Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Memorials of our Ancestors

Wegkreuz or way-cross near Taben-Roht

A common sight on television news, whether national or local, is bouquets of flowers, stuffed animals, candles, and perhaps a styrofoam cross, to mark the spot where a tragedy occurred. It is a way of expressing sorrow, sometimes from people who did not know the victim but were touched by their sad story.

Our ancestors had similar reactions to tragedy. Whether they brought temporary objects to express their sorrow is difficult to know. But they, mostly strong believers in God and his mother Mary, also erected markers that stood for a century or longer. And these monuments were not always built to commemorate a tragedy. Although I knew that all of my ancestral villages had sturdy crosses or tiny chapels with religious themes, I hadn't thought about their meaning in more than a superficial way until this week.

What I realized is that times of death were not the only occasions when our ancestors expressed their feelings in a very public way. Here are descriptions of three separate monuments in or near one of my ancestral villages. Each monument was erected for a situation that elicited a strong emotion; strong enough to preserve the memory of it for at least a century.

Sudden tragedy

On the high road between Zerf and Hermeskeil, the monument called simply "At the thick stone" stands. It is a light-colored marker similar in shape to a cemetery cross. It replaces the original wooden cross which stood in the same place. At the time it was erected, somewhere between 1794-1814, the area between Zerf and the Hochwald (high wood) continued to be a dangerous place. It was here that two wagon drivers who were underway with a load of goods were attacked by robbers who had stretched a rope across the rode, causing the horses to fall. After stopping the wagon, the bandits could murdered the drivers and made off with the goods they carried. In tribute and sorrow, a wooden cross was erected which lasted until about 1920 when it was so badly deteriorated that it was replaced with the monument now called the Ottskreuz, since it had stood for a time on the grave of the sister, Frau Ott, of one of the slain drivers.

A Married Couple's Disappointment
In Irsch, on the road leading in the direction of Ockfen, a cross about six feet high was erected in 1781. The upper part was a baroque-styled, arched crossbeam roof that hung over the crucifix. Near the foot of the cross, there was a small picture of the Virgin Mary of the Seven Sorrows. At the base of the monument was an inscription in Latin, indicating that being childless was a great sadness. This monument was erected by the school teacher, Christoph Tressel and his wife, Maria Elizabeth. Legend has it that the couple was childless and that this was a great sorrow to them. Herr Tressel was the teacher, sexton, and founder of the church choir in Irsch. He was also the teacher in Beurig and Ockfen. Thus the monument came to be called the Schulkreuz or "School Cross." It also served as a place where people, in times of trouble, often came to pray to the sorrowful Christ and to the virgin mother of the seven sorrows.

Thanksgiving for Good Fortune
A new-found friend, who lives in France near the German border where my ancestors once lived, sent me the picture above and the story of a Wegkreuz or way-cross monument." She found it not too far from my ancestral village of Serrig, and she knew I'd be interested in a story from that area. But the legend about this monument was not at all what I had expected:

On a cold winter afternoon in the year 1868 a little girl from the village of Hamm caused a schoolroom disturbance that interrupted the instruction of her teacher, a very stern woman. The teacher, as punishment, put the child into a dark little shed where the wood which heated the school was kept.

It was snowing by the time classes were over for the day, and the teacher and the other children had forgotten all about the little girl who was still locked in the woodshed. Later, as the church sexton was going about his appointed chores, he passed by the school. He heard cries coming from the shed and went to investigate. Releasing the child, he told her to hurry home to her parents. Unfortunately, it had already begun to snow in the afternoon and now, in the dark, the child was having a difficult time finding her way. She became more and more disoriented and confused as she wandered until, finally, she sank down into the snow, exhausted. A miller, traveling was on his way from Hamm to his own village of Taben-Roht when he heard whimpering. He searched and found the child and walked back the way he had come in order to see her safely home again.

The parents were so grateful that, in thanksgiving to God, they erected a cross, known as Barschels Kruez, or Barschels Cross (Barschel is the small district where the little girl was found). The cross of gratitude lasted for almost 100 years and then was rebuilt by the village of Taben-Roht in 1999 in order to highlight this piece of the area's history.

As our annual celebration of Thanksgiving, with its family gatherings, good food, and (usually) football approaches, this last memorial has made me think - of all of the times, big and small, when what could have been a tragedy turned into an occasion for my own personal thanksgiving day. While it's probably not possible for me to build a memorial, at least I hope I remember to buy some flowers to give thanks the next time I experience such an instance.

*Christoffel, Edgar. Der Hochwaldort Zerf Am Fusse Des Hundrücks Landschaft; Geschichte, Kultur; Gegenwart. Saarburg, Verlag W. Rassier, 1981
*Meyer, Ewald. Irsch/Saar; Geschichte eines Dorfes. Geminde Irsch, 2002

*Verkehrs-und Verschönerungsverein, Taben-Rodt

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Mentioning Unmentionables

Drawing of young woman of the Hunsruck wearing chemise under her work clothes from website

As I was struggling once again with Martha Heit's, "Kleidung im Trier Land des frühen 19. Jahrhunderts," planning my next post for this blog, a phrase caught my attention:

"If an embroidered undergarment of any kind was given to a young girl for the time when she would be a new bride, this was considered a very loving gift. Making the same kind of gift to a young man was an absolute taboo."

I couldn't help wondering just what kind of underclothing men and women wore in the 1800s. From information in Frau Heit's study of the "Official Gazette of the Trier Government" which sometimes caused me quite a bit of translation puzzlement, I finally was able to discern just what the lower class residents of the Trier area were wearing, or not wearing, under their outer clothing.

The Women's Undergarments in the Early Part of the 19th Century

For Sundays, holidays, and other celebrations, the women wore one or more petticoats as part of their costume. But for work days, their dress was plain and practical, and it started with a very basic piece of underclothing, the Hemd or chemise.

