Leisure and the Spinning Room
in 18th-Century Germany
Leisure has become something we now take for granted: time to spend with our family, time to read, time to write letters, time to relax and pursue hobbies. Yet leisure is very much a modern invention – a late by-product of the industrial revolution. If we read between the lines of letters and diaries in early 19th-century Germany, we can see many modern leisure activities in primitive form, as well as the remains of earlier social systems going back to the middle ages.
Germany in 1800 was much closer to the middle ages than France or Britain. While England advanced into industrialization, the political convulsions in Paris set a pattern that influenced the rest of the world. Germany did not exist as a country. It was a patchwork of states connected by dreadful roads. After the Napoleonic Wars, the German Confederation was set up with 39 separate principalities, but even within the state of Prussia, the largest state, there were numerous customs zones: a traveller going from Hamburg to Berlin had to pass through 63 frontier posts. And the roads were so bad that to travel, in 1815, from Brunswick to Lübeck, about 130 miles, took three days.
Communications were almost non-existent across large areas of the countryside. Over 90 per cent of the population lived in farms and small villages. The great majority of people lived and died without ever seeing a town, let alone attending a theatrical performance or buying a magazine. Villagers would refer to a place three miles away as "abroad". Ironically, one result of these primitive conditions was a high degree of hospitality. Travellers in early 19th-century Germany were made welcome and pumped for news of the outside world simply because people felt so cut off.
One of the key leisure activities in these isolated rural communities was centered around the spinning room. During the long winter months, when there was no agricultural work to be done, the villagers – men and women, married and unmarried – would gather in the larger rooms to spin together, and to sing and gossip as they spun. This social habit continued to be popular after hand spinning was no longer a vital activity.
If any traveller passed through the village, he was encouraged to visit the spinning room and tell of his travels. If he had any books or newspapers, he was encouraged to read them aloud. The spinning room became an important social center around the time of the Reformation, and the custom persisted until well into the 19th century.
In fact, as young people began to leave the land and head for the city an as village society disintegrated, the spinning room became a last bastion of the old way of life. They sang of how much better off they were in the countryside, the songs becoming more idyllic and sentimental.
The spinning room was attacked both by the clergy and the police – because there the peasants socialized without anyone in authority over them. The Church denounced the spinning rooms as dens of iniquity because young, unmarried men and women would drink together, sing songs together, and perhaps even worse... Certainly the spinning room functioned as an unofficial marriage market and as a center for allowing romance to blossom.
It was a spinning room that provided the starting point for Wagner's opera The Flying Dutchman (Der Fliegende Holländer): it is there that Senta and her maidens sing of the haunted ship and its ghostly crew. In the spinning room Senta conceived the idea of saving the soul of the Flying Dutchman.
This excerpt is from the Colour Library Book of Great Composers (1989: UK, Colour Library Books, Ltd.; Hong Kong, 1993)
Read more about 19th-century continental Europe: