier and their children would set foot on land for the first time in over a month. Magdalena, my great-great grandmother, who was then three months pregnant must have thanked God not only for their safe journey but also for the long-awaited cessation of the rocking motion that had gone on for 34 days. Whether the day was sunny and clear or dark with rain, all the emigrants must have crowded the deck as the sailors were preparing the ship to anchor in the port of New York City.

I don’t have any letters written home to Germany that describe the trip and the first day in the new world. But I have found two stories in The New York Times that allow me to better imagine the minor but fascinating details that can only be provided by a contemporary’s view of the landing, the disembarking, and the first day inside of Castle Garden.

One newspaper piece was written in 1855 by a New York Times reporter sent to provide the paper's readers with an account of the Castle Garden facility that had only recently opened. The second piece was a description provided to The New York Times by a Female steerage passenger on the Ship Scotland which landed in New York Harbor in December of 1866.

Sound-bite reporting and tight editing were unheard of in the 19th century. We may smile at the florid descriptions allowed in the early newspapers, so different from the news we read in our newspapers today. But those verbose stories are filled with the details that give the true flavor of the early days of Castle Garden.

Passenger: “We had seen multitudes of churches, public buildings, factories, stores, and other structures, as we steamed up the Bay, but the one we had now arrived at, Castle Garden, attracted particular attention, principally, in all probability, from its being the emigrants' destination. The eye of a military man would have singled it out first and foremost as a structure pertaining to his profession, while the eye of a civilian or of an ordinary observer would have taken it for a huge reservoir or gas-holder.”

Did my Meier ancestors walk down a gangplank right onto the boards of the pier? Perhaps. But so many ships sailed into the New York’s harbor that not all of them could find a free dock there. Some ships remained out in the bay and their passengers were taken to the shore by barges pulled by steamers; their trunks and boxes came to shore by the same process. Making the transfer to the smaller boats would have been a difficult process, it seems to me, especially for families with babies or very young children.

Reporter: Now passing the heavy door of old Castle Clinton—that was its name until 1823—let us push straight through to the opposite side and out upon the wharf. Here is a busy time. A heavily-loaded emigrant ship has just anchored in the stream, and the barge Pilgrim, towed by a steamer, is now just fastened to the pier with all her company and their luggage. The ship is the Mary, of Havre, and her passengers are of the better class,—stout, clean looking Hollanders (Germans?), hopeful and hearty peasants from France—men who have a trade in their hands, skill in their brawny arms, and money in their pockets, and women who promise to be helpmates for industrious and intelligent men. As they leave the barge, they are examined with reference to their health, and to discover if any of them should be conveyed to the Hospital."

Arriving on land at last, did Johann and Magdalena instinctively draw back as they saw a group of officials waiting for them? Would they have known, as they were formed into a line and started toward a corridor that led into Castle Garden, that these officials only wanted to help them, not to confront them with some unexpected problem or harsh scrutiny? And they must have worried as all of the trunks and boxes of the passengers, including their own, disappeared from their sight to a place unknown.

The eyes of the younger single men in their group must have seen the posters meant to attract these new immigrants as they passed into Castle Garden. The posters offered a way to get what must have seemed a great deal of money to unmarried men with little cash in their pockets. All that was necessary to earn this money was a willingness to enlist in the Union Army - citizenship not required. Men from the Prussian Empire were especially sought after since they were thought to have undergone at least two years of military service in the service of the Kaiser.

Reporter: On Thursday several ... hopeful gentlemen dressed themselves in emigrants’ clothes and tried to gain admittance (to Castle Garden) under the pretense of having been landed in company with those just arrived. But the dodge did not work. Others pleaded earnestly to get in to see a father or a brother, a sister or other relative, who was among the passengers. But they were too well known to palm themselves off on that pretense...These runners have sucked the life-blood of emigrants for so long that they think they have a right to it.

If they encountered a disturbance like the one just described, Johann, Magdalena, and any of the people who did not speak English could not be blamed for thinking that honest immigrants like themselves were being kept from entering the building. Misgiving, fear, and curiosity would have shown on the faces of all the passengers who waited for their own chance to walk into Castle Garden.

Passenger: All being ready, the emigrants proceed in a body up the corridor into the interior of the building, their boxes and baggage being removed to the luggage warehouses, and here they range themselves in order on the seats. In front of them, and in the centre of the building, which is lit by a glass dome, stand a staff of some dozen gentlemen, all busily engaged in making arrangements for facilitating the movements and promoting the settlement of the newly-arrived emigrants. Each emigrant, man, woman and child, passes up in rotation to the Bureau, and gives to the registrar his or her name and destination, as a check upon the return of the Captain of the vessel, who gives the name, place of birth, age and occupation.

Johann and Magdalena, along with the other immigrants from Irsch, look around as they wait to be called forward to an important-looking official who is asking questions. They cast questioning glances at other arrivals who are taking the hard wood seats that circle around the building. One of the people already interviewed comes back to acquaintances who still wait in line. They hear him say, "Have not fear; they ask only what we have already been asked by the clerk of the ship captain. Ja, the questions answer easy."

Passenger: One of the leading officers connected with the Bureau of Information then mounts a rostrum, and addressing the assembled emigrants, tells them that such as are not otherwise provided for, or prepared to pay for their accommodation, can find shelter under the roof of that building; that advice and information of the best and most reliable kind can be had relative to tickets for railway and steamer to take them East, West, North or South; as to the best means of obtaining employment, for which a register is kept in the Intelligence Department of the Institution; also as to the best and most expeditious routes to take, with facilities for corresponding with friends, and of changing money at the Bureau of Exchange.

