Buhse, the shoemaker

Willy Römer: “At last, some help in the penury of shoe soles!” Berlin, ca. 1910

From the photos of Willy Römer about the craftsmen of Berlin in the 1920s, one profession is conspicuously absent: that of the shoemaker. Among his published photos I have found only the above one, which represents not really a shoemaker, but rather a cobbler. Which is not surprising. Shoemaking was one of the first craft trades to become a large-scale industry around the turn of the century, and as Richard Stade reported in 1932 in his Der Niedergang des Schuhmacherhandwerks als Produktionsgewerbe (The fall of shoemaking as a production craft), by the middle of the 1920s the proportion of the craft was only 3% in the total shoe production. We read the same in the following sketch of Gabriele Tergit, the popular column writer of the period, who between 1924 and 1933 published a series in the Berliner Tageblatt on the characteristic figures of the life of Berlin, including the shoemaker.

Gabriele Tergit – by her civil name, Elise Hirschmann – was born in 1894 in Berlin in a Jewish bourgeois family. She learned history, sociology and philosophy, and from 1915 she was one of the first female journalists in Germany. Her concisely and impressively written regular courts reports made her a name – she reported, among other, about the press trials of Hitler and Goebbels –, but she also regularly wrote on the everyday life of Berlin (and these articles were always immediately taken over also in the Prager Tageblatt). In 1931 she also published a novel entitled Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm (Käsebier conquers the Kaiserdamm), in which she wrote, through the world of the Neukölln cafés, about the power of advertisement and propaganda, foreshadowing the propaganda of Goebbels – about this book we will write separately. But she also wrote about the cultural history of flowers, in whose title we can also find the imperial crown. In 1933 with an incredible luck she managed to escape to London from the Nazi purge, but her writing career, like of many other German refugees, was interrupted. In her home country she was discovered only in 1977 on the occasion of the “Berliner Festwochen”. She died in London in 1982. Her short sketches on the everyday life of Berlin were collected in 1994 by Jens Brüning at the Suhrkamp publisher with the title Atem einer anderen Welt: Berliner Reportagen (Breath of another life: Reports in Berlin). From this volume we translate the following essay.

Buhse, the shoemaker

Buhse is a cobbler, and his workshop is in the basement of a noble house. In his cellar there are two dressers with countless raffle and sideshow trinkets, a piano, a wardrobe, a sofa, a table with chairs, and a folding screen that covers the sleeping accommodation. At the table, one step for the purpose of the workshop. But the ornament of the place is a large framed diploma, with a Gretchen or Evchen at the spinning wheel on the bottom left, to make room for a putto to flutter a band, and with a female figure to the right – the Freedom, the Electricity or the Industry – holding a torch. The whole is the diploma of a silver medal at the 35th shoemakers’ exhibition in Biesteritz.

Buhse is the son of a carpenter from Pasewalk. When he was 25 years old, he married the maid of Countess Zetlitz, and got a golden pendulum clock as a wedding gift. She held a stately home, and did not speak to the porter’s wife. Buhse made boots and saffian slippers and elastic-sided shoes. Over time, he got less and less orders for new shoes, and more and more resoling and mending on shoes which he himself would have made much better. As the first gray hairs came, he dyed them black. His son married an easy girl and got into evil ways. Buhse remained with a granddaughter who married early and already had her first child. So he had child’s crying in his cellar by his old age again.

On the first floor the Consul’s wife said to her husband: “I’ve never had such a good cobbler. To him I would even trust my silk shoes. The Consul looked up from his newspaper. “Yes, yes, good craftsmen are a rarity nowadays. Such people must be supported, one has to give them occasion to earn some money.” So after twelve years Buhse got a commission for a pair of new boots. He arrived with a large sheet of paper and a pencil to take measure.

From morning till night Buhse went about the leather stores, he was looking for calfskin. He knew leather. When he sat late to the table, and his granddaughter was peevish, he just smiled. He negotiated for a long time, but finally he had it, the impeccable piece of calfskin, this poem, this dream, this idea of a calfskin. Not a piece of cardboard was put into the boots.

“My dear Mr. Buhse”, the Consul said, “I’m really sorry, but the boots are too tight. Please change them, or else…” “But please,” interrupted him Buhse, the shoemaker, “I will of course make a new pair!” Buhse tried to change. It did not go. “That’s it”, he mused, as he began a new pair, “that’s it. One just sit here and torments himself to stuff the mouths, and for the rent and taxes, and forgets everything, and forever mends and heels and resoles, and once one could really show what he knows, he knows nothing any more.” The second pair was completed.

“My dear”, the Consul said to his wife, “I cannot wear the new boots of Buhse either, they also hurt.”

“Haven’t I always told?”, the woman replied triumphantly, “that I don’t know what you like in these backward craftsmen? One cannot open enough windows!” In her youth she read a lot of Ibsen. Buhse waited. Perhaps for a gold medal for the pair of peerless calfskin boots, perhaps for his guild master’s appointment, perhaps to the moved visit of the Consul: “Your boots! One flies in them like a bee! All my friends will only work with you!” Two weeks passed, and Buhse stood in his way. “You work very well”, the Consul said, “but they still hurt a bit. But one can still wear them,” he added as he looked at Buhse’s face.

“They do not notice anything”, thought Buhse, “whether the insert is of cardboard or of good leather, whether you work properly with a steel rail or not, they do not notice anything, anything, it’s all the same to them.” In the evening Koller, the upholsterer Koller from the Gneisenaustraße and the carpenter Koblank sat together. “They do not notice anything”, said Buhse, “whether the insert is of cardboard or of good leather, whether you work properly with a steel rail or not, they do not notice anything.” “Yes”, said Koller, “they buy the couch for 39,40 marks, they have no idea about it. I know how it’s done, in the evening they sweep up the workshop, they collect the fallen wool and all dirt, they always spare out the proper filling. And people are so stupid, especially the ladies. They just plump upon it, have a look at the cover, and they say: “Yes, it is really worth the fee!” They understand nothing about the inside.

Koblank added: “Yesterday morning the buyer was there again. Just let it be cheap, regardless of whether the wood will crack afterwards, nobody glues twice nowadays. People are so stupid that if it lasts for a long time, they are unhappy, instead of saying, the man did a good job.”

“But then, when they will have corns and crippled toes, then they will regret”, said Buhse, the shoemaker.

“Not even then”, said Koller, and spat to one side.