1800's chemise pattern from

The farm wife's or servant girl's chemise was calf length, and the material for the basic part of the dress used so efficiently that the sleeves sometime had to be made of other material, usually a finer weave. The ordinary chemise had a large square neckline so that the head could go through, or it was a smaller round oval with a drawstring opening that could be loosened for nursing. A chemise had no buttons. The women wore this thick, strong chemise, usually made from linen, both during the day and to bed at night.

A skirt and apron were worn over the top of the chemise during the day, the top of the chemise serving as both inner- and outerwear. Especially in winter a Leibchen (vest-like bodice) covered the top of the chemise. Sometimes this bodice was attached to the skirt, but it might be separate also. It was a style that had been worn since the end of the 15th century.

In the early 1800s, a church Dechant (dean) in Merzig wrote that in summer and even coldest winter, the women wore garments (the chemise?) that did not cover their bare arms, even in the church. But he concluded that this was not something that caused discomfort because a women never went without a large scarf or shawl that hung over her chest, back, and arms. This large shawl gave the Hemd or chemise, with sleeves that reached about as low as the elbow or just a little below it, enough warmth for the colder temperatures

The chemise sleeves, which were usually narrow, were worn above the elbow, so that the sleeves would not prevent a woman from bending her arm. However, in the Hunsruck, the sleeves of the chemise came below the elbow because the cut was much wider, in fact, quite full. Local folklore from this area says that these sleeves could be pushed up to stay above the elbow, but to this day there is a debate about how this was done because folk tradition also says that there was no button or band used at the bottom of the sleeve. Thus how the sleeves were kept up remains a mystery.

Frau Heit concluded that women wore only the Hemd as underclothing. If the breasts were supported, it was by the over-bodice which served as a bra. A corset was rare. The government Amtsblatt reports upon which Frau Heit's book is based, indicate that until about 1836 underpants were not worn at all. None of the inventories of the possessions of the women who died accidentally or violently mention underpants. Neither do the stores that were robbed list such articles of clothing.

The Men's Undergarments of the Early 19th Century

Not too much is written in the Amtsblatt reports about men's unmentionables. Frau Heit was able to find mention of only 14 pairs of underpants in all of the police reports she studied which covered the 20 year period from 1816 to 1836.

These 14 pairs of underpants were as follows: 4 underpants were made of linen, 2 of cotton twill, one each of flanell, baize (a felt-like material woven from wool), or leather. The underpants were usually short; but they could be long as well, with a stirrup going into (or over) the man's boot.

Until the coming of the washable jersey materials about 1858, the wearing of underpants by the male farm folk or the city commoner was somewhat unusual. As long as their shirts were long enough, underpants were superfluous. The shirts were made with so much material that they filled the trousers. This kind of hygiene was considered adequate.

And now that my ancestors are turning in their graves at my revelation of their "unmentionables," I can only hope that they will forgive me in the interests of social history.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Herr Burgermeister Bodem and his Angel

Monuments of Chopin, Pere Lachaise Cemetery Paris

Bodem family monument, Beurig church cemetery

When my sister and I were in Paris a few years ago, we went to visit the city's most famous cemetery, the Cimitiere de Pere Lachaise. I was amazed at the size of the monuments of the prominent Parisians (and a few outsiders of great fame such as Chopin) buried there.

When I received the e-mailed photo above from Ewald Meyer who lives in Irsch but who was born in the neighboring village of Beurig, I wondered if he and his wife had made a trip to Paris recently. It had never occurred to me that a monument of such enormous size might reside in the cemetery at Beurig, which at about the time the tombstone was constructed, had a population of less than 1,000.

Then, when I read his explanation, I knew I had another case of class distinctions, similar to the sumptuary laws affecting clothing which I described in a recent post.

This is a summary of what Ewald Meyer wrote, knowing that what he told me would be of great interest both to me and probably to the people who periodically read this blog:

I am sending you a photo from the cemetery in Beurig. Here stands the monument of the Bodem family. Nikolaus Bodem was Bürgermeister when Johann Meyer (my 2nd great grandfather) emigrated to USA in 1861. Irsch was only a village in the Kingdom of Prussia. But any civil servant was a very big man within the Monarchy. John Meyer (a farmer) was only an (unimportant) subject of the Prussian king.

While the grave of ordinary citizens would be assigned to someone else after 25 years of non-usage, the graves of the prestigious remained untouched, even when no more relatives of the family lived in the city or village. The bombastic grave monument (of the Bodem family) is a testimonial to past times.

Because Nikolaus Bodem, as mayor, was a senior Prussian official with a superior position, his entire family was considered to be "upper class. The family tomb (not surprisingly) is the largest of the Beurig village cemetery. Even the wife of the Herr Bürgermeister Bodem is dubbed the "Frau Bürgermeister" in the engraving on the far left of the tombstone (where she is buried).

The mayorality of Irsch-Beurig was then a relatively small administrative area. It included the towns of Irsch, Beurig, Ockfen, Schoden and Serrig with a total of about 3,000 inhabitants. The administrative office was in Irsch, the largest village, which in 1810 had 982 inhabitants. But on November 1, 1833, the Prussian government moved the mayor's office to Beurig, a village of about 500.

Nicholas Bodem was born in 1803 in Irsch and died in 1885 in Beurig (where he had moved when Beurig became the mayor's administrative office). By the time he died, Beurig was the largest city of the mayorality, surpassing Irsch. It had become a railway stop for the area (including Saarburg, the district office for the Kreis) in 1860.

The cemetery in Beurig is now owned by the city Saarburg, because the two communities were incorporated in 1935 into the county seat Beurig-Saarburg. Now graves have defined periods of use. After no more than 30 years (from the date of the burial), a grave will be leveled and prepared as a new resting place.

The Bodem tomb which still stands in the cemetery is in a special section. These are the burial plots that are from the Prussian period of the 19th Century. They were the resting places of the wealthy families of the time, and regarded as self-acquired property. These are tombs for officials who were in royal service (eg, mayors and foresters) or for estate owners. Some of these family graves are still used by descendants. In other cases, there are no longer descendants. These graves are neglected as is the burial place of Herr Bürgermeister Bodem. Frau Trimborn (whose name can be seen at the far right of the photo) was the last descendant of the Bodem family.

