The heady early days

Text// Karoline Mueller-Stahl

It all began with the vision of a few daring industrialists. In the 19th century, global demand for cotton had risen dramatically. Germany had traditionally imported its cotton thread (largely from England and Switzerland). Raw cotton was acquired at this time mainly from the United States, but also from Egypt. There was no end to demand in sight – quite the reverse. Wages in Germany were low, and working hours longer than in Great Britain, while taxes on imports of coarse-grade thread were high. It was the ideal time to be thinking about setting up one of the biggest spinning works in Europe.

On the 21st of June 1884, the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei was registered as a joint-stock company. The group bought a central site in the still-new working district from Dr. Karl Heine, who had reclaimed the marshy land of Leipzig West, at the favourable price of 2.10 marks per square metre. The site offered an industrial rail siding, a 
telephone connection and guaranteed water supply and plumbing. Johann Morf of Zurich was hired to direct the project. The first Spinnerei (now Hall 20), was erected within the year, operating five spinning machines. By March of the next year it was operating at full strength, with 30,000 self-acting spindles and other related equipment.

And the construction work went on. The first building to house workers was constructed in the Thüringer Strasse, followed by an administration building in the Alte Salzstrasse. In 1888, they were joined by the 2nd Spinnerei (today known as Hall 18) with its 50,000 spindles, and, a year later, by the 3rd Spinnerei (today known as Hall 14), with 76,000 spindles and, for the first time, combing machines for high-quality combed fine thread. In the mid-1890s, a fourth production building (today known as Hall 6) with two production halls and an additional combing facility was built. In 1907, a fifth building opened (today known as Hall 7). Its 26,000 spindles mainly produced sewing thread. The number of workers’ houses also increased.

These developments were directed at sustainability as well as expansion. The Spinnerei was a modern place in every sense. In 1894, for instance, a Spinnerei training school was opened, and the company’s own fire brigade, with three fire engines for every 100 men, was founded a year later. The factory canteen sold food at cost. The powerhouse also began to provide electricity around this time – allowing, for instance, the open gas lamps to be replaced with arc lamps. Shortly before the turn of the century, a baths was constructed, new houses for workers were built, plus a kindergarten and a park complete with a gymnasium for parents and children were opened. Music bands, dance groups and male voice choirs were a part of factory life. The site had become like a city within a city, with homes, allotments, kindergartens and doctors. Outside the premises, but close by, shops and public houses sprang up.

Growth on this scale created a demand for skilled workers. The need for a suitable workforce, in fact, was always a major problem for the company, with the hard work in the factories requiring a large number of exceptionally competent hands. Workers were imported from Europe’s traditional textile areas: Saxony, Bavaria, the Erzgebirge, Württemberg, Poland, Czechia, Austria and Switzerland. This was a multi-lingual mix of cultures with all the energy that implies, but the Spinnerei chronicles also report brawls and confrontations.

In 1902, the annual turnover exceeded 10 million marks. Share-holders received a dividend of 14 percent. Worker’s wages, however, bore little relation to the company’s prosperity or to the tough working conditions. A campaign for a reduced, ten-hour working day began. It went hand in hand with socialist ideology, as demonstrated by Karl Liebknecht’s address to over 2,500 workers in the Felsenkeller in neighbouring Plagwitz.

The social struggle, however, did not put an end to the boom, as productivity continued to rise substantially. In 1887, 318 workers, working a maximum 77-hour week, processed a total of 6,200 bales of cotton into over 1 million kilos of thread. Only twenty years later, 20,000 bales of cotton were processed into 5 million kilos of thread by 1,600 workers working a ten-hour day. In just 25 years the Leipzig Baumwollspinnerei had become the largest spinning mill on the continent, with 240,000 spindles, 20,000 thread-twisting spindles and 208 combing machines.