During the day on the Reeperbahn (Rope track) - historical and extinct professions in the German Digital Library

By Lena Hennewig (Research Assistant)

We celebrate Labour Day this year with a feature on historical occupations. Here, wires are pulled, ropes are struck and lanterns are lit - and by the way, we also explain what the puppet show has to do with crime and how Hamburg's world-famous amusement mile got its name from.

Wire production 500 years ago

No, a wire-puller does not necessarily belong in prison, even if our current linguistic usage suggests this. Because originally he earned his daily money by making wires - in technical jargon: pulling wires.

The Workshop of a Wire Puller in the 16th Century: Georg Raab: Wire Puller (1568), print, 7.9 x 5.9 cm, SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek (German Photographic Library) (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

However, the fact that the term has a negative connotation today and stands for a person who is planning a crime in the background, it is not related to wire production; rather, there is a connection to puppeteers. These were and are colloquially referred to as string pullers or wire pullers. The connection to hidden crime is obvious, because puppeteers are also invisible in the background and supposedly let the puppets do the work alone.

Hidden from the eyes of the audience: GERMIN: Marionette theatre - behind the scenes (1947), paper, SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek (Rights reserved - Free access)

Of ropes, railways and amusement miles

Many occupations have disappeared from our everyday lives over time. However, as in the case of the wire-puller, job titles have often been preserved in one way or another. So, also with the rope maker:

The professional image is probably not immediately familiar to everyone, but certainly, the street that owes its name to this guild: Ropemaker- until their task from the first half of the 19th century onwards was increasingly taken over by rope tapping machines – crafted ropes.

Almost 100 years ago, the manufacture of ropes was an exhausting task. Up to 200 ropemakers worked simultaneously on a rope to obtain the desired quality, length and thickness. Arnold Petersen: The ropemaker Karl Warncke at work on the Rope Track (1935), 6 x 6 cm, © City Archive Wedel (CC BY 3.0 DE)

For this, they needed long, straight lanes in which they could stretch and beat their ropes. These so-called rope tracks were up to 400 metres long and thus as long as the longest ropes produced. After they were no longer needed, they were converted into streets - including the most famous of all Rope tracks: the world-famous entertainment mile in Hamburg.

On the Reeperbahn at half past 12 in the morning... Willy Pragher: Hamburg: Moulin Rouge (3 July 1954) © National Archives Baden-Württemberg (CC BY 3.0 DE)

Former occupation names as present-day surnames

Some extinct occupations can still be found as surnames in the middle of our society today: Wagner (Wainwright) and Köhler (Charcoal burner), for example, are among the most extinct occupations in their craft function but have remained as common surnames until today.

Horseshoe and wagon wheel as symbols of a guild: Heimatmuseum (Museum of local history): Guild seal of the wainwrights and blacksmiths, 1700 (17th century), Pfalz Library Kaiserslautern (Rights reserved - Free access )

Wainwrights manufactured (and partly still do) wagons, wheels and agricultural equipment from wood. Especially in the 19th century, with the advent of the railway, their skills were in great demand. However, the skills and experience of wainwrights were still in demand in the railway and automotive industries well into the 20th century. As a surname, "Wagner" now ranks 7th in the list of the most common surnames in Germany.

Zwei Köhler bei der Arbeit: Köhler (Repro 1949) © SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek (Rechte vorbehalten - Freier Zugang)

The profession of charcoal burner is also largely extinct today, but the surname is all the more common - after all, Köhler - "charcoal burner"- is in 35th place in the list of the most common surnames in Germany. Charcoal making, i.e. the production of charcoal, is considered one of the oldest handicraft techniques of mankind, even though it is not an official training occupation in Germany. Charcoal burning experienced its first heyday in the Middle Ages, when the first charcoal kilns were developed. From the 18th century, however, it increasingly lost its importance due to the increased use of hard coal. Even today, there are still a few charcoal burners; there are said to be around 400 to 600 of them, most of whom produce charcoal as a sideline. Where charcoal is still produced, despite the great environmental damage, it is nowadays almost exclusively done industrially. Nevertheless, in 2014, the charcoal burner trade was included in the list of intangible cultural heritage in Germany by the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany due to its historical and cultural significance.

