Ernst Litfaß, after1862
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Senteck & Co., Berlin

Ernst Litfaß

The Litfaßsäule [Litfaß advertising pillar] has been a Berlin landmark for over 160 years. In this article we will be presenting the life, work and legacy of its inventor Ernst Litfaß.

by Marlies Ebert

Ernst Theodor Amandus Litfaß, who was given the respectful nickname “Advertising King” during his lifetime, is one of the most ingenious minds of the 19th century. His name is still widely known today thanks to the advertising pillars named after him, thousands of which shaped the cityscape of Berlin, as well as many other cities. As the owner of a printer’s shop, a publisher, inventor, publicist, event manager and amateur artist, Litfaß sure earned his merits. And last but not least, his social commitment earned him a good reputation and the respect of his contemporaries.

Ernst Litfaß, around 1850. Chalk drawing by Leopold Ahrendts
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

An artist’s soul bows to pressure

Ernst Litfaß was born on 11th February 1816 in Berlin and came from an old family of printers. His father Ernst Joseph Gregorius (1781 – 1816), who died soon after his son was born, owned a printer’s shop and a publishing house at Adlerstraße 6 in Berlin – on a street which has been built over in the 1930’s, where the former Reichsbank building (now, the Federal Foreign Office) stands today. After his death, Leopold Wilhelm Krause (before 1800 – 1846), a book printer bookseller from Berlin, who at the time was also the administrator for the Litfaß printing office and would later become Ernst Litfaß’s stepfather, took over and successfully ran the business. The business made good money printing pictorial broadsheets, travel books and playbills for the stages of Berlin.

Location of the Litfaß printer’s shop (with the red border) on Adlerstraße 6 in Berlin, close to the Jungfernbrücke Bridge, which still stands today
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
At the request of his mother and stepfather, Ernst Litfaß completed an apprenticeship at Schlesinger’s book and music shop on Unter den Linden. He successfully completed his apprenticeship, however, over the following years he devoted himself to traveling and to his real passion – acting and so, Ernst Litfaß founded the “Lätitia“ Theatre on Weinbergsweg by Rosenthaler Tor. However, when his stepfather Krause’s printing office began to fail due to an illness he’d contracted in 1845, Litfaß bought the business from him. After Krause’s death in 1846, he began to completely modernise the company, which included switching from wooden to high-speed presses.

Political and social commitment

During the Revolution of 1848, Litfaß, a self-confessed democrat, would publish and print political leaflets, posters and the satirical newspaper “Berliner Krakehler” [the rowdy Berliner], which was soon banned. When the revolution failed, his days as a grandiose democrat were over: Litfaß became a patriot and remained loyal to the king until the day he died. He would declare his loyalty on the monarch’s birthday, as well as print war dispatches during the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870/71) for free. Even his social commitments were in line with the authorities: The festivities, concerts, fireworks and fundraising events organised by Litfaß mainly aimed to aid veterans, those wounded in the war and soldiers’ widows who were in need.

Copy of the “Berliner Krakehler“ [the rowdy Berliner] newspaper published by Litfaß on 4th July 1848
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
Litfaß would also actively publish works. In 1845, in his book “Denkmäler der Entschlafenen” [monuments of the deceased], he documented all the grave inscriptions found in the cathedral cemetery on Elisabethstraße, east of Alexanderplatz (which was built on after 1945). In 1851, he founded the “Tages-Telegraph” [“Daily Telegraph”], the first magazine in Berlin offering tips and dates for theatres, concerts, entertainment and restaurants. In 1858, he also started publishing the “Theater-Zwischen-Akts-Zeitung“  [“Theatre Between the Acts Newspaper”], which was the predecessor of the theatre programmes we have today. In addition, he completed the “Krünitzsche Enzyklopädie” [“Krünitz Encyclopedia”],  which was founded in 1773 by the encyclopaedist and natural scientist Johann Georg Krünitz (1728 – 1796), and which had already been published by his father and stepfather – an incredible 242-volume standard work on the state, urban and domestic economy and agriculture.

However, from the late 1840’s onwards, Ernst Litfaß invested all of his energy in the development of new advertising options, especially for posters.  In 1849, for the occasion of the Berlin Industrial Exposition, he produced a giant poster, measuring around six by ten meters, a size not seen before in Germany before that time. His greatest success, however, was yet to come.

The “Annoncir-Säule“ [announcement pillars] quickly became the city’s central advertising and information medium
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

The emergence and triumph of the Litfaß advertising pillar

As in all big cities at the time, there was a problem with “wild” billposting in Berlin. Posters were being pasted everywhere: on walls, on fences, on trees, and when there was no more space available, they would quickly be pasted on top of each other. Old posters would come loose, flutter in the wind and blow away, thereby ruining the cityscape. In order to improve the situation, Litfaß came up with the idea of ​​putting up advertising pillars on the busiest street corners and squares in Berlin. Posters were only meant to be pasted on those.

