Hamburg's path into modernity

Learn more about the development of the City of Hamburg around 1900.

Diorama of the Hamburg Firebrigade during the Great Fire of 1842 (1842)Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte, Historische Museen Hamburg

The Great Fire

In the early hours of May 5, 1842, a signal from a fire-watcher summoned Hamburg's fire brigades to a warehouse in the Deichstrasse: fire had broken out. The fire brigades were well-trained and Hamburg's fire extinguishing equipment was exemplary, but they were unable to put out the fire. The closely-built half-timbered houses with highly combustible goods inside kept on feeding the fire. In just 82 hours, the flames destroyed more than a quarter of the city center. When it was rebuilt, the burnt part of the city was laid out in modern style with broader streets, gas-powered street lighting, and a central supply of fresh water. Hamburg was making its way into the modern world.

Model ship of the ocean-liner "Frisia" (1873)Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte, Historische Museen Hamburg

Between 1850 and the 1930s, nearly 5,000,000 emigrants left the country via the port of Hamburg. Most of the passengers boarding the Frisia in Hamburg were emigrants, that is to say they had purchased one-way tickets to New York. For many, it was a voyage into the unknown and a considerable material risk.

Model of Hamburg Harbour around 1900 Model of Hamburg Harbour around 1900 (um 1900)Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte, Historische Museen Hamburg

Around 1900

Hamburg was now part of Kaiser Wilhelm's empire, with part of the port a so-called "free port," an area that counted as a foreign customs territory in relation to the city and the empire. Goods could be handled here quickly and duty free.

The whole structure of Hamburg's harbor changed as a result of the free port. Business not only moved entirely out of the Old Town onto the south bank of the Elbe, but quickly expanded there to cover an area larger than the whole of Hamburg's city center.

The traditional links between warehouse, counting house, and home were broken because, since now that most goods were handled at the free port, counting houses and warehouses in the city center were no longer required. In place of the baroque residential buildings, a new warehouse district was developed on the Kehrwieder and Wandrahm islands. In the former town center, now called the city, new office blocks, the so-called "Hamburg counting houses," were built.

Portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II (1915) by Hans OldeMuseum für Hamburgische Geschichte, Historische Museen Hamburg

"Our future lies upon the water"—this was Kaiser Wilhelm II's promise to his people. Hamburg benefited from this dream of the future: the city gained a free port. By the time the then highly regarded artist Hans Olde painted this portrait of the Kaiser in 1915, Germany had become the second biggest economic power in the world after England, and the First World War was raging.

Diorama of a harbour tavern (um 1900)Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte, Historische Museen Hamburg

The notorious inns in the port of Hamburg were more than just places for sailors and harbor workers to relax. They were also a news exchange, employment agency, and welfare center. In payment for their bill or in return for their services, the landlords would sometimes accept souvenirs from all over the world: embalmed deep sea fish or reptiles, dried coral, hand-carved masks, model ships, and paintings, all of which added to the charm of the inns.

Buoyage in the Elbe river (1965)Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte, Historische Museen Hamburg

Hamburg's development was always closely tied to the Elbe. The river by no means runs its natural course. Ever since the Middle Ages, the people of Hamburg have controlled the Elbe's flow, building dikes or cutting off its tributaries. The model shows what is so special about Hamburg. Although the port of Hamburg is over 100 km from the open sea, it is so favorably located that it is sometimes referred to as the most southerly port in Northern Europe and the most westerly port in Eastern Europe. The marked shipping lanes are extremely important because they made the Elbe navigable for ever-larger ships.

Credits: Story

Projektkoordination und Umsetzung: Anna Symanczyk, Martina Fritz
Texte: SHMH
Fotos: SHMH

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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