Viennese Types: The ­Romance and Reality of Work

Wiener Typen explores the figures, overlooked facts and enduring fables of bygone eras on the city’s streets

Copper engravings came first, depicting early street professions, the stuff of both legend and stereotype – canvas merchants, cheese makers, milk and egg sellers, tobacco peddlers, saucy laundresses that still titillate the imagination.

Many are pictured with mouths agape, mid-call. Street criers were a common sight in any city of the pre-industrial age, and even today on streets and sidewalks, livings are made selling cheap souvenirs, umbrellas and jewelry; in Vienna, heiße Maroni, Knödel, Würstel.

Myths are born with the passage of time, and the sights, sounds and smells of what many remember as simpler times are bathed in the softer glow of romance, as the capital underwent dramatic changes that left many longing for perceived “better” days. The harsh realities were largely forgotten, the lives remembered with storybook charm.

At Café Hawelka, the legendary Ober Ali was a typical Viennese waiter (1956) | Photo: Wien Museum

At Café Hawelka, the legendary Ober Ali was a typical Viennese waiter (1956) | Photo: Wien Museum

Viennese Types Cliches and Reality at the Wien Museum Karlsplatz tours Viennese street culture, depicting the characters who haunted the city’s streets long ago.

Centuries of drawings, engravings and statues record the “Viennese Types” in their evolving incarnations – from the worn faces and bodies grotesque from overwork (influenced by similar scenes of London), to the humorous, sexy and romantic; and finally, to a few insistent claims to realism, forcing preferred clichés to confront reality.

Portrayals of street scenes sold successfully from early in the 19th century, attracting other publishers and a profusion of artists’ renderings of similar scenes and subjects.

Eventually the genre progressed as did the audience – in 1823, art dealer Jeremias Bermann made a series in playing card format, captioned for the first time with the original street cries in Viennese dialect. Mandlbögen – cut-out figures of street characters for children, like paper dolls, suggest the entertainment value associated with these clichés.

“The carrying of loads is a basic human condition,” we’re reminded. Schlepping instead of paying for the service marked a person as lower class. One picture shows two women chatting as they walked, vegetable baskets towering, stacked nine high, strapped to their backs. Another shows a man bent under the weight of a large pig on his back, titled simply Carrier.

Distances travelled by peddlers seem incredible now, crossing the entire continent, some walking all the way to Russia. Items like elaborate birdcages, mouse traps and Blasebälge – fireplace bellows – were lugged across cities, countries and continent by people struggling to make ends meet.

Some professions only exist in history. Tinkers fixed damaged household items with wire before the introduction of materials like enamel or plastic that couldn’t be repaired, rendering their profession obsolete. Scissor and knife sharpeners were also familiar figures in the street trades illustrations.


Poetic gaiety and endless sadness

A startling section covers child labour. Children were engaged as sellers, hawking everything from flowers to lotto tickets. “Regular work was regarded as educative and was thought to reduce the misery of undernourished and neglected children from the poorest classes,” the label reads. Not until 1918 was it legally identified as exploitation.

Similarly horrifying was the reality of “Rag-and-boneman’s disease”, Viennese for pulmonary anthrax, bred from the dust and animal remains of the rag pickers. Elderly women and unemployed men wandered the streets looking for rags, bones and broken glass. Almost any material was worth something, and some worked directly with paper mills.

Over a century, the illustrations edged away from the sensationally grim to the boldness of realism. Painter Josef Engelhart, later a co-founder of the Vienna Secession, sought out the coarse market women and street urchins, transforming them through art: “I make them visible,” he said.

Many of his models were from the Erdberg streets where he grew up, a butcher’s son. In his hands they came fully alive with what author Felix Salten defined as the “poetic gaiety” and “endless sadness” of the downtrodden.

Even casual, preparatory sketches pulse with movement, capturing the expression and energy of the everyday in a few messy lines. Engelhart’s study sketch of dancing Wäschermädel, reproduced in a painting, is vibrant with liveliness and personality.

The fabric of the girls’ skirts swirls around their legs as they dance together in lighthearted movement, polka-dotted kerchiefs knotted on their heads.


Cultural symbols in modern times

Ladies dressed up for the Wäschermädlball imitating the light-hearted laundresses | Photo: Wien Museum

Ladies dressed up for the Wäschermädlball imitating the light-hearted laundresses | Photo: Wien Museum

Wäschermädel still occupy our imaginations, with the Laundress Ball once again on the season’s calendar (see “Wiener Wäschermädelball”, TVR April 2013 ) . These young women were the “glamour girls” among street figures.

Clad in cinched waist, ruffled dresses with low necklines and high hems, they were confident and flirtatious, quick witted and with a zest for life.

This appealing persona became the “in” thing with bourgeois ladies, who began attending the formerly private laundresses’ ball dressed in their working-class glamour.

Thus, despite their working conditions – which included laundering outdoors in winter, low wages and mass lodging, the Wäschermädel came to symbolise a lighthearted culture, relieving life’s stresses with music, dance and witty personalities and thus embodying both cliché and reality.

The exhibit poster features a typical laundress by Otto Schmidt, surly but sassy, and thoroughly self-assured.

Wiener Typen closes with those currently using the streets as workplace. Fiaker carriage drivers, featured throughout, are shown as they are now; their once-important services relegated to tourist attractions.

Another ubiquitous modern embodiment – the kitschy Mozarts hanging around Stephansplatz and the Opera distributing concert fliers, are photographed on familiar streets as they appeared over the past centuries, recognisable through the eras.

The costumes and cries have changed, the calling of the streets is the same.

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