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The Son of a Non-Commissioned Prussian Officer Reflects on His Childhood and Youth in the Late 18th Century (Retrospective Account)

Born in Berlin in 1786, Karl Friedrich von Klöden rose through the ranks to become director of the Berlin School of Trades in 1825. A product of the educational reform movement, the school aimed to integrate the artisan trades with modern technology and science. These pages vividly and painfully recount his family’s struggle with severe soldierly poverty, which was held at bay only through his mother’s heroic labors. Though he aspired to higher education, Klöden initially had no choice but to accept an apprenticeship with his goldsmith uncle, an experience that exposed him to the pitiless world of the youthful artisanry. In 1806, his apprenticeship ended, and he entered the wage-earning workforce as a journeyman. Later, he managed to study and train himself as a teacher and historian. His memoirs are a testimony to the impact of his youthful reading and the importance of intellectual mentors.

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Childhood Memories

Karl Friedrich von Klöden

[ . . . ]

From her earliest youth, my mother had to sit as if shackled, knitting or helping with the housekeeping and waiting on her brothers. In all of this, reproaches and beatings were never lacking. Apologies were rejected with the then popular “No arguments!” and made the trouble even worse. Thus, one day passed like all others in the most joyless youth, and only Christmas, a celebration upheld even here, cast upon the entire year a cheerful ray of sunshine in which my mother delighted her whole life.

The school lessons she had received had been short and inadequate, though nevertheless arousing and partly developed her excellent natural abilities. She was helped along in this by reading during knitting and contact with her brothers, whose lessons she learned simultaneously while reviewing with them. She was only allowed to read while knitting, and even then often only surreptitiously. [ . . . ]

[Around 1782, Christiane Dorothea Willmanns married the non-commissioned officer Klöden.]

[ . . . ] My mother was one of the most capable knitters of her day, an art that was much rarer and unknown in those days than today. In particular, knitted purses of green silk with holes and metal rings on both ends were popular; she was exceedingly skilled at making these. With this work, she maintained the entire household during the first year; however, in the second year, she gave birth to a daughter, and care for the infant deprived her of much time, which she attempted to make up with night work. Her child was her only consolation, her only joy [ . . . ]. She was in urgent need of this consolation, for soon enough she came to recognize with a sense of horror the type of hell into which she had gotten herself, [ . . . ] and anyone familiar with the composition of the army at the time will be able to form an impression of life in a regimental barracks. Only one third of the armed forces consisted of native and levied recruits and citizens. The other parts were comprised of mercenaries, who often let themselves be recruited only to escape prison, taking the first opportunity to run away again; another part consisted of individuals who had proven to be notorious good-for-nothings, for whom there was practically no use, and who could not be prompted to order by any corrective measure with the exception of the most severe punishments.

[ . . . ]

Meanwhile, my father had tried to obtain a second job as well outside of his service periods. Those days had seen the introduction of a fad to decorate mirror frames, sofas, and other furniture with carvings and to cover these with imitated gold plating by applying a polished chalk priming and varnish. My father had sought the opportunity to learn this gilding method, and he began doing this work for money. He succeeded quite well in this, carrying out the work in his room at the barracks. Unfortunately, it was paid poorly, and there were often long breaks before more work came his way, since only a few master craftsmen employed him.

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