"In this sense: 'Good light -!'" The occupation of the lantern lighter

Let there be light: GERMIN: A gasworks worker checks a lantern in front of the "Michel" at night (1952), paper SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek (Rights reserved - Free access)

A historical profession that today evokes more romantic and fairytale associations is that of the lantern lighter. The idea that people roamed the country's cities every evening to light the street lamps by hand is almost touching at first glance.

This romantic impression is certainly reinforced by the lantern lighter in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "The Little Prince": the man lives on the fifth planet that the little prince visits, lights a lantern there every evening and puts it out again every morning. Due to the ever-faster rotation of the small planet, it is incessantly busy.

Kurt Tucholsky, however, puts us on the right track when he speaks of the "heavy office" that this occupational group performs in his gloss "The Lantern Lighters". For even if Tucholsky's ironic undertone can hardly be overlooked, providing the right street lighting at night in wind and weather must be considered a supreme physical feat.

On the one hand, the activity was financed by the city coffers, but in some cities the pub landlords also had to contribute to the costs with levies per drink sold. The profession has been considered extinct since the 1960s at the latest: since then, there have been no gas or oil lanterns in use that require manual operation.

"The show must go on": Despite the distinguished visitors and a press conference by the then Federal Post Minister Ernst Lemmer, the work of the telephone operators went on as usual at the Telecommunications Office in Freiburg on 10 May 1957. Willy Pragher: Freiburg: Telecommunications Office; telephone operators in a row in the Telecommunications Office (10.05.1957), National Archives Baden-Württemberg (CC BY 3.0 DE)

The "Miss from the Office"

One profession that we nowadays only know from television is that of telephone operators. Mainly female employees manually connected the participants of a telephone call at the switch box - because due to the great popularity of the telephone, it was no longer possible to set up individual connections between individual telephones at an early stage.

A good education, good manners and knowledge of foreign languages: Not everyone could or was allowed to operate the complicated switch boxes in the telephone exchange. Stoedtner, Franz: Switchboard flap cabinet (1940) SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek (Rights reserved - Free access )

The first telephone exchange took place on 26 January 1878, at that time, still with young men making the desired connections. However, since the sound waves emanating from the higher-pitched female voice were easier to understand, the now proverbial "Fräulein vom Amt" was used from autumn onwards. In addition, the female character was generally perceived to be more polite and courteous, and female employees generally received lower pay than their male counterparts.

Until 1966, telephone operators were still regularly on duty in Germany to put through telephone calls. Only then was the conversion of all local networks in Germany automated. The first automatic local office in this country had already been put into operation in 1908.

Extinct but not forgotten

Even though increasingly sophisticated technology, more and more machines and robots are replacing the old, mostly manual professions, they remain a significant part of the cultural history and identity of cities, regions and countries.

An altarpiece from the 16th century keeps extinct professions alive: Annaberg Mountain Altar, colour print, 82 x 67 cm © Museum Europäischer Kulturen, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Museum of European Cultures, National Museums in Berlin) (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE)

St. Anne's Church in Annaberg, which would not exist without the economic boom triggered by silver mining in the 15th century, dedicates parts of its famous altar to the workers: The Annaberg Mining Altar, donated by the miners' union around 1521 and designed by Hans Hesse, shows mining, its work processes and workers in detail: Coiler servants, tunnellers, poachers and many other extinct professions can be found here and are thus kept alive for the future.


Have we aroused your interest in historical professions? Here you will find short documentary films about various historical professions, a series produced on behalf of Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Radio) called "Der letzte seines Standes (the last of his profession)?":

Limestone burner: https://youtu.be/zDMWnpaqdz0

Coppersmith: https://youtu.be/H7WRlq93Koo

Timber hollower: https://youtu.be/V_V9GIMWfWA

Music engraver: https://youtu.be/_o7-3r99Fng

Grinding stone carver: https://youtu.be/CM6oGFK58_k

Type founder: https://youtu.be/oX8LgZlmiAE

Waaler (person who looks after the water for the orchards): https://youtu.be/hyVIj-0-70c

White plasterer: https://youtu.be/Z9yo7QAQ_mo


Would you like to browse further on historical professions in the DDB? We have put together some searches for you:

Wire Puller


Wainwright, wheelwright and cartwright

Lantern lighter

Telephone operator