He was most likely inspired to do so on one of his trips to London or Paris, where there were already precursors of the later Litfaß advertising pillars installed around the cities. He visited Paris at the turn of the year 1853/54, presumably with his friend, the circus director Ernst Renz. Ernst Litfaß was greatly impressed by the cosmopolitan city: “Everything is great in Paris”, he wrote in a travel report. He was raving about the powerful and effective advertising, the “giant advertisements” which the city also needed and noted:

„Comparing the shop windows in Paris to the local shops is like comparing the the Leipzig Trade Fair to the fair in Friesack […] Not only the street corners, pillars and fountains, no. The roofs and chimneys themselves are also painted and bear company names.”

What he does not describe are the “colonnes urinairs”, the small toilet facilities that have been located throughout Paris since 1839 and which, as a secondary function, had posters on the outside walls. Was Litfaß inspired by them? Perhaps.

In any case, the readers of the latest posters which had been posted on such early advertising mediums had to put up with bad smells. This experience may have been the decisive factor that led Litfaß to no longer consider urinals as advertising mediums. However, it’s a fact that there had already been early forms of what was to become the Litfaß advertising pillar in London from 1824 onwards. But it is obvious that the trip to Paris gave Litfaß the idea of ​​an “annoncir pillar”, as, in the summer of 1854, he presented his plan to the Berlin chief of police, Karl Ludwig von Hinckeldey (1805 – 1856).

Courtly consecration for the “Pillar Saint“

As early as December 5th, 1854, an agreement was signed between the police headquarters and Litfaß, which granted Litfaß permission to install and use 150 “Annoncir pillars” for a period of 15 years. After that, ownership of the pillars was to be handed over to the police, as the new owners. At the same time, Litfaß was given the exclusive right to “charge a […] fee for each post that is posted on the pillars and urinals”.

Hinckeldey hoped that the erection of the pillars would improve the (un)regulated postering situation. There was only limited space available and the sizes and formats were specified. Sticking up posters now involved the payment of a fee that could only be carried out by the person responsible – Ernst Litfaß. The first pillar was erected on 15th April 1855 on the corner of Münzstraße and Grenadierstraße (Almstadtstraße since 1951). Of course, by sticking posters solely on the advertising pillars, an unofficial censorship came about, as Litfaß hired an advertisement inspector, who would inspect each pillar every morning. That must have been a very desirable side effect for the authorities.
Litfaß advertising pillar in front of the Old Berlin Town Hall, corner of Spandauer Straße and Königstraße (Rathausstraße since 1951)
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Nevertheless, Litfaß’s near monopoly of poster advertising brought him more than just financial benefits. The half-jokingly, half-respectfully nicknamed “Pilar Saint“ was also held in high esteem socially. He was even appointed Royal Book Printer in 1863. When it was announced that the Siamese Twins would be appearing at the Renz Circus in 1869, Litfaß brought about yet another milestone in the history of the development of advertising in Germany, as their poster was the first one to ever be printed in colour in Berlin.

Three years later, on 27th December 1874, Ernst Litfaß died suddenly while at a spa resort in Wiesbaden. His exact cause of death is unknown, but he had worked a lot throughout his life. He also lost five grandchildren between 1866 and 1872, a son-in-law and his beloved wife in 1873, and the innkeeper’s daughter Alexandrine Emilie Adelheid, née Wersig – which was a particularly heavy blow for the family man. The funeral took place on January 1st 1875, at the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery in Berlin.

His legacy

Ernst Litfaß’s estate came into the possession of the Märkisches Museum in 1925. Today, it is one of the Stadtmuseum Berlin‘s document collection’s most important assets. Ernst Litfaß probably put together the collection of his assets himself. The documents especially provide an insight into his business and social activities. His private life, however, is almost completely ignored.

What’s particularly impressive is the extensive bundle of documents, that Litfaß had bound in leather and then had his name inscribed on the cover in gold letters. It contains, among other things, his curriculum vitae, written by him, letters, invitations, poems, letters of thanks and newspaper clippings. Today, this 44 cm x 28 cm volume is invaluable for research into Ernst Litfaß and the history of Berlin.

Once bound together in a book, the collection of documents hasn’t withstood the passing of time. The spine of the book is missing completely, the binding is mostly untied and the edges of the pages are so brittle, that one or more connected pages had to be packed in folders in order to preserve them. Nevertheless, photocopies of the original pages allow the unique documents to be accessed for research purposes.
The ravages of time have left their mark on Litfaß’s 600-page legacy.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

In addition, his estate includes a wide variety of individual documents, mainly playbills produced by the Litfaß printing shop, as well as concert programmes, excerpts from the “Theater-Zwischen-Akts-Zeitung“ newspaper and photographs. Ernst Litfaß is still present in the cityscape to this day: since 2006, at the site of the very first “Annoncir pillar” on Münzstrasse, a bronze advertising pillar commemorates the German advertising pioneer.


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