Do the Meiers and the other families from Irsch already know the route they will take to Wisconsin? Perhaps, since a few of their neighbors already live there and may have sent letters with advice about the best route. If not, they soon find an official who speaks German and directs them to information or to ticket sellers who are forbidden to make unfair charges.
Reporter: If any are ignorant of the routes West an officer points out the peculiarities of each, shows the nearest route to distant places, and informs them of the prices of tickets. Maps of the States and of the routes are hung about the room, and if the officer does his duty, no intelligent man need decide until he knows the general features of the land that lies between the promised land and Castle Garden. This information is what almost every emigrant needs.

Days after day at sea with almost no way to wash. Magdalena and the other women have tried to keep their families clean but it has been impossible. They wish for some of their homemade lye soap and a basin of water. The German families find each other, attracted by a language that they can understand. As they begin to share stories, a man who is dressed in a suit and who is very clean and well-groomed approaches them. To their delight, he speaks their language. Men and boys, he says, should go to the right, women to the left. He smiles. "Don't worry" he says, "You will find each other easily once you come out of the baths. Decide now on your meeting place." Baths? Have they really heard that word?

Reporter: "Next, the emigrant is shown to the baths. We join the crowd of males that flock in to the right. Here we find a large room, in the centre of which hang several coarse roller towels, and along the side is a deep trough of running Croton. This is the wash-room. Soap abounds—we hope no motives of niggardly economy will ever make it lose plenty. Behind a screen that reaches across the room is the basin for bathing. A dozen or two can be accommodated in it at the same time. Indeed, every facility is granted the new comer, whatever may be his condition on entering it, to leave Castle Garden personally clean. The female bath and wash-room were the counterpart of the male, but as it was in use at the time, we consented to take the statement of our conductor and forgo a personal investigation."

The word goes around. Trunks and boxes from the Ship Rattler are now unloaded. They wait on the wharf for someone to claim them. Magdalena waits with the younger children. Johann takes 11-year-old Mathias with him to look for the family's precious belongings.
Reporter: Back now to the Weighmaster on the wharf each head of a family must go, point out his luggage, and receive a certificate of its aggregate weight. Now, if the emigrant desires to stop in the City, he may leave his luggage, to be called for when wanted...But few by this arrival elect to stop here—for they are wise enough to push on where they will be welcomed—to the West. All such are directed to the Clerk in an office at the front part of the building, where they exhibit their tickets, if they purchased them in the old country, or purchase new ones if unsupplied...Most prefer to go on at once. And such need not wait long. The barge is soon reloaded with the baggage, and the steamer again fastening and they are borne in the several depots they are to go by without cost, and deposited just in time to take the next train onward.
After the last few days on the ship, when the weather was stormy and the food supply was nearly gone, everyone in steerage had longed for fresh food; hearty bread, homemade cheese, milk taken from cow to table. Inside Castle Garden, their eyes widened as they saw what had been so longed for, now within their reach
Passenger: In a far corner of each compartment is a kind of refectory, where for fifteen or twenty cents you can obtain a half a pint of coffee, a roll, cheese or butter; but many of the emigrants appeared to prefer purchasing their own tea and coffee, and preparing it in tin utensils in the stoves. There are two water taps and an iron ladle at each end of the division, from which draughts of the Croton are in constant request, nothing in the shape of wine, lager beer or spirits being all owed to be sold upon the premises.
Johann and the other men of Irsch bought food and coffee, grateful for its freshness and surprised at the white flour rolls which required no chewing. Although the Meiers and their fellow villagers were all exceedingly hungry, they paused to pray over this first meal, thanking God for bringing them safely once more to land. Then they ate; and, I think, the men winked and laughed together and agreed that life could only be better if they had a mug of Saar wine to wash it down.
Reporter: A tall fountain feeds a noble basin of water near the spot where the old stage was...The children were rollicking about it--sailing their paper boats, and full of unrestrained glee. The women eat in groups, talking in some of those crooked old country languages that make us wonder how any talking can be done there until the people come of age,—some knitting, some cutting and eating slices of rye German bread and cheese, some patching and fixing up the wardrobes of their family...The whole castle is theirs to ramble in, and none hinder any, wherever they choose to stop in it. The best seats are free, and numbers that at Jenny Lind’s concerts sold at fabulous prices, were open to the poorest.
And what of the children? I picture the three Meier children, Mathias, Anna, and little Johann, growing accustomed to these new surroundings. No longer awed by the immensity of Castle Garden and now unafraid of separation from their parents, they explored. They listened to the foreign words that flowed from each small group of people and imitated the sounds. They splashed each other with water from the big fountain until they were shooed away by sour-faced woman who was trying to sooth her screaming baby. They made faces at the Dutch children; then made friends with them. On this day, they were shabby and pale but very happy.
Passenger: It was nearly evening before all the business connected with the emigrant department was over and the emigrants began to settle down in their new locality, and the building being lit up with gas gave a more cheerful aspect to the interior, and enabled us to survey the somewhat novel scene before us. You could at first imagine, were you not painfully concious to the contrary, that all those human beings seated on the benches had assembled to witness some theatrical entertainment. On looking right and left, an arrangement will be observed to have been effected, once the emigrants marched in miscellaneously---the Germans and Dutch, who form by far the most numerouse body, being parceled off into the eastern portion of the building, which is seperated from the other portion, which contains indiscriminately English, Irish, Scotch and French. Two very civil and intelligent watchmen reconnoitre during the night to keep order...
Reporter: It (Castle Garden) is utterly given up to young and old, lads and lasses, old men and crusty maids to wander at will throughout it, talking about good old times and plotting for future revenue on Western prairies, or arranging for the service of the clergyman, and the quiet cottage and the babies that are to be born.

"Castle Garden: One Lady's Experience," New York Times, Dec. 23, 1868 (see)
"Castle Garden: New Emigrants are Treated on Landing," New York Daily Times, August 4, 1855, Page 1 (see)

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Castle Garden - the Little Known Immigration Depot

Castle Garden

Ellis Island

Did your Rhineland ancestors pass through Ellis Island, leaving their homes behind them? Probably not, since the majority of Germans landed in New York during the middle years of the 19th century, a time when there was no "Isle of Tears."

Somehow Ellis Island has usurped all the fame of the immigration story. As many beginning genealogists search for their German roots, they are frustrated to learn that there are no immigration records for their ancestors available in the Ellis Island Immigration Center's database. "Why?" they ask. They have grown up believing every immigrant ship brought its load of passengers into the forbidding fortress where only the lucky ones received permission to continue their journey into the "new country." Ellis Island is as well known as President Abraham Lincoln, but our 19th Century ancestors' immigration center was almost always Castle Garden. And Castle Garden is about as familiar as President Millard Fillmore (our 13th US President).

The scenes I am about to describe are from a very good television series called "Germans in America." You may already have seen it or will find in soon on the schedule of your public television station. The four segments, focusing on the German immigrant experience, were produced in Germany for German television audiences and now has been translated into English. But I found it misleading at one point. See what you think.

Scene 1: Immigrants are shown waiting in long lines at Ellis Island, then being examined and told their fate. Would one family member be rejected and told to return to the home country. Should those family members who had passed the physical test return with their family member or stay in America? Small wonder Ellis Island was often called the "Isle of Tears." Fade to...

Scene 2: The year is 1849. A young man, Karl Steinweg, writes his family in Germany to come and join him. He is already in New York, having fled to the United States after taking part in the revolution of 1848. Fade to...

Scene 3: In the 1860's, another family arrives. The Julius Gumpertz family - father, mother and four children - hope to change their lives for the better in the new world.

The way these scenes are sequenced leaves viewers with the impression that the Steinweg family and the six members of the Gumpertz family sailed into New York harbor, saw the Statue of Liberty, were marched through Ellis Island, and finally declared fit to enter New York City and go on with their lives. It's good drama but nothing like the arrival of either of the two families, because Ellis Island immigration station did not open until 1892 nor was the Statue of Liberty fully assembled until July of 1886.

Before 1855, German immigrants arriving at the Port of New York were hardly noticed in any official kind of way. Once their ship was declared free of disease and the automatic quarantine was lifted, ship passengers and their luggage were loaded on to smaller boats and taken to one of five piers in the city. Here they found themselves on their own. Often the people who spoke the German language were con men who attempted to lure the newcomers to run-down boarding houses or to "help" them purchase tickets for passage to their end destination. These costs were usually two or three times higher than fair prices. Some of the immigrants gave their money to a "helpful countryman" and never saw him or their money again. The 1849 immigrant Steinwegs were completely on their own when they left their ship.

The 1860 Gumpertz family, as well as many of my German ancestors, had a better start. They went to Castle Garden, a receiving station for immigrants. Its purpose was not to limit immigration but to safeguard the new immigrants as well as prevent sickness from being spread to the residents of New York City. There was less drama here than at Ellis Island. Castle Garden, opened on August 3, 1855, was a place of temporary refuge for our immigrant ancestors, concentrating on services to help these new arrivals in a country they hoped to call their new home.

Castle Garden was located at the tip of lower Manhattan in Battery Park, a 23 acre waterfront park at the tip of Manhattan. It was constructed between the years 1807 and 1811 as part of a chain of harbor forts that could defend New York City against a naval attack. It was first known as the West Battery, but was renamed Castle Clinton in 1815 after George Clinton, the first governor of the state of New York. In 1823, the U.S. Army withdrew from the fortress, leaving it to New York City authorities, who in turn permitted private investors to take it over. These investors reopened it several months later as a center for social events and gave it a new name: Castle Garden. Jenny Lind, the famous Swedish soprano, once performed there for an audience of 4,000. But in 1855, the state of New York's Board of Emigration Commissioners decided to use the building for immigration purposes.

There were about 100 people who worked at the Castle Garden Landing Depot. There were inspectors who boarded the incoming ships to see how many passengers were aboard the vessel, and how clean it was. When the ship docked in New York City harbors, other agents transported the immigrants by barge or tugboat to the castle for medical exams. The sick were sent to Ward's Island for medical attention and the rest were brought into the rotunda of Castle Garden. After their names, nationalities, old residences, and destinations were recorded, the immigrants were sent to the baggage delivery. If the immigrant was not staying in the city, he could make arrangements here to forward their trunks or boxes to the final destination.

Back inside Castle Garden, there was a department with personnel who helped write letters in various languages for those immigrants who were illiterate; German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Czech, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Polish, Portuguese, Swiss-German, Russian, and Latin interpreters were available. Thus any immigrant could mail a first letter back to the homeland.

The new arrivals also found a place here where they could safely change their foreign money into American currency, as well as a strictly regulated list of the 76 immigrant boardinghouse keepers allowed representation at the Castle. A restaurant, bread stands, washrooms, even a Western Union Telegraph Company branch were also available on the premises.

Barry Moreno, who works in the reference library at the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York City, says, "Today, Castle Garden swarms with tourists who come to buy ferry tickets for an excursion to the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island. Only a few observe the stone walls that surround them; almost none go inside the modest exhibit gallery at the entrance to the castle. But those who pause within that quiet space will learn a startling fact: they are standing in a citadel that in bygone years was the great threshold to America for millions of migrants, a place where such travelers paused before journeying onward to new homes and livelihoods. Castle Garden is the true golden door to which poetess Emma Lazarus refered in her 1883 sonnet, 'Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me...''

I'm very glad my Rhineland Ancestors found a friendly, helpful country when they reached our shores.

Moreno, Barry, "Castle Garden: The Forgotten Gateway," Ancestry Magazine
"Germans in America," Axel Engstfeld Filmproduktion, in collaboration with WDR/Cologne and ARTE, and with the support of North Rhine-Westphalia’s Film Funding Board (Filmstiftung NRW) and the Goethe-Institute

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Army Calls and I Must Go?

