The Litfaß Polka

A brief history of anti-clutter campaigns.

Cambridge Day

November 2005

On a bright summer morning in Berlin a century and a half ago, to the tune of a polka written for the occasion, Germans in top hats and tails turned out to watch a publisher and businessman named Ernst Litfass unveil his first batch of billboard-pillars, which were going to solve the problem of ugly ad posters and political pamphlets cluttering his beautiful Prussian city. Overnight, “in a concentrated action by police and volunteers,” writes Reinhard Wahren in a little book about the columns, “all remains of old bills and placards were torn and scrubbed from houses, fences, and trees.” Even local newspapers praised the new street furniture — a brilliant innovation to Berliners in 1855 — for its role in cleansing the streets.

This story is worth revisiting because a fashion for organizing newspapers into neat city-organized racks has been sweeping American cities. Not just Cambridge but Chicago, L.A., San Francisco, Denver, and Dallas — never mind smaller towns from Florida to Hawaii — have all warmed to the idea of tightening control over newspaper distribution for the sake of prettifying streets. San Francisco has installed “fancy racks ” to replace the unsightly gaggle of different newsracks on every corner; Cambridge has a handful of proposed laws aimed at battling clutter. In every case, whether the mayors know it or not, the forefather of these prettification projects is Ernst Litfass.

His columns came to Berlin only after Prussian soldiers quashed a street revolution in 1848. The labor uprisings that erupted across Europe that year had been encouraged in Berlin by ugly fliers — sarcastic, sometimes rhyming anti-government posters that laid out complaints by the city’s poor and unemployed. The posters, like the revolution, disturbed the city fathers who thought their lower classes were content, and after a few rioters had been shot, a barking authoritarian named Ludwig von Hinckeldey ascended to the top police job with a mandate to clean up the streets. He gave a contract for ad columns to a printer named Litfass in 1855.

The columns — which still exist — are nice to look at: simple cylinders with green-painted iron flourishes around the top. They’ve become part of the streetscape and part of the city culture. For a while Berliners called them “Fat Ladies,” and during the war with France in the 1870s people gathered around them in the morning to read official news from the front. Circus, theater, and concert ads give the streets a controlled burst of garish color. Nothing wrong with that. But Litfass’ contract with Berlin amounted to a form of censorship: Suddenly posting anywhere besides a Litfass column was illegal, and Litfass’s firm had private control over what went on the columns.

This monopoly on fly-posting passed from Litfass’s heirs to the city itself in 1880, and the columns’ history is now as checkered as Berlin’s, which is to say they had a bad season under the Nazis, who used the inherited monopoly on fly-posting to spread antisemitism. Photos from the war years show the Fat Ladies misused as propaganda tools, urging Berliners not to shop in Jewish stores.

Of course, Hitler would have done just as well without Litfass columns. But the story is a stark example of how a free society erodes — one grain at a time, for silly reasons. “Anywhere you go in this city,” warned San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom last year, speaking for busy bureaucrats across the nation, “you’re going to find news racks out in the middle of the street right there where people should be parking. Tipped over.”

Even though every U.S. mayor has sworn up and down that anti-clutter measures will never be used to control who gets to put out which newspaper where, the new wave of city-beautiful regulations represents another morsel of old-fashioned American freedom given up to local government — along with the freedom, say, to walk down the street without being recorded on city-controlled video, or visit the library without leaving a record for the FBI. Maybe no one’s misusing those powers right now (he said, doubtfully). But every time we hand an insignificant right to even a trusted liberal government we also pile more power into the lap of a nameless future politician, so that one day our descendants may still wake up to a rude surprise, like the grandchildren of those Berliners in top hats 150 years ago, who tapped their feet to a polka and looked forward to a new age of urban tidiness.

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Michael Scott Moore is a journalist and a novelist, author of a comic novel about L.A., Too Much of Nothing, as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness and Blood, which was named a best book of 2010 by The Economist. He’s won Fulbright, Logan, and Pulitzer Center grants for his nonfiction, as well as a Silver Nautilus Award in Journalism and Investigative Reporting; and Yaddo, MacDowell, and DeWitt Wallace–Reader’s Digest fellowships for his fiction.

He’s been a visiting professor at the Columbia School of the Arts and UC Riverside. He worked for several years as an editor and writer at Spiegel Online in Berlin. Michael was kidnapped in early 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage by pirates for 32 months. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, became an international bestseller.

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