Berlin – Alexanderplatz on a mild afternoon around 1860. Only a few people are out and about, some of them are looking at something unusual in the sun, which is already quite low: a photographer who is in a slightly elevated position in a house with a large wooden apparatus and black cloth has built. This is the oldest known photograph of the most famous Berliner Platz, which received its current name in 1805 in honor of the Russian Tsar Alexander. The Berlin photo enthusiast Marcellinus Prien identified them and narrowed down their time of creation to the period between 1857 and 1862 (see also interview below).
Since October 7, 1858, Friedrich Wilhelm has ruled the Berlin Palace as Prince Regent.
It was precisely during this political transition period that the picture was taken – and that corresponds to the impression that the square conveys to the viewer: quite urban, but the rural past is present. At least four horse-drawn carts, one heavily loaded with hay, can be seen. Horse busses have been running four times an hour to Potsdamer Platz since 1847 – the current function of the Alex as a hub for local public transport was already in place.
In 1826 the light of the first Berlin gas lantern flared up on Unter den Linden – on the right in the picture there is also one on the Alex in 1860. In 1855 Ernst Litfaß was allowed to set up the first 100 advertising pillars. Of course, Alexanderplatz has one – to be discovered behind the large wagon.
Since the cattle trade had been banned within the Berlin city walls in 1681, the ox market had taken place on the area in front of the city gate; the greater part served as a parade and parade ground. When the photo was taken, the ox trade was located at the Landsberger Tor as the Klaegerscher cattle market (since 1826).
The picture shows Alex already paved, and in the middle of it stands the extremely urban element of the fountain – for example at the point where the giant bronze statue of Berolina was later to stand. Since the 1970s, the GDR colorful fountain of friendship among peoples has taken up the element again.
The unknown photographer recorded the houses at Alexanderstrasse 46 (to the left of the confluence with Neue Königstrasse) and 45 (to the right of it). In older city maps, this street is still marked as “Contrescarpe”, which indicates the origin of the complex: Contrescarpe referred to the outer city wall or the embankment of the main moat around a fortress. From 1882 the Berlin light rail system was built on the ditch that was filled in in 1870.
The most impressive building is the “house with 99 sheep’s heads” and triangular gable (number 45). It got its name because of the eye-catching facade decoration with sheep’s heads made of stucco. The house was one of the 300 so-called immediate buildings that King Friedrich II commissioned from well-known architects in 1783 after the Seven Years’ War.
In order to beautify the cityscape of Berlin, the old Fritz paid for the respective building in full or in part and bequeathed it to a deserving citizen with the obligation to take care of the maintenance including the representative facade. The urban-looking, four-story house with 99 sheep’s heads was designed by the architect Georg Christian Unger. When the photo was taken, it belonged to Dr. Hildebrandt. The golden stag prominently placed in the gable area reminds of the time when the popular Zum Hirschen inn received guests in the building.
Remedial gymnastics in the house with the 99 sheep’s heads
In the basement, according to an advertisement, the “Dr. Löwenstein Institute for Swedish Therapeutic Gymnastics ”. In fact, Marcellinus Prien found the entry for “Löwenstein, Dr. pr. Doctor”. Immediately below it is “Hildebrandt, Dr. med. E. “A year later, Dr. Löwenstein disappeared from the address book. It cannot be ruled out that Dr. Hildebrandt continued to offer modern gymnastics under Löwenstein’s name. The house was demolished in 1927 to make way for the underground construction.
The tower rising behind the distinctive house belongs to the Georgenkirche, consecrated in 1780, in the middle of the royal suburb. Until 1701 this was called Georgenvorstadt and it had developed around the Georgshospital. The new church built in 1898 was blown up in 1949 as a war ruin.