The storming of the Frankfurt barricades by Prussian Army

You probably believe, as I once did, that your Kreis Saarburg male ancestor served as a soldier in an imposing and well-trained Prussian army after the outcome of the Napoleonic wars gave the Rhineland to the Prussian Empire. I've heard, over and over in genealogy workshops, that the male population of the Prussian Empire were subject to three years of active military duty beginning at age 21.

When I began to try to put my ancestors into their historical setting, I pictured Johann Meier, my great-great grandfather, donning his Prussian military uniform and marching away from home to serve with other Prussian troops. But that left me with so many questions. Where would he have served? Since he was the right age to have been on active duty during the rebellion of 1848, did he take up arms against friends or family members or was he a rebel himself? What was his uniform like and what weapons were issued to him? Did he get time off to visit his family and the girl he was courting? I began to collect dribs and drabs of information.

In the 19th century, according to an article in Wikipedia, the Prussian infantry generally wore the dark "Prussian blue" of the previous two centuries. The blue color and other features of the historic Prussian Army uniform were generally adopted by the other German States as they fell under Prussian influence before and after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

Picture of 19th century Prussian Uniform

According to Ernst Mettlach (who has researched the Prussian military), from 1814 on (1815 for Trier) every male between 17 and 45 had to serve three full years in the Prussian Army which was known for its harsh drill and discipline. After his time as active soldier, the young man was not free of army duty. He had to join the reserve for 4 or 5 years (depending on whether he served in the army, navy, cavalry or artillery). When reserve duty was finished, a man became a member of the Landwehr or "landwehrpflichtig" for 5 years (2 years for navy, cavalry and artillery). The Landwehr was similar to the National Guard in the U.S. today, and could be called upon to defend the country in time of war. The final service was in the "Landsturm" until a man's 45th birthday. Ernst did not explain this term, and I can't find it in the dictionary; but I assume it would be a very inactive type of duty, only necessary when the enemy was on the road to the Kreis and every soldier, even the oldest, was needed.

An article in the New York Times in 1888 described military training in the Prussian army in this way: "Under ordinary circumstances the German lad steps into the ranks at the age of 20. For three years he serves with the colors, the next four years he is in the reserve, and the following five years he belongs to the Landwehr, another reserve more remote than the first. Of these twelve years the first three are occupied entirely in severe military work. The most stupid peasant, under a system so thorough as Germany's, must be stupid beyond recovery if he does not turn out an alert, obedient and well-trained soldier...His only law is the law of the court martial; his only duty is to obey without question, and the interpreter of his duty is the captain of his company."

Looking beyond generalities
In the 1860s, The Prussian Government began a reorganization of the military. The plan met with resistance from the liberal, middle class Provincial Diet. Friedrich Engels had agreed to write an article on the Prussian military reform for Der Social-Demokrat, but the newspaper's fear of offending the Bismarck Government made him give up his intention. After consulting Karl Marx, he decided to have his work published as a separate pamphlet, which he began writing it late in January 1865, aiming to support the Provincial Diet's objections to the military reorganization plan. However, by 1866 the Provincial Diet was dissolved and the military reorganization plan the Diet had opposed went ahead.

Why am I telling you about this mostly unknown work by one of the founders of the Communist party. Because it would eventually help me to understand that not every able-bodied young man served in the Prussian army. Johann Meier and many of his contemporaries were exempt. In his emigration application file, begun on February 20, 1861, there was a notation of a request from the Royal Government Department of the Interior at Trier asking for further information why "said Meier, 35 years old is of no military obligation". There would be no emigration permission unless the question was answered in eight days.

A letter was sent to the Royal Government Department of the Interior at Trier from Herr Merhman, Royal County Commissioner, Kreis Saarburg of 1 March 1861 confirming that in 1847, when Johann Meier was 21, he was designated "Battery A" (probably the equivalent of the U.S. Army's 4F classification) because of Mindermaaβ and that he had no military obligation. The archivist at the Regional Archive in Koblenz told me that Mindermaß was an archaic word no longer used in the German language. It meant my ancestor was "too little" to serve in the Prussian army.

"Too little to serve in the army?" The archivist who was helping me assured me that Johann Meier was probably not unusually small. He said that the Prussian army was known to look for soldiers who intimidated with their height. Or perhaps he was just too short to fit into the military-issued uniforms - or to handle a saber.

That's when I began to try to interpret the meaning of "mindermaß." Herr Engel's pamphlet provided the answer I was looking for and changed my perspective on Prussian military conscription. Here is one of the arguments Engels made against the Government's plan for reforming the military.

" according to the Zeitschrift des preussischen statistischen Bureaus (March 1864) the number of young men registering in 1861 was 227,005... In the 1863, Minister for War, von Roon, presented the following analysis of the 1861 levy to the Military Commission of the (Provincial) Assembly:

Total population (1858 census) 17,758,823
Twenty-year-olds liable for military service class of 1861 217,438
Of these:
1. Untraced 55,770
2. Moved to other districts and required to register for service there 82,216
3. Failed to register without being excused 10,960
4. Enlisted as 3-year volunteers 5,025
5. Entitled to serve as l-year volunteers 14,811
6. Theologians, deferred or exempted 1,638
7. Liable for naval service 299
8. Struck off as morally unfit 596
9. Rejected by the Regional Commission as manifestedly unfit 2,489
10. Rejected by the Regional Commission as permanently unfit 15,238
11. Transferred to the Supplementary Reserve
a) Below 5 foot after three musters 8,998
b) Below 5 foot 1/4 inches after three musters 9,553..."

Engels continued his analysis: "18,551 men were rejected for not being of sufficient stature. Note: not rejected for service altogether but "passed to the reserve". Therefore, in the event of war they should serve after all. They are only excused parade-service in peace-time, being insufficiently imposing for that. It is thus admitted that these short men are quite good enough for service, and it is intended to use them even in emergencies. The fact that these short men can be quite good soldiers is demonstrated by the French army, which includes men down to 4 feet 8 inches. We therefore have no hesitation in counting them in with the military resources of the country. The above figure merely includes those who were finally rejected after three musters as being too short; it is thus a number that recurs each year. We will discount half of them as unfit for other reasons and we are then left with 9,275 little fellows whom a capable officer would no doubt soon knock into splendid soldiers..."