It seems that the Herr Bodem, who was the mayor for 48 years, from 1831 to 1879, has a monument as tall as his term was long. Unfortunately, his family line's time in Beurig was much shorter.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Merchant Traveling the Roads

White kittel, knee pants, stockings of the 18th century

Traveling, whether it involved great distances or just a trip to the nearest town, could be dangerous for the men and women of the Trier Land during the late 18th and early 19th century. Robbery and disappearances were common occurrences, especially on roads that were little traveled.

Martha Heit describes these "missing" or "waylaid" travelers as listed in the logs of the official government gazette of the times. There are too many for me to describe the clothing of all of them but here are the traveling clothes of a few of the merchants who took to the road.

The Elderly Gentleman from Wellen
Throughout the early years of the 19th century, the older styles from before the time of Napoleon were still worn, especially by those born before the "Little Emperor" had changed many of the laws and customs of the Rhineland. Such was the case of an older man who was traveling the roads with his son in 1827. The gazette records do not record the man's business, but it would appear that it was a profitable one based on the clothing he was wearing. The picture above gives you and idea of the garb of this 18th century middle-class merchant from Wellen

The description given to the police clerk, probably by the son, was very detailed. The older man's outer garment was a blue linen Kittel, a long, loose, smock-like garment, often used for work around the farm to protect the clothing underneath. A Kittel was also worn by well-to-do persons who wanted to disguise their wealth when they traveled the roads. But under the Kittel, the missing man had worn a dark blue Tuchrock, an undercoat that today would probably be called a suit jacket. It had a wide lapel and large buttons the size of a Prussian Taler (the size of the Taler did change over time but was always a fairly large coin). The picture below, a segment from a portrait painted in the 18th century, is a good example of the large buttons on the Tuckrock.

Under the Tuckrock, the missing man had worn a linen shirt with a collar that was all of a piece with the shirt and held together with a black silk scarf. Over the shirt he wore a dark blue high-closed vest, and Sammet (velvet) knee pants about culotte length. His knee length stockings were worn with a type of decorative garter and his low thin shoes closed with a silver buckle. On his head he wore a black hat with a brim and a low crown and underneath the hat he wore a more casual Zipfel (slightly pointed) cap, knitted from very fine wool.

When the man and his son had reached Konz, a town about seven miles from Trier, the father and son briefly separated. The father had gone into one of the businesses, possibly to "clean" himself from the dust of journey (says the police report) and after that he and his fine clothing were not seen again.

The Linen Weaver from Burbach

Mutze with Schirm (Museum in Honfleur, Normandy)

This weaver was about 40 years old and in Dec. 1835 he went on business to Gersweiler and disappeared. No one ever heard from him again. His clothing made it appear that he was a poor man, but robbers must have seen through his disguise which consisted of an old cap (Mutze) made out of dark material with a Schirm (a cap with a visor and sometimes ear flaps) as in the cap at the left. His cloth overcoat was gray and his trousers were made of black cloth. He had white linen gaitors and shoes that were in poor repair. Under his coat he had on an old worn-out shirt over which he had a muslin loose shirt, no scarf and no vest.

The Priest from Piesport

Priests also were "merchants" that had "customers" who needed "spiritual wares." In 1820 the priest from Piesport was on the road the day after Sylvester (New Year's Day) when the Mosel was greatly swollen, flooding over the path from Mannheim to Piesport. This priest never came home again; it is likely that he drowned. His clothing was of the style of the 18th century that was perhaps the official priestly dress of this time, something the author was unable to discover. He wore a large overcoat of dark green wool material with a collar, and part of the collar was a small standup necktie of a cotton material. The coat had a cuff that was also of cotton. Underneath His overcoat, he wore a typical priestly undercoat with small black buttons, a vest of black material, knee pants of black material with silver buckles and black stockings. His shirt was a form of muslin with crape cuffs. The letters WK were embroidered by hand about level with his highest breast bone. This most likely was a religious symbol of some kind.

The Jewish Tradesman
The occupation of Jewish men of the time was almost always that of a trader and/or money changer. This always made them a target for robbery when they traveled. In Saarbrucken, one such man is described as wearing a dark blue overcoat, a blue and white striped vest, a yellow scarf, blue trousers and a fur cap described as having a "Schirm". This could indicate that the cap had a visor, earflaps, or both.

A Robber from Landkreise Trier

A linen weaver from the Province of Westpfalen was attacked on 27 May, 1818 in the forest not too far from Trierweiler in the Landkreise Trier by an assailant who knocked him to the ground and left him for dead. The robber took 215 Taler; part made up of French Kronenthaler and the remainder of Prussian coins (The linen weaver must have traveled widely). The victim was found the following night and brought to Wintersdorf. Since he had met the man who robbed him the previous evening and, since the robber was dressed very well, the linen weaver walked with him as a travel companion. Thus the linen weaver was able to describe his assailant's clothing in detail: "blue linen Kittel, dark blue undercoat, dark blue vest, a pair of velvet pants, thin shoes with straps, a black silk scarf and a hat."

All people, but especially merchants who had to travel the roads any distance had a kind of fatalism, although they hoped for the best. But as you can see, it was a very unsure thing whether a man would ever reach his destination.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Fabrics and Colors for the Not-So-Privileged Classes

Kattun (calico) jacket front and back with woven design.

It may seem as if I am wandering from the subject of the clothing of the Trier area in the early 19th century, but please be patient since I want to make a point. I have just finished reading a historical novel about Mozart's sister, Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart, better known as Nannerl. The novel is set during the latter part of the 18th century. The Mozart family lived in Salzburg and while they were not nobles, their place in the society of the time meant that they had a high position in the tightly structured class system of that day.

Here is a description of a dress being made for Nannerl:  "...the costly work of the dressmaker...squeezed the girl's bust like a trap and at the waist opened out over the hips in a puff of yellow taffeta dotted with flowers, and then fell to the floor in an exultation of flounces."

