For centuries Europe has been a major powerhouse in the production of textiles. Countries like Spain, Italy and France are known for their luxurious silks, while the United Kingdom is remembered for it’s wool output. Little recognition is given to Germany. The textile industry in Germany during the 18th and 19th Centuries has a rich and important history that influenced German culture, forming Germany into the country it is today.
Throughout history, the German government regulated the production and sales of textiles. Sumptuary laws that can be traced to the Medieval period were put in place to limit the amount of textile consumption by the masses (Purdy 92). Once these laws became unfashionable, the government began instituting large tariffs on any textile imports from other countries. This was not uncommon, as governments throughout history sought to promote their own country’s goods by taxing foreign imports. This taxation increased the price of foreign goods, making national goods cheeper and more desirable. An article from the period discusses this by creating a fictitious dialogue between husband and wife. The wife, who after reading that month’s Mode Journal (a popular fashion publication at the time), asks her husband for French linen and English muslin, to which he points out is impossible due to the tariffs (Purdy 115). This frugality was common among German citizens. It wasn’t that Germany lacked proper textiles, but that the fashionable bourgeoisie considered Paris and London the capitals of fashion production (Purdy 130). The underclasses had always sought to emulate the styles of nobility, who never had to worry about the financial burden of tariffs. Both the upper and lower classes most desired silk textiles.
For centuries, silk has been treasured and sought after in Europe. The main silk houses were located in Paris, Italy, and Spain. However, according to the Journal für Fabrik, Manufaktur, Handlung, und Mode published in 1796, German textile producers were growing mulberry trees, attempting to cultivate their own silk workhouses (Journal für 370). The clement climate in the southern provinces allowed for mulberry tree cultivation and silk production (Journal für 378). However, German silk factories were unable to compete with the large silk workshops in France and Italy. In 1897, Germany finally had cheaper access to silk when it seized control of Qingdao, China (Chung 928). Silk could freely pass between China and Germany thanks to German industrialization in the area and duty-free zones (Chung 928). Even though silk was valued throughout Germany, it was hardly the most utilized textile to German industry.
The Prussian military complex was a major contributor to German textile production. Under Fredrick Wilhelm I, the military expanded in a large build up of soldiers and weapons. This growth demanded a lot of production from German factories. Even before the Industrial Revolution reached Germany, Berlin was one of the largest producers of wool textiles, with approximately “300 weavers and roughly 3,000 looms” (Purdy 197). These factories quickly grew in size ever since the 1718 ban on foreign red and blue cloth (the colors of the Prussian army) (Purdy 196). Exporting wool was also regulated. In order for Prussian weavers to have a steady supply of inexpensive raw materials, the government prohibited the exportation of fleece (Purdy 196). This massive industry brought in about 20,000 skilled artisans from around Europe to German factories (Richie 65) . With this influx of wool materials for the military, it is no surprise that wool textiles became integrated into civilian dress.
Throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries, the Prussian military distributed new uniforms to its soldiers every two years (Purdy 199). This quick turnover created thousands of used garments that could no longer be worn by soldiers. Being that it was just the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, textiles were still extremely valuable. Garments would be resold and reused among the lower classes since textiles were hard to come by (Friedrichs 21). This redistribution of military garments quickly made military and military-inspired garments fashionable and wearable in everyday life. While the blue military coats of the army became a common garment among the working class, the fashionable elite were forced to reevaluate their own style.
Historically, bright colors were reserved for the wealthy, as the dyes needed were expensive and rare (Purdy 218). Conversely, dark, natural colors were the easiest to obtain and were the most common among textiles worn by the poor. However, with the growing amount of bright red and blue military garments available to the underclasses, the bourgeoisie began experimenting with more subtle colors. It became popular for the elite to dress in black and white as a way to not only distance themselves from the lower classes but to move past the baroque stylings that the enlightenment sought to abolish (Purdy 219). Even with newer, more rich dyes in the Industrial Revolution, the bourgeoisie continued to stick to the black and white (Purdy 219). This left colored dyes to be used by the rural farmers, who adopted these bright blues, reds, greens, and yellows into their culture. People continue to associate Germany with the bright colors of their lederhosen and dirndls.
While wool production continued prosperously through the 19th century, a growing dependence on cotton began. Unlike other European nations, Germans were quick to throw away rich, delicate fabrics in favor of more practical ones, such as cotton. Daniel Purdy quotes an 1808 article by Georg Brandes which states “The luxury of comfort took its place and became widespread. The materials selected by fashion were in most cases not costly…” (Purdy 234). This wide acceptance of cotton textiles lead to an increase in cotton spinning and production.