"However the whole way in which recruits are medically examined in Prussia has taken a peculiar turn. There were always more recruits than could be enlisted, and yet no one wanted to abandon the appearance of universal conscription. What could have been more convenient than to select the desired number of the best men and to declare the rest unfit on some pretext or other?"

Did your male ancestors serve in the Prussian military? If they came from the Rhineland, which seems to produce men, who like the French soldiers, were capable little fellows, they probably were able to stay home, court their sweethearts, earn money to buy their farmland, practice their trade, or quite legally immigrate to America.

Division of the Interior, Royal Government at Trier; Vol. 12 p. 1-746; Class V, Section 1, Littera C; Koblenz Division 442 Nr. 181

Engels, Friedrich, The Prussian Military Question and the German Workers' Party,

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Spring in the Saar Villages

Springtime in the Irsch of today.
Photo from

The first crocuses in my garden are showing, part of the reason my thoughts turned to the spring season as our ancestors knew it. When you are finishing your taxes, the allure of a spring day out in the open fields has an almost irresistable charm. Was it the same for the Meiers, the Rauls and the Hausers in their villages? What was spring like for them - a season to be longed for or one filled with work harder than most of us can imagine? Both those things, I believe.

Bird's eye view of the spring fields near Irsch. Photo from

After the snow melted and the weather softened, it was time for planting. In the book, Hennerm Plou, the famous poet of the region, Ernst Thrasolt asks "do you hear the sap in the earth and the trees?' The farmer knew, from the smell of the air and wisdom of his father before him, that the plow should be made ready for the land.

According to the historians at the Roscheider Hof open air museum, the spring planting in the 19th century Saar and Mosel regions was, for the most part, still carried on the same way it had been for centuries.

Manure was spread on the fields before the plowing began. Then the soil was turned over with the plough. Most of the plows, called "Hackpfluge" were still made entirely of wood, fashioned by a cartwright. The farmer guided the plow pulled by a horse, an ox, or sometimes a cow, depending on the status of the farmer. Only the well-to-do farmers had a horse. The small-holdings farmers, the Kleinbauer, might have an ox or use cows both for field work and for milk.

Wooden plow in the collection of the Deutschen Historischen Museums, Berlin

Plowing with the Hackpflug left clods of earth which needed chopping and pulverizing by a harrow, a cultivating implement set with spikes. But on many farms, wife and children performed this labor instead - as well as removing stones turned up by the plow.

Once the land had been tilled, the seed could be sewn. This was done by means of a sewing cloth, which the planter carried on his front, rather like a half-apron. By pulling together the bottom edge of the sewing cloth with one hand and gripping it tightly, the farmer formed a cradle for the seeds. With his free hand, he would broadcast the seeds with a rhythmic motion as he walked the field. Common crops planted included oats, barley, wheat, potatoes, rye, clover and flax. Most farmers who lived near enough to the Saar to take advantage of the river climate also had a few vines for growing grapes.

Some seeds were planted using the horns of a cow or an ox. The tip of the horn was cut off so that the seeds could slowly come through. Different sizes of horns and how much of the tip of the horn was removed allowed for the planting of various sizes of seeds: beets, lettuce, and many other of the garden seeds could be dropped precisely using this method.

After the planting, the field was rolled flat with a heavy oak roller. This served two purposes. It pressed the seeds into the soil, and it would also flatten any remaining clumps of earth. This facilitated the swing of the scythe and made it easier and faster to cut the crops at harvest time

Spring along the Saar from direction of Beurig.

Although the plowing and planting was hard labor, it was not without its pleasures. The poet Ernst Thrasolt, who grew up in Beurig, just across the Saar River from the city of Saarburg, captures the joy of the farmer as the spring season arrives in a poem simply called "Spring."

The land is free!
Now we bring the plow from the shed.
Now it will go back and forth again and again.
Who would let his head hang?
See how clear is the sky!
An hour away the sound of the rushing Saar,
And the clods are so brown...

...behold the sun and the chaffinches and
the starlings and the larks and
the wagtails and the blackbirds and
the thrushes and all the rest.
Children, fetch the plow!

Around the village and in the meadows, the trees in bud would soon bloom. Ernst Mettlach who comes from a village about 10 kilometers from Trier says that in former times most farm fields had Streuobstwiese, literally "stray fruit meadows." In the pastures all over the region stood apple trees and other fruit trees as well. The "stray" trees had very high, knotty tree trunks. A traditional apple tree, says Ernst, looked like a very old man. (The modern orchard trees of today have very short trunks so it is easier to harvest them, but since no light reaches the ground, useful vegetation cannot grow beneath them). The Streuobstwiesen orchards gave space to a lot of animals and plants. These old orchards could be compared to a house where the ground floor was used by the cattle as pasture while the second floor produced fruit and gave space to birds like little owls.

Pear and plum trees blossomed too. One of the most important types of plum trees in the region is the Zwetschge. It is a tree that looks very similiar to the apple tree and very often grew in the Streuobstwiese orchard. When the trees were filled with blossoms in the later part of spring, apple, plum, and pear all together in some orchards, it looked like snow had fallen, for the ground was covered with white petals.

Edeltrud Heiser of Trier who grew up in Irsch remembers the apple orchard there and the spring wildflowers, including the the Maiglöckchen or May bells which we know as lilies of the valley.
Thus amid the hard work of spring, there was also beauty which was there for those who plowed and hoed and planted the land. It was the time of rain storms, rain showers and sun, of the brown, newly tilled soil brimming fresh green shoots and potential. Best of all, there was the long-term hope for the joy of a plentiful fall harvest.