Most historical novels describe this kind of fashion. The materials had to be ordered, perhaps from France, surely from a large city and a skilled dressmaker was hired. When a servant girl  became the heroine of a historical novel, no time was devoted to a description of her garb until, through some twist of fate, she too is dressed in fine brocades or satins.

But the book "Kleidung im Trierer Land des frühen 19. Jahrhunderts" is a source where the fashions and fabric of the woman of the lower middle class or the farmer's wife and daughters are explained in detail. That's why I am about to tell you what I have learned about that subject and why I have excluded the fabric and color of dresses worn by the women of Nannerl Mozart's class.  If  it had been possible, I would have gladly concentrated on the kind of clothing worn by the villagers and peasants in the small, provincial town of St. Gilgen, where Nannerl was sent to recover her health.  Sadly, these clothes were given not a whit of attention, which means I continued struggling with Martha Heit's difficult (for me) German text about the attire of the lower classes of the Trier region.


A person's class had a great deal to do with the type of clothing that a woman was allowed to wear. In parts of Europe, including Germany and the Trier area, a type of "sumptuary law" was enforced, forbiding unseemly luxury among the lower classes. Sumptuary laws, as the name implies, sought to control consumption, and usually did so on the basis of rank. In other words, such laws, usually promulgated by emperors, kings, or nobles permited more ostentation and luxury among lords than among the middle class or peasants. The German sumptuary laws were part of an effort to discipline social life and social order into easily identifiable parts.

The German word "Rock" meant clothing in general in early times; but by about the 1600s it had come to denote a woman's skirt, whether sewn to a bodice or worn as a separate item of clothing. It was the most important part of her wardrobe. If permitted, this skirt could be very colorful, whatever the social class of the wearer.  But because the skirt could also be one of the most expensive pieces, hand decorated with fine embroidery, the societal rules mentioned above usually forbad certain classes too much "show."  In such a situation, a lower-class woman's overskirt had to be very plain.  In some places only dark colors like black or brown were permitted.

Not to be deprived of their desire for something pretty to wear, peasant women made splendid colorful underskirts. And from folk literature about the underskirts of the women from the Eifel area northeast of Trier, it is clear that these garments were the pride of each farmer's wife.  At times, two or three were put over each other.  This was especially true for a bride's skirt and underskirts.  In the Saar area in the 1850's, a woman's underskirts counted as the most costly pieces of the wardrobe. 

Martha Heit, writes this about the skirts of the Trier region, "There was an early "patchwork" on the side of the skirt".   This puzzled me until I saw the picture of a woman's jacket which was reproduced in her book; a complex patchwork-style design adds a dramatic flare to this jacket which was probably owned by a middle-class lady.


From the late middle ages until the 1700's, most of the clothing of the women from the middle mountain area of Hunsruck, Eifel and Saargau was made from linen. The flax had been grown on the family's own land and woven by hand. Clothing made for housework had the natural color of the flax thread. If colored, clothing was usually a practical gray or black. For the peasant woman, this didn't change much until new techniques developed around the beginning of the 1800s. The farm wife's loom, which was put to use in the winter after the crops were harvested, took only heavy threads, although with a heavy thread, the weaving went fast.   The garment would be rather coarse when made on the home loom.  It was an excellent way to make such things as linen trousers or any kind overwear. 

The simplest and lightest weaving had to be done by the village weavers who had the ability to work with lighter-weight threads of wool, linen and cotton.  These could be mixed together in a woven piece.  The making of cotton cloth was known by weaving families, but the threads used tended to be very thick if made by small town weavers, as opposed to the finer cott0n cloth which was woven for women who lived in the big cities. The women of the smaller towns envied this fine cotton material.  Cotton came into Germany from Holland and England.  These two countries had more trade with India where many types of cotton could be obtained. 

French weavers were very creative and put silk and wool together; they also created more varieties of cotton and muslin with different weaves and colors.  This variety of materials were introduced to the Rheinland when Napoleon declared all the land up to the west bank of the Rhine River as French territory.   However, when Prussia defeated the French and claimed back the Rheinland territory, tariffs were levied on French products and Trier folk could no longer get this kind of material.  So in Germany there was a return to Tertig, a mixture of linen and wool.

In the early days of the 19th century, new materials for women's clothing began to allow some variety. Linen or linen and wool (Tertig) cloth, long a staple fabric for most of a women's everyday and Sunday/festival clothing was slowly challenged by something new, the so-called "Kattun."

Kattun is an older German word for calico cotton or chinz. It too became available in the Trier area at the time of Napoleon. It replaced linen in the wardrobe of many of the women of the middle class, as well as the wives of well-to-do farmers, even during the poverty years between 1816/17 and 1830/31.

At first the Kattun was plain but prints started appearing in Germany about 1810. After the fall of Napoleon, England again controlled the textile market and produced fabric with designs printed with four rollers. Not many women owned Kattun clothing with a woven design. The well-to-do in the Trier area did not have as much access to this kind of material as did those in France.  People of quality were the most likely to own such clothes - which were very susceptible to theft.


Woad Plant

Dye was needed to give clothing color.  The first dyes were usually  plant-based.  Blue colors were gotten by using the roots of a plant called Waid in German, woad or wode in English.  

Madder Roots

Red colors came from the red roots of the madder plant.  Nuts and tree bark provided darker colors.  There were drawbacks to these dyes.  It was difficult to be certain what color fabric you would get; light vs dark vs spotted.  The natural dyes stayed in place for awhile but did continue to fade as a garment was washed.  

Indigo which was imported from the Indies dyed a much truer color of blue, and it always came out the same color so it was very popular in the Trier area in the middle of the 18th century.  In its early years it was processed by mixing it with urine to get an especially good and long-lasting color. 

Somewhere, I'm sure, there is a book, fiction or non-fiction, written in English, which describes the clothing of peasant women in great detail, now that I've just re-invented the wheel.  But until I find that book, this brief study of the fabrics and colors of a lower class woman's clothing, which was so familiar to my female Trier-area ancestors, has explained their appearance in a way that makes it understandable to me.

For additional information about clothing in the 19th Century, see these further posts. 