The building on the left (number 46) is even older than the sheep’s head house. The Stelzenkrug, originally built as an inn in 1743 according to plans by Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff with two storeys, now has an additional storey. For a long time the already mentioned ox market took place in front of the Stelzenkrug. The company signs attached to the house provide decisive information for dating the photo: on the left the Baumann wool warehouse, on the right on the corner of the house the Fritz Woltmann company. Both are in the address books of 1857, 1860 and 1861 as “Baumann, Kaufmann” and “Woltmann, Tabackhdlr”. In 1862, “Woltmann, AFL, Kaufmann und Tobacksfabrikant” appears in Stralauer Straße 46.
20 years later the stilted jug had disappeared and the noble Grand Hotel with 185 rooms was built in its place from 1883 to 1884. This building also fell into ruins during World War II. The redesigners of Alex moved Alexanderstrasse almost 100 meters to the northeast; originally it ran roughly along the side of the Park Inn Hotel in the direction of Saturn. The bronze plate set into the ground between the fountain and the hotel provides orientation: the largest barricade erected by the revolutionaries stood on March 19, 1848, where the Neue Königsstrasse merged in 1860.
Interview with the discoverer of the picture, Marcellinus Prien
Historical cityscape photographs and photographic technology are a passion of Marcellinus Prien, he does not want to be understood as an expert. He tells how he identified the oldest photo of Alexanderplatz and how the technology worked back then.
Mr. Prien, how did you discover the recording?
I bought it from a private seller at an online auction. Not very many people were bidding, and the price was perfectly okay. Unfortunately, I didn’t ask where the provider got the picture.
What was it like when you held the recording in your hand for the first time?
At first I was disappointed because I believed it was an original print. The handwritten note on the back read “Alexanderplatz um 1870”. But it is a photograph. I couldn’t see that on the internet. Based on the photo paper and the recognizable old passe-partout, a photograph taken around 1890/1895 can be assumed.
What made you bid for this picture at the auction?
I’m interested in photographs from old Berlin; i have a small collection. When I saw the picture in the offer, I thought: This is great, this is Alexanderplatz, I don’t know that, I’d like to have it.
Did you discover anything special on it?
I didn’t know of such an early point of view with this point of view. For example, I did not know that there was a fountain on Alexanderplatz. When I looked for comparable photos, I found the fountain on more recent photos, with some green around it. And he’s not that present anymore.
How did you go about determining the year of creation more precisely?
I scanned the picture very well and enlarged it so that I could see the labels. Then I looked at the houses very carefully, every detail. Since the photography technique is very good, the picture is really sharp. Then I looked at the billboards on the houses in the address books of the corresponding years. These books are digitally available on the Internet at the Berlin State Library. Step by step, I was able to narrow down when the advertisers were available at the respective address. This is how I came up with the period from 1858 to 1862.
If you find an old photo in your private albums or photo boxes that you would like to know what can be seen – which approach would you recommend?
One should at least know the city of origin. If it’s an old piece, I advise going to the City Museum, there is a photo collection and experts who might be able to classify the picture. You need someone who has seen a lot of Berlin photos. Above all, you can search for distinctive buildings yourself on the Internet. In the case of the photo from Alexanderplatz, there were good indications with the Georgenkirche and the house with the 99 sheep’s heads.
What technology did the photographer work with?
With a big plate camera. He had to make a negative from which to make prints. Because the picture was taken around 1860, I assume that it was made with a glass plate. The photographer had to produce the coating on the plate on the spot and then photograph it promptly and then develop it immediately.
The photography was done like you see it in old movies?
Yes. The man with the wooden box on a frame under a black cloth opens the lens by removing the cap. So is exposed. Then he closes the light opening, removes the cassette with the glass plate, goes into his mobile darkroom, which he has to have with him in order to develop this plate immediately.
For what purposes was photography taken back then?
The first famous Berlin city photographer, Leopold Ahrens, worked commercially. He sold individual photos or photo portfolios – from the castle, the opera, the Hedwig’s Church …
A new, great souvenir …
… and certainly not cheap.
The interview was conducted by Maritta Tkalec.