Irsch on a spring evening.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Straw, Wood, Fire

Zerf Volunteer Fire Department Garage - 2004

During this snowy winter, I resolved to clean up my office. While the effort was only partially successful, I did find a lot of interesting material I had completely forgotten about. One especially valuable find was of some photocopied pages from a book by Edgar Cristofel, "The History of the Landkreises of Trier-Saarburg from the beginning until the present (Die Geschichte des Landkreises Trier-Saarburg von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart 1815-1992). Herr Cristofel's research into the history of the region was extensive, and I will probably quote his work again in the future. This time what drew my attention was the attempt of the Prussian government to try to avoid one of the most feared disasters of the time - fire.

In past posts I have described the typical Trier/Saarburg Einhaus in which the house and barn were brought together under one roof. These dwellings belonged to land-owning farmers of at least moderate means. But not every resident of a village in Kreis Trier or Saarburg had such dwellings, especially not in the period between the fall of Napoleon in 1814 and the mid-point of the century, when poverty was widespread.

Historic reconstruction of a wall at Rosheiderhof Open-Air Museum

In his book Herr Christofel says that in the early part of the 19th century, many of the houses in a rural village were only one story high and rather small. Such villagers were day workers who did not own land. Instead they worked for the landed farmers as field hands. There were also struggling craftsmen like the broom binders and basket weavers. All of these families lived in very small houses with roofs of straw or thatch. Wood beam construction was used and the walls of the houses were constructed from clay, stone, or sometimes a combination of both. Straw or thatched roofs were the rule, except for the roof of the mayor's house and the roof of the church. Slate or tile might be used on the roof of the schoolhouse but not always. Even most of the farm dwellings still had straw roofs.

The wooden beam construction of the houses, the roofs of straw or thatch, and the crops of hay and straw stored under the one roof that served as both house and barn made for a tinderbox environment in all of the villages of the region. In the year 1822 in the little village of Kenn in Kreis Trier there was a fire that destroyed 122 houses, stables, and other out buildings.

When a fires broke out, a householder would seek help from his neighbors to fight the fire. They used the only method they had to put out the blaze. A bucket brigade would be formed; and if the fire was controlled, the embers were raked apart and stamped out. Little by little villages built up a crew that could be called out for a fire.

Fire Prevention Decree of 1837

Aware of the constant threat of fires burning out of control, in 1824 the Prussian Government decreed that any house built after that time could not be roofed with straw or thatch. One can assume that many the emperor's subjects violated this rule because of the poverty of the times.

In June 1837, a new rule was promulgated by the Prussian government. It was called the "General Rule for Halting Fire Danger". It applied to any place in a city or village where houses stood together and had several requirements.

Roofs: A straw- moss- or wood-type roof was not allowed when the house was less than 2,000 Prussian feet from the other buildings in the village. Where houses stood together, any new roof had to be constructed of slate, metal, or clay. Permission or an exception was only made when the property owner lacked the means to be able to replace a straw or wooden shingle roof with a slate- or clay-type shingle.

Permission to cover a roof with straw, wood, or any other flamable material could only be granted by the Landrat, the head administrator in each Prussian district. Anybody who ignored the regulation and reroofed a dwelling with straw without this permission was fined a penalty of 1-5 Prussian Taler. In the case of a new building constructed with a straw roof and without permission, the violator was "punished." Herr Cristofel did not explain what the punishment might be.

Lanterns: Each house had to have a closed lantern, and only with this kind of lantern was one allowed to walk on wooden floors, in the stalls and stables of the barn or any other places where there was a danger of fire. The lantern had to be available for inspection in each household.

Fire-fighting: In each city or large village, a Brandcorps (fire corps) had to be formed. Residents from the community were chosen by vote of the governing council of the city or village and approved by the Burgermeister. Once the Brandcorps was formed, they voted on which of them would be the fire chief. Some community members were not permitted to be part of the fire corps. People over 60, under 15, priests and religious, teachers, sick and infirm, government officials, and doctors were excluded. The fire corps had to meet twice a year under the guidance of the mayor or his representative in order to practice using their firefighting equipment.

When a fire broke out in the community, the inhabitants were made aware by whatever means possible; the ringing of a bell, a village drummer or the cries and alarms of the night watchman.

In spite of the fire laws and regulations, a good many of the houses in the rural villages were still covered by straw roofs until the last 20 years of the century. The volunteer fire companies with fire-fighting equipment also came into being about that time.

Christoffel, Edgar, Die Geschichte des Landkreises Trier-Saarburg von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart 1815-1992. Der Akademischen Buchhandlung Interbook, Trier, c2000

Monday, January 21, 2008

Washday By Hand

Hans Dieter and Margret Jung in the garden of Haus Jung

My curiosity about the way in which women washed and dried clothing in the 19th century - methods, how often, time spent - began when my sister and I rented a ground floor vacation apartment at the Haus Jung in Saarburg in 2002.

In no time at all the Haus Jung had lived up to its claim as the "friendliest Gasthaus in Saarburg." Margret and Hans Dieter Jung treated us like old friends, even though we had never met before, and I spoke German at about the same level as their five-year-old granddaughter. In addition these welcoming landlords had never rented their comfortable vacation apartment to English speakers before. They had taken the chance that all would work out even though they spoke no English.

To my surprise, I learned that Herr Jung had a hobby that fit perfectly into my search for information about the lives of my Saarburg area ancestors. He was a serious and skilled collector of old postcards from the Saarburg region. He showed me a part of his album collection and then suggested that I might also enjoy seeing some of the postcards that he had scanned into his computer.

That afternoon I saw a picture show of the "old" Saarburg; the city as it was in the late 19th and early 20th century, before much of it was changed forever by World War II and by modernization. It was like taking a virtual trip back in history. Herr Jung explained each picture on the computer screen, pointing out the places that today are reconstructions, those that no longer exist and those which still stand much as they always have.