Saturday, May 02, 2009

An Unusual Book about Clothing - Introduction

Cover of "Clothing in the Trier Region during the early 19th Century" by Martha Heit.

If you are going to write the history of your Trier area family, you may eventually want to address the question of dress for both men and women, including things like class distinctions in dress, types of materials, the difference between weekday and Sunday/festival attire, etc. That is my situation right now. But instead of having too little information, I am overwhelmed with information - all located in the book above.

I've been putting off this translation work because this book is the most difficult German book I own. Not only is the writing scholarly (difficult vocabulary) but it also is full of very minute details of the production of new fabrics in Europe in the years after Napoleon was defeated and Prussia took control - the 20 years between 1816 to 1836. I believe that every fact I could ever want to know is located somewhere in the 229 pages of small type. The trick is to find it.

The subtitle of the book is (I think) "Discoveries and Analysis from the Official Gazette of the Trier Government from 1816 to 1836." The paintings reproduced on the cover are of Johann Wilhelm Maret and his wife, Annette Babette Maret, born Coupette. Herr Maret was a confectioner and had a chocolate factory. In 1824 it was located at Nr. 17 Glockenstraße, Trier. Based on the couples' attire, the chocolate factory was a monetary success.

Why did I buy a book with such complicated text? Because, even though I originally thought there would be many books on the history of the clothing worn in Trier and in its surrounding villages at the time my ancestors lived there, I had miscalculated. Even the large, well-stocked bookstore in Trier had only one title that the salesclerk could sell me. It had almost no pictures and the text looked impossible, but I bought it anyway.

Ever since then I've hoped to find someone who could help me translate my book, but at this point I'm still on my own. I've decided to do the best I can, because, as the introduction to Kleidung im Trierer Land des frühen 19. Jahrhunderts says, this is a book that finally has managed to distinguish between the 'Tracht' costume worn mostly by farm people and the rapidly emerging more "European"' fashions of the city residents.

Here is an example. In about 1820, town people began to have access to calico (Kattun) prints for the first time. This kind of cotton cloth was mostly imported from England, which was a leader in producing fine cotton cloth for export. The citizens in the Trier area were not as well to do as those in surrounding areas, especially those in France, so Kattun dresses did not become available for the middle class or the prosperous farm wives immediately after it was introduced. Thus the wife of a wealthy man was the most likely owner of a calico print dress in the early 19th century.

As indicated in the subtitle, it seems that the book's author, in finding sources for a description of the clothing of the time, wisely studied the "Official Gazettes of the Trier Government, 1816 to 1836". Government clerks evidently recorded an interesting variety of details about crimes or unusual events and in the effort, produced multiple descriptions of the garments worn at that time. Here are some quotes to show you what I mean.

People on the Move - for many reasons
Some people on the move were jail escapees. One such was a man originally captured and confined in a city prison in Trier. But, as was common, he escaped wearing his prison garb. In July of 1816, the Government Gazette reported this fugitive:
He was dressed in "...jacket of gray cloth marked on front and back with the red-colored Latin letters B. G., short pants of a nondescript cloth, round hat, shoes and stockings." It was noted in the official entry that the escapee would quickly rid himself of the jacket with the red marking and try to obtain some clothing that would make him look like an ordinary citizen. With "dress coat and round hat" he could take on a new identity. It would seem from the description above that in 1816, men's pants were either long or short. If short, they reached below the knee, with stockings that covered the lower part of the leg.

Another type of "man on the move" was the draft dodger or deserter who carried falsified military discharge papers. Such a man might be clothed in a modified uniform such as this man sought in September of 1820 who, according to the Gazette, was wearing: “...Blue cap with cloth red stripes, blue jacket with gold collar, white vest with fine gold stripes, old light-gray pants with a narrow red stripe, boots with low heels…"

Fleeing thieves were often sought by the police. This well-dressed thief's clothing was described by a very conscientious and observant civil servant in 1822. "...plain shirt of red cotton, black cap coated with (a waterproofing) wax, a red and white striped neckerchief, dark green spanish-style jacket, green overcoat with gold buttons, white vest with blue stripes, long brown cloth pants tied at the bottom, Suwarow* boots with high heels, a box-shaped satchel"

The illustrative quotes I've chosen show how much information about clothing was contained in this Government Gazette, the Amtsblatt der Regeirung zu Trier. Who would expect that one of the best descriptions of the clothing of the time would be a part of official government records.

I've only begun my look at the clothing of the early 19th century and will continue stumbling through Martha Heit's amazing book in my next posts, not with speed but with singlemindedness.
*Count Suwarow of Russia led the campaign against Napoleon for Italy.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Fastnachtzeit and Karwoche

Various kinds of Raspeln

My very first post to this blog in 2005 was about the Easter customs in small villages in the Hunsruck.  But I've learned that the season leading up to Easter deserves mention as well.  Here are some bits and pieces.

The Rheinlanders of today are still known for their Karneval celebrations which have the flavor of  Mardi Gras.  This was also true in earlier centuries.  Karneval can be traced back to pagan Roman festivals.  That may explain why Köln, Mainz, and Trier, which are ancient cities with Roman history, go all out for their carnivals on the Monday and Tuesday before Lent begins. 

In the Middle Ages, Karneval gave the people a break from the tightly structured class system, as they were able to hide their social background behind imaginative masks and costumes. Poor people were able to mix with all other levels of society and share the celebration with them. In those days people would dress up as knights, damsels and even priests as a way of poking fun of them. In a similar way, people these days sometimes wear masks which make fun of well-known politicians or celebrities.

In the small villages, the two days before the beginning of Lent or the Fastnachtzeit were celebrated in a variety of ways.  For instance, on the Monday before Lent, Rosenmontag, in the Hunsruck villages of Kreis Saarburg, the mothers baked special little Küchlein on the Monday before Easter.   These were round or longish raised cakes similar to our doughnuts.  They were made of flour, egg, a little sugar, and yeast.  When the dough had risen, each doughnut/cake was fried in an iron pot in extremely hot oil.   After the typical Rosenmontag meal of potato soup, the boys in each household would spear a Küchlein with a sharp stick.  Pulling on a stocking cap and a mask, they went from house to house with their spears, asking for eggs and ham.    

