Attic

Old furniture, papers, weapons, textiles and other things: a lot of stuff accumulates in country house attics. Yet, things that ancestors no longer had a use for are sometimes given a second life by later generations.

1780 – 1830

Out with the Junk

Hunting for novelties

Whenever country house owners died around 1800 their heirs frequently auctioned off their private possessions. This not only facilitated splitting up the inheritance, it also enabled them to dispose of unwanted possessions that their parents had left behind. After all, old furniture showed that one could not afford an up-to-date style, and who wanted to be considered poor? Instead, noble lords and ladies sought out the newest fashions and luxuries, bought on-trend tables, chests, or beds  to underline their aristocratic status and social standing. When they had gotten tired of old furniture in their rooms, they sometimes transferred them to the servants’ rooms – or to the attic. Some country houses were also devoid of any furniture. This happened if the heirs did not live there but instead took up residence in a city, where they worked as military officers or pubic servants. Thus, empty country houses were not an unusual thing around 1800.

1880 – 1930

Let’s get some Antiques

Old Furniture and novel Beliefs

Around 1800, many noble owners of country houses felt that social change was threatening their status and pre-eminence in state and society. Bourgeois families acquired country houses in increasing numbers and began to compete with noble families. At the same time, the new ideology of nationalism spread: Its adherents reinterpreted old objects as expressions of national heritage. As a result, many country house owners changed their old customs and took the old furniture of their ancestors down from the attic or expended significant amounts of money at antique sales. They also legally bound their heirs to keep important pieces of furniture rather than selling them, declaring that these objects formed an inseparable component of the house. As a positive side effect, keeping old furniture also
saved a lot of money. This was no mere trifle at a time when it became difficult to keep up with rich industrialists’ luxury.

1945 – 1990

Out with the heirlooms.

Noble property in new hands

Even though many country houses survived the Second World War, they nevertheless lost the greater part of their furnishing over the next decades. In Eastern Germany, on the one hand, the government expropriated its owners who could only take a few heirlooms on their flight west. The government sold the majority of the valuable old furniture and other objects, some were transferred into museums or stolen. In Western Germany, on the other hand, the need for money, whether due to emergencies or to revamp the house, frequently resulted in the sale of objects from attics, libraries, and finally the salon. Accordingly, auction catalogues of those times frequently advertised furniture or silverware from noble households. However, only rarely do they name the country house, from which the objects originated. Yet, this is hardly surprising: Who would like to admit to the sale of heirlooms to repair the roof or set up a new toilet?

"Sammlung Reuß", FAZ 31.1.1998

"Hallo Berlin", FAZ, 18.9.1999

Perspectives

Servant

1800

Housekeeper

1900

House owner

1970

They want none of this anymore?

Maria Hauser, Servant

Oh dear, this is one stuffed attic. The new lord and his wife have hardly arrived and are already busy rearranging the entire country house. Everything is supposed to be fancy and modern and all the old furniture has to go. This week, the other maids and I have packed all the light stuff and put it in the attic. Mercifully, the heavy beds and cupboards are the men’s task.

Oh, how I hate this armchair!

Gertrude Löffelholz, Housekeeper

Her Ladyship is completely besotted with this armchair – a piece of family history, she claims! Together with the manservant I had to take it down from the attic. But that was only the beginning of it: Now it has to be completely restored as the woodworms have made a feast of it. The cost of that! Her Ladyship always says: Only those who can afford it have got a history. Whatever that is supposed to mean…

My beloved silverware…

Ursula von Klagenfeld, House owner

The storm last week made a hole in the roof – I really don’t know how to pay for repairs anymore! Only thing I can think of is to sell the silverware with the elaborate rose ornament in the handle. My dear mother will spin in her grave, but what should I do? At least no one needs to know that it used to be mine. Fortunately, the auction house was quite discreet last time …

Conclusion

Treasures out of conviction

Over time, junk can transform into treasure. Sometimes this is the result of the objects themselves being aesthetically pleasing. However, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, furnishing one’s country house with old objects was also an expression of nationalistic convictions, resulting in noble families collecting such objects. After the Second World War many of those newly treasured items, however, found new owners.

How would you like to furnish your house? So haben die Besucher:innen abgestimmt:

With new, stylish objects

With antiques that have a history

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