Near the banks of the Saar River and the Leukbach stream on washday

In one of the picture postcards, something lay on the ground, looking a bit like patchy snow. Herr Jung told me that the village women placed the laundry there because the bank was close to the stream that runs through Saarburg and also to the Saar River. I was amazed.

With my limited vocabulary, I couldn't understand his more detailed explanation of the scene. But the postcard picture stayed in my mind. And with the help of three books in my collection, I've acquired a much clearer idea of what washday meant to women of the past - those in Saarburg and in neighboring parts of Germany and France. From a children's book on the customs and traditions of German Lothringen, (now Lorraine, France); from an English language guidebook to the Roscheider Hof museum at Konz; and from a book about the history and customs of Westphalia, near Munster, I came to appreciate my automatic washer and dryer as never before.

"The Big Wash" in Lothringen

There was always in Lothringen, says the author of Landleben im Jahreslauf, a "big wash" in the spring which had to take place before Easter. During the long winter a mountain of "white" wash had collected. On the day of the wash, the kitchen or the bakehouse began to bustle with life.

Water was heated in the big pot which was more normally used to prepare feed for the pigs. The dirty wash had already been put in a large wooden laundry tub and covered with a bedsheet. Ashes, which had been saved from the fireplace all winter long, were sprinkled on the top of that bedsheet.

When the water in the pig-food kettle was hot, it was poured over the ashes by the housewife so that the solution of wood ash (lye) and the water could permeate the layers of wash. The contents of the tub were swished back and forth; then everything was left standing until the next day.

On the second day of the big wash, all of the wet wash was put into a wheelbarrow and taken to a washhouse, usually located in the middle of the village. (I've been told that the washhouse was not common in Germany, but have read that there were, at one time, washhouses and women for hire to do laundry, along the Seine River in Paris).

Whether at the washhouse or near the river, the women, knelt, beating the laundry with washing paddles. In addition, they rubbed it, rinsed it and wrung it out until it was white again. As they worked, the women found time to chat and gossip, the sounds of their voices heard far into the village. With wet skirts, reddened hands and tired arms, the women then made their way home.

When the wash was dry again and had been ironed, the women would put the laundered items back into a peppermint and absinth scented oak chest. The next wash would take place after the summer work was finished and there was once again time for another strenuous washing.

From the Roscheiderhof Museum Guide

The writer of the guide points out that, in order to be a judge of what a woman's job of laundry involved in earlier days, you have to imagine the many stages of the wash days as they were practiced right up until the 1950s. Much time and energy were required, and it took far longer than in modern times, before the laundry once again lay clean in the cupboard. For this reason the white wash was generally only done twice a year. This is the same as the "big wash" in Lothringen.

Why only two times a year? For one reason there was far more important work to do in the summer. Another reason was that the mild days of spring and early summer were used for a "general cleaning". The months between the two laundry days were tided over with supplies from the "laundry cupboard." This explains the large number of bed linens contained in a proper dowry. The colored items were cleaned every four weeks because the laundering process was not so labor intensive and because there were not so many of them.

Women washing clothes on the river bank in Saarburg

there was a stream or river near the village, this made rinsing the laundry much easier. The washerwomen rubbed the laundry and kept brushing it out in the running water. On farms washing with wood ash, rinsing in running waters and bleaching on the fields were still usual well into the 20th century. However village women began to have some form of ringer washer and wash tubs. Village wash was hung out to dry. Right up until the 1950s the white wash was then placed on the mown grass to bleach. This was the process shown on Herr Jung's postcard that had so intrigued me.

Washdays on a Large "Hof" in the Upper Rhine Country

In the Münster region on the upper Rhine, the farms were larger than in the Saarburg or Lothringen areas. Inheritance laws here favored the eldest son; the land traditionally was not divided among all the children as in those regions where Napoleon had declared all children equal heirs to the property of their father.

The book Damals auf dem Lande explains that the wash was done monthly and each time there were days of hard work that took place. On a large farm, there were not only family members, including unmarried relatives and elderly parents, but also a number of serving maids and laborers who lived on the premises. The clothing of everyone who lived on the farm was part of the pile collected for a wash process that went on for days.

The labor was similar to the methods already described. Garments were soaked in wood ash or some other type of lye mixture. A fatty soap was used for the strenuous rubbing of every item, especially parts of garments that were heavily stained. In addition, all the water for the washing had to be gotten from an inside or outside well; then carried to the wash tubs and to the large water-heating kettle which at other times was the container for making slops for the pigs.

Chicken looking for garments to walk on?
The most time-consuming part of washing, as in Lothringen and in the Mosel and Saar areas, involved the white linens. These had to be bleached. After the wash process was completed, the linens were spread in the meadow for a day or more. As the sun dried the linens, it also took out dullness and grayness on the exposed side. Then the linens were turned, and the bleaching process was repeated. Oh the danger! The linens were at risk from tree and plant pollen, the birds overhead, or an unpenned chicken or three. When such disaster happened, tears might easily be shed because the wash had to be done all over again.

The last work of the wash was the rinsing out. Most of the wash was put into a wheelbarrow and taken to the closest stream, a place where one would have flowing water. This rid the clothes of the ash and/or the soap, and it was much easier than doing a rinse at the farmstead, where every bucket of water had to be pumped and carried. On cold days the rinsing in the stream was unpleasant. Icy water hurt the hands, making them stiff, red, and cracked. When it was really cold, women took a container of hot water with them. Periodically they used it to warm their hands. After the rinsing, the wash dried on racks or sometimes also on the ground.

Then came the ironing. Strength and skill were required, especially with the earliest ironing devices. The early Bugeleisen was a monster-sized ironing apparatus. A red-hot iron bolt was placed in a deep hole at the top of the Bugeleisen. This warmed the entire iron. More bolts were kept red-hot in burning coals, ready to be inserted when the current bolt cooled. Another version of the Bugeleisen had a deep cavity, and glowing coals were placed in it. Eventually a smaller and lighter version of the Bugeleisen was used. The Setzeisen (sitting iron) was smaller and lighter. It set on a hot plate to be heated. When the iron was hot, a handle was clamped to it. While the woman ironed, a second Setzeisen was warming on the hot plate.