On the Tuesday before Lent (Fastnachtsdienstag), in many of the small Hunsruck villages, one would probably find the Fastnachtsbären, the "Mardi Gras" bear.  One or two young men were wrapped in straw.  After they put on bear-head masks, they were chained or tied together and led around the village by their keepers.  The straw bears growled and danced to the tinny sound of tambourines. The bears pranced their way to each house door and growled ferociously until their "keepers" were given ham, eggs or money.  Later there was a happy celebration by the bears and their keepers in the local Wirtshaus.

Lent began with fasting toward the end of winter.  When the farmers in Kreis Saarburg began their spring farm work, it was the sign that Karwoche, the solemn week leading up to Easter was not far away.  This special week of preparation before Easter was filled with religious customs, many from medieval times.

"Kar" comes from Old High German word "kara" meaning grief, complain or grieve.  Thus it was a week to meditate on the events leading up to Good Friday, called Karfreitag in German. The customs of the week, some with a history going back to the Middle Ages, were meant to symbolize the inner grieving for Christ as he came closer and closer to his crucifixion and death.
In Catholic services, one of the signs of mourning for the suffering and death of Christ was (and still is) the cessation of the use of any kind of musical instrument or any bells on Gründonnerstag,  Holy Thursday.  After the organ and choir performed the Latin "Gloria" of the mass, the choir sang a capella and the organ and bells were silent until Easter Sunday.  

Thus in Kreis Saarburg, during processions and at mass, Kleppern or Raspeln took the place of the bells from Karfreitag on.   Instead of tolling the bell, altar boys with wooden ratchets or clappers walked through the streets or from house to house, usually in procession, reminding people of the solemnity of the day.  There sounds were also a substitute for the ringing of the church bells for the Angelus at six a.m, noon, and six p.m.  

Some historians believe that the Kleppern and Raspeln were used in pre-Christian times to scare away the ghosts of winter in order to make way for the spring season. 

Ewald Meier, the author of the book "Irsch/Saar: Geschichte eines Dorfes" demonstrated one of the Raspeln for me when we visited the village museum in Zerf.  There should never be one unceasing sound for the Raspel, Ewald said, but rather a rhythmic tempo.  Ewald described his particular style as this: rum-pause-rum-pause-rum rum rum.  A boy beside him might use another rhythm, those coming behind chose distinctive rhythms as well.  There was quite a noise as several boys walked the streets of the village together, performing their Karwoche duty.   

Finally it was Easter Sunday.  The Hunsruck area Easter customs can be found in my blog post about Easter in the Hunsruck.  

Other sources:
Christiane Becker.  Die Hunsrücker Küche.  

Friday, March 06, 2009

Tidbits Tell a Tailor's Story

The Schneider's helpers in sewing position

If you go to an Archive such as the one in Koblenz where your ancestors' emigration papers are preserved, a well-meaning archivist may caution you that there is not much point in trying to use these documents for genealogical purposes. If you already know the names and the birth dates of the immigrants and the date they left for North America, there is little to be gained by reading “boiler plate” documents that are the same for everyone.

Sometimes this is true. But in many applications there are tidbits of information that are precious to those of us who want to develop a robust family history. This was certainly the case for my 2nd great grandfather's younger brother, Michael.

Michael Meier was a 24-year-old tailor when he applied for permission to emigrate to North America in September 1856 according to an index in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Before my trip to the Koblenz Archive to find his actual emigration documents, I had viewed him as a daring young man who wanted to explore a new country. He was single; therefore he was free to take chances. He had dreams of wealth and prosperity in a land of freedom.
After having his emigration papers translated, I have begun to envision a very different young man.

We start with Michael's letter for permission to leave Irsch for a better life in America. (I've noted in bold the information I feel is important in understanding Michael's story). This letter was the first step in the immigration process and probably dictated to Michael by Burgermeister Bodem.

A most obedient petition of Michael Meier, 24 years old, tailor at Irsch, requesting permission to emigrate.

Your Grace,
I give a most obedient notice that I am of a mind to emigrate to America immediately. The reason for my emigration lies in that
I have a sister there who has been there for a year. I wish to visit her and at the same time be able to be trained in the profession of a tailor.

Regarding military service duty, in my view, nothing stands in the way. In 1854 I was declared by the … Department Reserve Commission to be totally unfit for field and garrison service. Therefore, I promise not to join the service of any foreign army, rather only intend for the mentioned purpose of emigration. But because I need a permission to emigrate for this purpose, I take the liberty, your grace, most obediently, to petition, most graciously, that you request for me at the respective office [of Saarburg]

Respectfully signed,
Your most obedient petitioner supplicant
Michael Meier

Along with the application papers sent from Beurig to Saarburg to Trier, a verification of Michael's unsuitability for induction into the Prussian military service was included. In summary it said that in 1854 the military commission in Saarburg had declared Michael Meier to be completely unfit for military service because he was too short and also because he had ulcerous sores on his feet. It was noted that Michael had not yet contracted a ship passage with any agent.

Before I had the information above, I sometimes wondered why Michael had chosen to become a tailor. He came from a family line that had been land-owning farmers for several generations. Yet Michael did not want to work on the land he and his only brother would inherit from their father. Learning about Michael's problem with foot sores, I could guess at the reason for Michael's occupational decision. A tailor or a tailor's helper could spend much of his work day sitting and sewing, as illustrated in the decorative beer stein above.

According to information in the German version of Wikipedia, the tailor sat in a cross legged or Schneidersitz position on a wooden table. This was a good method for sewing long seams and keeping the fabric off of the floor. The four most important tools of a Schneider were needles, thread, an ell measure, and a scissors.

The same Wikipedia article also described the pecking order in the tailor's workshop when guilds ruled the lives of all craftsmen. The master tailor was in charge. He had started as an apprentice, moved on to become a journeyman/Geselle and finally was certified as a master tailor. There were also Nähknecht. These were semi-skilled assistants to the tailor and not usually eligible to rise into a higher position because of physical disability or health problems. They learned only the basics of sewing, mostly closing uncomplicated seams. They would be found sitting on the wooden table stitching side seams, trouser seams, sleeve seams, etc.