Until German colonization in East Africa, German textile manufactures relied heavily on imported raw cotton. The climate in Germany did not allow the farming of cotton. The United States was the biggest supplier of cotton to Germany, roughly supporting “70 to 80 percent of Germany’s needs” (Sunseri 36). For finer fabrics, German producers purchased cotton directly from Egyptian growers (Brown 342). Even with this dependance on foreign cotton, German firms spun a large range of counts (Brown 340). German textiles were favorable exports as cheap labor in factories kept the export costs down (Richie 169). Before the 20th Century, German cotton production was larger than that of England (Brown 340). However, due to uneven tariff policy, spinning mills hardly made profits, while tightly protected weaving mills did (Brown 344). This irregular distribution of wealth and resources was unfavorable with German textile producers. However, two land acquisitions by the German government soon changed cotton production in the country.
In 1871, Germany annexed Alsace-Lorraine, a small region on the French-German border (Silverman 34). The Alsace region’s main economy was textile production (Silverman 36). Because of slow industrialization in Germany, which in 1871 still relied on manual equipment, the Alsace textile firms were far superior in their production abilities (Silverman 36). This spread fear throughout German textile factories as they could not compete with the fast paced, industrialized Alsace industry. They wanted protection from Alsatian competition, arguing that “the only effective means of protection was to guarantee the Alsatians their traditional French market by removing tariffs between Germany and France” (Silverman 37). Starting in 1872, raw materials from France could legally enter Alsace-Lorraine with only a low tariff rate (Silverman 38). The annexation of Alsace-Lorraine benefited Germany as a whole. Because of this competition, the textile industry quickly grew and industrialized. Weaving production tripled between 1870 and 1910 while the spinning sector doubled from 1870 to 1890 (Sunseri 35). This massive rise in production called for more raw materials to be brought in. The cotton famine of the American Civil War made German textile producers nervous (Sunseri 36). They began looking for alternatives to cheap cotton.
In the 1880s, the Association of South German Cotton Industrialists began financially contributing to the German East Africa Corporation (Sunseri 32). Their hope was to stimulate cotton production in the African colony as to have a access to cheap cotton. Both the newly instituted tariffs that lowered tolls on foreign cotton and the social policies that began limiting the amount of time women and children could work in factories caused German industrialists to look towards cotton produced in the African colony (Sunseri 37). In fact, by 1895, women made up 45 percent of the workforce in the textile industry (Sunseri 41). A loss of their work would have devastating effects. Beginning in 1886, German East Africa began cotton production for the German market (Sunseri 49). This colonization would continue through the rest of the 19th Century and into the early 20th, providing raw material for German textile producers.
So what happened to the German textile industry? As shown above, German textile production was just as rich and dynamic as that of any European nation, but it hardly gets any credit. One main reason it goes unrecognized is because so little remains of the industry. The German textile industry of the 19th and early 20th Century was largely made up of Jews. When National Socialist party, also known as the Nazi party, came to power in 1933, they did anything they could to destroy the lineage of the Jewish textile trade.
Beginning in the late 18th century, Jews living in the German states began gaining rights that were previously withheld from them. Prior, Jews were forbidden to weave textiles for Christians (Friedrichs 20). However, when Enlightenment doctrines began making their way into German governments, Jewish people living in the country began to achieve full rights. In 1830, Jewish firms began selling a variety of finished textiles for mass consumption (Friedrichs 23). One of the earliest and most notable of these producers was Nathan Israel. Grandson of Jacob Israel, a used clothing traveling salesman, Nathan Israel began trading fabrics and selling ready-to-wear garments in 1815 (Friedrichs 24). His business grew under the family until 1938, when Nazis took over and ruined the business (Loschek 50).
Following in the footsteps of Israel, many other German Jews began their own companies in the textile industry. Herrmann Gerson began with a small textile shop before becoming the sole supplier for Emperor Wilhelm in the early 1870s (Loscheck 52). The House of Gerson remained popular until being financially ruined and Aryanized by the Nazis in 1938 (Loscheck 52). Similar fates happened to other suppliers when the Nazi’s took control. This total annihilation of the German-Jewish fashion industry caused much of its history to be forgotten.
The German textile industry was a lively business, employing millions of Germans throughout the 18th and 19th Century. Although they lacked any significant silk industry, German firms were skilled producers of wool and cotton fabrics, rivaling the industries of France and England. Due to the genocide of Jews, of whom were notably important to the business, the German textile industry was unable to compete with other countries manufacturing in the 20th Century. The legacy of the industry has faded but luckily, has not been completely forgotten.