First an admission: housewares are not, as you will see, a strength of my collection. However, this is fitting as they were not a particular strength of the East German economy either. Indeed, histories of everyday life in the GDR often point to the shortages of what Germans call the “thousand little things”, the items that are used to run a household or office on a daily basis (e.g. suspenders, coffee filters, bottle openers, paper clips, etc.). The improvisation and creativity required to cope with this situation were hallmarks of GDR society and most certainly part of the nostalgia some people have for their lives in the “Workers and Peasants State”.
That said, by East Bloc standards, East Germans were very well supplied with consumer goods. (This was not, of course, the standard of measure used by most East Germans (or their political masters) who tended to compare their lifestyle with that of their West German neighbours as propagated by Western media.) Indeed, in recent years many GDR consumer goods have become highly coveted collectors items. As you will quickly learn, I possess none of these.
For an English-language look into this world of collectable East German design items, visit this article and photo gallery from Spiegel Online, the web version of Germany’s most important news weekly. More information on the history of East German consumer goods is found on the page “Consumer Goods”.
My collection includes a reproduction of one bona fide GDR design classic, a set of six plastic egg cups in chicken-shaped form. These egg cups first appeared in the wake of the GDR’s steps in the late 1950s to establish plastic production in the country as a means to improving the supply and quality of a wide variety of both industrial and consumer goods. The firm which produced this item, Sonja Plastics of Wolkenstein in the Ore Mountains region, was established prior to the GDR’s founding, survived both the Third Reich and Communist systems intact and is still in operation today.
Another item in my collection which reflects the GDR’s commitment to plastics is this set of three cookie cutters in the “Terrace” design. These were produced by the People’s Own Plastic Processing Factory “Pneumant” in Staaken, a town on the fringes of West Berlin. This factory was expanded considerably in the wake of the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 in an effort to provide work for many locals who had previously worked for Siemens or other employers in the nearby western sectors.
Staaken sticks in my mind not so much for its plastics, fine though these are, but rather for having been the station where trains traveling into Berlin from the north of the Federal Republic (Hamburg, Hannover, etc.) were stopped for a final passport control. On my visit to Berlin in 1985, our group of high school students traveled via this route and I recall the giddy mix of excitement and fear we felt as East German border guards entered the train with their German shepherd. The stony faced young man we dealt with fulfilled every stereotype we had of the joyless, earnest Communist apparatchik and looking at my old passport with stamp he placed in it still awakens memories of that memorable encounter.
Item number three is a garbage chit from the City of Leipzig, probably from the late 1980s. (Cue ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel jokes’.) This was a gift from a friend who keeps me mind when helping clean up her family’s home. When stuff is being sorted, a box gets started for me and on each visit, we spend some time going through things.
This chit would have been attached to the family’s garbage can and collected with the trash by the garbage men.
This is a package of wood stain from the same friend. If you’re still reading, you’ll be relieved to know that I can think of nothing to write about it.