An article in Der Blumenbaum, the Quarterly Newsletter of the Sacramento German Genealogical Society gave a good deal more information about the tailor's craft. Here is a brief summary:

Young men started as an apprentice in a trade, such as shoemaker, capenter, blacksmith, tailer, etc. After three to six years of training, it was time for a young apprentice to prove his worth and learn from other masters and from a variety of experiences in order to become a master himself. In English, this would be a journeyman, in Germany a Geselle. And "journey men" they were, for they were required to leave their home villages and with empty pockets travel to other villages and towns to work for masters who could teach them new techniques and where they could perfect their craft. This journey lasted three years and one day and was known by its common name "on der Walz" (on the journey). And it was a journey, for the Geselle could not wander closer than 30 miles to his home village.

Gesellen on der Walz

The early journeymen belonged to the guilds of the middle ages and the tradition continued into the 19th century. Usually an experienced journeyman accompanied the new Geselle for a week or two. After that, the young man was on his own to find work - but never for more than three months in one place for he must remain a traveler, a stranger.

A uniform of sorts identified the Geselle as an honorable stranger in the town and also indicated what kind of craftsman he might be. A wood worker of any kind would wear a dark color like brown or black, the color of wood. Lighter colors like gray or beige, were worn by men who worked with stone.

Even more than clothing color, the eight buttons set in a double row on his vest, his pants with a flared leg, a collarless white shirt, and a coat with six buttons were signs of a free journeyman out in the world to sharpen his skills. The eight buttons on the vest were meant to represent his eight-hour workday while the six buttons on his coat signified the length of the work week. His hat was one of two kinds. Schlapphut was wide brimmed and floppy as in the drawing above. The "Zylinder" was a top hat, either half or full size. A tie in the color of his guild or lodge completed his traveling uniform.

He carried only few items. One was a "Stenz", a carved cane; another was his pack in which he kept his work clothes and a satchel with his tools, and his diary or Wanderbuch. In it each master for whom he had worked recorded the date and place of the labor. The master also prepared an "Empfehlungskarte, a card similar to a letter of recommendation that vouched for the competence of the Geselle.


With the invention of the sewing machine in the middle of the 19th century, the work of the tailor underwent a fundamental change. Long seams were closed by the sewing machine, not by a Nähknecht, an apprentice, or a tailor sitting on a table.

With all of the bits and pieces of information I have learned about young Michael Meier and his chosen trade, my instincts tell me that he was not that adventurous young man off to make his fortune in America. Michael had limited options. He had sores on his feet that prevented marching with an army. Work on the farm required constant standing and walking during the growing and harvesting season. He had chosen a craft that would allow him to earn a living in spite of this handicap. But in order to advance from an apprentice to a skilled master, he was required to walk from town to town to town for three years. This was not something he could undertake. He was trapped as a Nähknecht, sewing long seams for a master who would pay him very little.

His sister Anna and her husband lived in America. Without the strict guild rules for a German master tailor, Michael might have a chance at such a position for himself, learning the trade without making a three-year journey in order to qualify. Did he want to be more than a poorly paid tailor's helper?

Five years later, in 1861, when Michael's brother Johann applied for emigration permission, Mayor Bodem of Beurig penned this explanation as Johann's reason for leaving Irsch: " emigrate to North America where he already has two brothers-in-law." Johann did not mention having a brother in America.

So while my knowlege of Michael's life in Irsch is now much clearer and while I have learned so much about the difficult road to becoming a craftsman of any kind, Michael's journey after he obtained his emigration papers remains a mystery for me. I have not been able to find a good match for him in any US census or any ship passenger index. What happened to Michael after September 9, 1856? Did he reach America? Oh how I'd like to know!

(Note: In my previous post, I outlined the typical emigration documents from the Prussian Government.)
Der Blumenbaum, Sacramento Genealogical Society, Vol. 26, No. 3: Jan, Feb, March 2009;;  Division of the Interior of the Royal Government at Trier, Vol. 10, Koblenz Abt 442, Nr. 180 p. 283-287
Pictures: index.php

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Travels of the Letters in an Emigration File

Webpage "Our American Roots" showing emigration paper from Irrel, Bitburg, Rheinland kept at the Landeshauptarchive Koblenz

Some people who emigrated in the 19th century generated a plethora of paperwork, mostly in the form of letters, when they asked permission to leave their country. I discovered this by accident when I decided to see if I could find a copy of the passport issued to Johann Meier, my great-great grandfather.

At first I was disappointed that no passport copy could be found in the State Archive at Koblenz, Germany. Instead, there were several pages written in a mostly illegible (to me) handwriting that were connected to the emigration of Johann. However, I was touching one page containing the signature of my great-great grandfather. I was thrilled and, at the same time, disappointed because I had no idea if important information might be hidden in the unintelligible handwriting above his signature or in the other documents.

The helpful archivist at the Koblenz Archive read a small portion of one of the documents to me. It told of a problem concerning Johann Meier's military service which had developed and generated an unusual amount of paperwork. This set me to wondering. Where were the officials located who had the power to give approvals to the application? What Government office/s handled the application? How long a time passed before Johann Meier was informed of his problem? Once the problem was resolved, did the original application continue or did Johann have to start over? I wanted to know the rest of the story.

A year later, I found a researcher able to go to the Archive in Koblenz and translate each page of the emigration records for my great-great grandfather. Part of his assignment was to note where these letters traveled in the amount of time between Johann Meier's original application to emigrate on February 20 and the date when the final permission letter of March 5 which had the power to permit Johann Meier and his family to start the process of making the long trip to Wisconsin.

In this post, I've detailed the sequence of the correspondence for Johann Meier's emigration permission. I've noted in bold the date and place where each piece of correspondence was written.

