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A Boy's Childhood in Cologne, c. 1810 (Retrospective Account)

Writing without bourgeois prejudice and in a sympathetic Dickensian spirit, Ernst Weyden describes the life of the common folk in his native Cologne. He describes a sub-culture unaffected by Enlightenment ideas or strivings, one in which occupation and neighborhood intersected with religion and folk belief to define ordinary people’s narrow horizons. The state was a distant presence, except when it intervened in the form of the much-feared army recruiter.

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Cologne on the Rhine Fifty Years Ago

Ernst Weyden

[ . . . ]

Street life.

[ . . . ] Endless are the rows of dirt and ash piles in the streets, for even though in the busier streets, ash and sweepings were put out in baskets for the ‘dirt man’ to pick up, it was the boys’ favorite pastime to knock over these baskets. On top of that, any type of garbage and refuse imaginable and unimaginable was dumped without any inhibitions in front of houses, frequently piled high in some spots, even in the middle of the city. [ . . . ]

Quite often in the most passable streets, pungent wood fumes sting your eyes; it is the coopers that sulfurize their barrels, just as they usually conduct their trade in the open streets with deafening hammering. Thick coffee but even more often, chicory fumes belch toward us, almost suffocating us in some places, since the street is also used for coffee and chicory roasting. [ . . . ]

Frequently, we encounter on the squares, in the streets, the adolescents fighting heated battles; for the individual squares such as Domhof, the Altenmarkt, the Heumarkt, and the Augustinerplatz and the different school were hostile toward each other. Quite often, this hatred among the boys erupts into wild clashes, in the course of which windows and street lamps did not exactly escape damage, repeatedly necessitating police intervention. [ . . . ] These boys’ riots, recurring regularly in the summer, had the consequence that a boy would not venture out of his district unaccompanied, which is why apart from our neighborhood – the parish – the rest of Cologne was a veritable terra incognita to us. [ . . . ]

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