Many thanks to Herr Jung of Saarburg for introducing me to the history of washday/s and for his generous willingness to search his postcard collection and scan all the postcards showing the many styles of drying and bleaching laundry in his home city for this blog post. Here are a few more.

Laundry day in color

Laundry on washstands on the Saar River Banks

..Will the wash dry soon..

Big wash - big picture of Saarburg

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Silvester in Germany

In the villages around the Mosel and Saar, the period of time between mid-November and Three Kings' Day was filled with customs and celebrations. Many of these disappeared as the immigrants from Irsch, Serrig, and Zerf and the rest of the region immigrated to America. In my part of Wisconsin, remnants of the customs of St. Nicholas Day and Christmas were preserved. Most others disappeared completely. Such was the case with New Year's Eve and New Year's day and so I thought I would try to research a typical Rhineland Silvester, the German term for the coming of the new year.

Why do the German’s call the New Year's celebration Silvester? Because December 31 is the feast of St. Sylvester, a pope of the 4th century. Legend says that Pope Sylvester cured Roman emperor Constantine I of leprosy (after converting him to Christianity).

The traditional German New Year's wish seems to me to be so much more descriptive than our "Happy New Year." My German relatives wish me "Einen guten Rutsch ins Neujahr." Who wouldn't want "a good slide into the new year!" as one year fades into another. Some linguists think this traditional German New Year's wish has nothing to do with "sliding" (rutschen) into the new year—despite the fact that most German speakers understand it that way. The expression may come from the Hebrew word "rosh," meaning "head" or "beginning"—thus "a good beginning"—as in "Rosh Hashanah," the Jewish New Year.

Pea soup was a traditional new year's dish in many parts of Germany because it was thought to bring prosperity in the new year. Fish and fish soup were also believed to auger abundance in the coming year. The eating of these foods along with regional baked specialties usually preceded the Jahresabschlussmesse, the special mass that marked the close of the old year. The pastor would take the opportunity to advise his listeners to reflect on the past year and to remember the principles that would lead to eternal life.

In some places, the villagers would gather in the church yard as midnight approached. They would
make noise with brass instruments, sing, ring the bells, shout, blow on horns - a noisy greeting to the brand new year that probably goes back to the old pre-Christian custom of scaring away the evil spirits so that they did not enter the new year. The web site of the Cologne Archdiocese calls it "Trommeln und Rummeln", a phrase that said aloud sounds exactly like its meaning.

Special types of baking to bring luck were part of the new year celebration. There were the “Neujahrskringel, -kranz, -zopf, -brezel, -striezel or (in the Rheinland) Neujährchen. As a rule the ingredients were wheat flour with the addition of grains like millet or even poppy seeds. There was a special form for the bakery. A
cross symbolized not only eternity but also protection against evil demons. A braid was a metaphor of eternity. Neujährchen of the Rhineland was most often given the shape of a four-leaf clover, again a symbol of eternity.

On New Year's day, hangovers and heartburn could be cured by leftover gingerbread soaked in brandy and lit on fire before being consumed. It was important to eat this on an empty stomach. A book in 1864 told of the custom of eating lucky foods on Silvester. Nettle cake, carrots and beer were supposed to bring money and health. Apples on the other hand would cause tumors. Illnesses of the skin could be prevented by eating a dish of peas.

It was important that good wishes for the new year be extended far and wide. When appropriate, a small gift was given in addition. In the Rheinland the „Neujährchen” was a gift to housemaids, day laborers and other workers, sometime along with a few coins, for their services during the year.

There was a belief that one could bring good luck to the new year with certain symbols. Such is the case with figures of lucky pigs, horseshoes, four-leaf clovers, and chimney sweeps. The fly agaric mushroom that has a red cap with white spots was also understood to be lucky. A lottery winner in Germany is called "a lucky mushroom."

At the beginning moments of the new year, Germans give
the toast "prosit." This toast, from the Latin, has been in use since the beginning of the 18th century. It meant to "do good," when it was "Germanized" by university student vernacular. Today it is the equivalent of "cheers".

Fireworks date back to very ancient times. In the old days people used a plant powder called "witch thunder" or "lighting powder" to produce a primitive form of fireworks. It was used to drive out demons, and its lights and noise could keep bad weather away from the house and hof. The use of fireworks goes back to the stone age. Certain plants exploded when they were exposed to fire, producing bright colors and a loud noise. These non-flowering plants have a thick yellow fluid spore powder. A part of the powder is blown into the flame, and there is rapid combustion without smoke. When the early fireworks-like substances were used to achieve good luck and the warding off of evil spirits, there was the danger of fire. A farmer would have four mounds of loose ground ready, at the four directions in which a spark might blow.

In the Westphalian area of Germany, the young people of the villages would spend New Year's eve going from house to house singing and receive small gifts. The people also believed that on New Year's Eve, nothing in the house should be moved or changed, not a piece of furniture, picture - even the things within trunks and cabinets should not be moved to a new place because that was unlucky.

On New Year's morning, the first person
to give a New Year's greeting would get a small reward like an apple, nut, candy or even a special little cake made for the day called an Eiserkuchen. The children on that morning would write a letter or card to their parents or godparents.

One of my favorite finds is the old saying about Silvester. Whoever is last to finish his meal on New Year's Day will be too late to enter heaven. Now I understand why most of my friends and relatives who have a Germanic background, including me, eat so fast. It's caused by that genetic memory!

Rätsch, Christian and Claudia Müller-Ebeling, Weihnachtsbaum und Blütenwunder. (English title is Pagan Christmas: the Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of the Yuletide) 2006
Hermine von Hagen, Damals auf dem Lande, 1985