On 20 Feb 1861 there was a hearing at Beurig, the mayorality for both Irsch and Beurig. It was conducted by the Bürgermeister (mayor) Nikolaus Bodem. The result of this hearing was Johann's Meier's "declaration of intent to emigrate" document as handwritten by Herr Bodem.

"Today, farmer Johann Meier, 35 years old, of no military obligation, resident of Irsch, appeared before the undersigned mayor and declared that he intends, with his wife Magdalena Rauls, 33 years old, and his four children Mathias Meier, 11 yrs., Anna Meier, 9 yrs., Johann Meier, 3 yrs., Michel Meier 15 months; to emigrate to North America where he already has two brothers-in-law." To this end, he wants to receive the requisite permission to emigrate.

"Upon his declaration, the undersigned mayor warned him:
1. that on receiving the permission to emigrate, they will, from that point forward, no longer be regarded as Prussian subjects;
2. that their readmission to the fatherland may be denied if such is found to raise any concern;
3. the the permission is null and void if emigration does not actually take place within the specified period."

"After being read the above, the petitioner approved, cosigned and then deposited the requisite 15 Silver Groschens for the consent"

(signed) Johann Meier
(signed) Bürgermeister Bodem*

The above official letter was accompanied by a second brief letter, as follows:

"A br. m. (possibly an abbreviation of the Latin brevi manu, meaning brief handwriting) to his grace the Royal County Commissioner Mersmann at Saarburg with fifteen Silver Groschens for the consent stamp, and the application to be most obediently presented. The said Meier and the members of his family are not on trial in any court case, and have paid their taxes and community fees as far as they are obligated."
Beurig 21 February 1861
(signed) Bürgermeister Bodem*

The above letters were sent on February 21, 1861 to the head administrator of the Saarburg District, Landrat Mersmann. He was the representative of the Prussian Government in an area about the size of an average county in the United States. Evidently, Herr Mersmann dutifully and promptly forwarded this application to the Royal [Prussian] Government, Department of the Interior. On February 22, 1861 he wrote:

"A letter to the Royal Government of the Interior of Trier. To be presented obediently with the application for the gracious issuing of the requested permission to emigrate."
(signed) The Royal County Commissioner Mersmann

On February 27 1861, a week after Johann Meier had made his emigration request, this terse communication was composed by Herr Arndt of the Department of the Interior at Trier and addressed to Landrat Mersmann:

"Originally for the immediate attention of Mr. Examiner for narrower clarification as to why the said Meier, 35 years old is of no military obligation. Please return [an explanation] within eight days!"
Trier, 27 February 1861
(signed) R. R. Arndt

Herr Mersmann lost no time in replying to the correspondence from Trier. I will never know if he had the necessary record concerning Johann Meier's military service in his office, or if he contacted Herr Bürgermeister Bodem or Johann Meier or both of them. But this communication was sent from Saarburg to Trier on March 1, 1861.

"The Royal Government Department of the Interior at Trier, most obediently, with the instruction to remit [confirm] that in 1847 the applicant was designated Battery A by the Deputy Reserve Commission because of Mindermaaß** and has no military obligation."
Saarburg, the 1st of March 1861
The Royal County Commissioner Mersmann"

Johann Meier was most likely unaware of the problem which had developed after his emigration request had been signed and the fee paid. Perhaps he never knew that his application permission was generating documents that were going back and forth between Saarburg and Trier.

The final documents in the emigration file of Johann Meier are dated March 5, 1861 and were sent to Saarburg from Trier.

"To the Royal County Commissioner at Saarburg
Release Certificate of : Johann Meier of Irsch, Saarburg County"

"Enclosed find the certificate of release for Johann Meier of Irsch requested by your office per brevi manu [short letter] Nr. 683 of the 22nd of the prior month. The requested certificate of release is for Johann Meier of Irsch who intends to emigrate to North America. Please deliver the release to him and send to us the Stamp fee of 15 Silver Groschens."

The Release Certificate reads:

"The Royal government named below certifies herewith that the following have been granted a release from the Association of Prussian Subjects:

Farmer Johann Meier, 35 years old from Irsch, Saarburg County, at his request and for the purpose of his emigration to North America; as well as his wife Magdalena Rauls, 33 years old, and the following minor children in the father's custody: 1. Mathias Meier, 11 years old; 2. Anna Meier, 9 years old; 3. Johann Meier, 3 years old; 4. Michel Meier 15 months old. 

This release certificate is valid only for the persons expressly named as of the date of its issuing. The release effectuates the loss of status [rights] as a Prussian Subject. The release certificate expires if not made use of within three months of its issuing."
Trier, 5 March 1861
Royal Prussian Government; Department of the Interior

Beurig and Saarburg were less than a quarter of a mile apart. It is easy to picture a messenger delivering documents betweeen the offices of the Mayor of Beurig and the Landrat of Saarburg. Saarburg and Trier are about 14 miles apart and were sent by the Prussian postal system.  Thus here is the path of great great grandfather's emigration papers:

Johann Meyer of Irsch -------> To Bürgermeister Bodem, Beurig ------->To Landrat Mersmann, Saarburg------>To Herr R.R. Arndts, Royal Department of the Interior in Trier----->To Landrat Mersmann, Saarburg------>To Herr R.R. Arndts, Deparment of the Interior in Trier------>To Landrat Mersmann, Saarburg------->To Bürgermeister Bodem, Beurig------->To Johann Meier, former citizen of Irsch.

"Eisenbahn gegen Postkutsche
("Train against postal coach")

Documents were no doubt handled by postal coach in 1861, since the railroad connecting Saarburg and Trier had only recently been finished. Eventually the railroads put the postal coaches out of existence. But it would seem that for short distance delivery, the postal coach of 1861 may have been just as timely as today's U.S. mail system.

* Mayor Bodem had a flamboyant signature; one of which he was probably very proud.
** Mindermaß is a term which means that Johann Meier was too short for military service.

For more information about the emigration process, see my archived post for April, 2006.

Abteilung des Innern der Königlichen Regierung zu Trier, Vol. 12, Seite 1-746, Classe V, Section 1, Littera C, Koblenz Abt. 442 Nr. 181