The Germans of New Orleans
German immigrants and their descendants were once a vibrant and visible part of New Orleans' cultural landscape
Because of high costs and overcrowding in central New Orleans, most German immigrants sought cheap land and working opportunities in the developing suburbs. Soon three distinctly German communities formed, where the language, culture and way of life of the homeland were preserved.
Until 1852 New Orleans was divided into three independent municipalities. The Third District occupied the entire city below Esplanade Avenue. Franklin Avenue divided Faubourg Marigny from the lower portion, which was originally named “the Brewery.” By the mid-19th century it became known as Little Saxony or the Faubourg des Allemands [German suburb] because of its almost exclusively German population.
Another heavily German area formed along the river between Felicity Street and Louisiana Avenue. By mid-century this suburb included a large working class population with a concentration of German immigrants, listed by the census of 1850 as 40 percent of the area’s population. It was known for its foul odors resulting from the slaughtering industry on the riverfront, which included tanneries, tallow renderers, soap and lubricant makers. Magazine Street became a commercial strip with iron foundries, tobacco warehouses, millwork plants, ice manufacturers, breweries and cotton presses. In 1852, the City of Lafayette, which had become the city’s center for processing meat, was incorporated into New Orleans. The German population of Lafayette spilled into the neighboring City of Jefferson, as more and more immigrants settled in the area. According to the census of 1860, almost half of the population was German. Most of these immigrants established slaughterhouses, continuing the butchering industry of Lafayette. Originally incorporated as the Borough of Freeport, it was annexed by New Orleans in 1870.
To escape the urban character of Lafayette, many former German farmers established dairy and truck farms farther upriver in Carrollton, at the bend of the Mississippi. Land there was plentiful, and cheap labor was in demand. Carrollton needed unskilled immigrant workers to maintain its resort industry, which had been established in the 1830s for wealthy New Orleanians. Its lumber industry also welcomed German laborers, who were noted for their reliability. This heavily German suburb grew slowly and was eventually incorporated into New Orleans in 1872.
Traditions from the Fatherland
Life in the German communities of the New Orleans area reflected the culture left behind in the fatherland. The sociability in these communities centered around th~ family and its celebrations of birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, around festivals and activities of the German community, around the church and its support groups, and around the many other societies which the Germans formed.
The home was the center for observing family occasions with friends. Birthdays, engagements, anniversaries and such were celebrated with drinking, dining and dancing to the music of small ensembles. Elaborate buffets were prepared by the housewife, who took the opportunity to show off her culinary talents. In the family, Christmas Eve, like Easter, centered on the children, but Christmas and the day after were given over to socializing. Sumptuous Christmas parties were put on at home, while many of the German associations rented public facilities. Sylvesterabend (New Year’s Eve) was likewise an occasion for adult entertainment in the German clubs, halls and hotels of New Orleans.
Despite the strong Mediterranean/Catholic influences in the city, which had turned the population away from the puritanical Sunday practices of most American cities, the “excessive German carousing” on this “holy” day was sharply criticized by many factions in the city. The German Sunday was not just a day for going to church and remaining quietly at home, but rather a day for visiting friends, playing cards and attending Sunday night dances. The many beer gardens and dance halls offered large, pleasant surroundings for these weekend affairs. They also served as venues for the meetings and social events of the many German organizations of the city.
On Sundays the men of the German community liked to participate in the many shooting contests sponsored by the German military organizations. Afterward the members often paraded to City Park to give brass band concerts, a practice begun in 1889 by Joseph Sporrer’s military band. German families would often spend the whole afternoon and evening in the park, staying until after dark to watch the free moving pictures, which were projected on a screen at the bandstand.
After church in the summer months, families also liked to take picnic baskets on the train to the amusement parks of Milneberg, West End and Spanish Fort, or to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Spanish Fort was also frequently the site for presentations by the German singing societies, another favorite weekend entertainment of the German community.
The native German love of civic celebrations was well received in New Orleans, which was already noted for its public carnival and many parades. An outstanding event was put on by the German community for the inauguration of Michael Hahn as governor of Louisiana. Although Hahn, who was German by birth and preferred his native language to English, was unloved in the general community, nevertheless his inauguration as governor was a great occasion for the whole city. It marked the return of civil government after the military occupation of the city during the Civil War. Because there was no structure large enough for the ceremonies, Lafayette Square, across from the city hall, was designated as the site.
An Appreciation of Music and Acting
German theater was an integral part of life of the Germans of New Orleans. This tradition, which was brought from the homeland, encountered a corresponding love of the performing arts in the natives of New Orleans. Productions in the German language were put on in theaters all over the city. Of great importance to the German community was the well appointed auditorium of the Turnverein (Turners’ Society) which was regularly used for both amateur and professional performances. There were also several structures built specifically to house German language productions. Most notable among these buildings erected for the performing arts was the National Theatre, an elegant Greek Revival structure built on Baronne and Perdido streets. Although originally called Werlein Concert Hall, designed to house musical events, the entire building was redecorated, the stage enlarged, and a bar, restaurant and flower stand added. Guest artists were brought in from other cities, as were renowned actors from Germany, such as Fanny Janauschek. From this time on, German theater became continuous, supported by guest actors and local dramatic clubs. The popularity of the German theater in its day was also due to the gemutlichkeit (warm, pleasant, informal atmosphere) afforded by a dramatic evening. In the German theater, food and drink were served during the performance, followed by a ball in the theater itself or in a nearby hall.
One of the most important parts of the culture fostered by the New Orleans Germans was their love of music. This love was manifested not only in attendance at symphony and opera performances but also by the musical activities in which the Germans themselves took part. Small, neighborhood instrumental groups met weekly in members’ homes for the sheer joy of playing the familiar German classics, as well as for the sociability that a musikabend (evening of music) afforded. A number of German singing societies also developed in the city. The culmination of this love of song was the selection of New Orleans as the site for the 1890 convention of the North American Saengerbund (Singers’ Society). The Saengerhalle built at Lee Circle for the festival was a huge, ornate structure housing 1,700 singers from 64 different German singing societies, a 100-piece orchestra, and 6,400 spectators. This songfest was a three-day affair during which all performances were sold out, with people crowding the surrounding streets to hear the singing. The songfest was a great cultural and financial success and helped to continue the interest in German music and song in the community long past the turn of the century.
A number of other culturally oriented events were sponsored by the German community in the tradition of the fatherland. An interesting example was the three-day commemoration in 1859 of the 100th birthday of Friedrich Schiller, the most popular of the German dramatists and poets. The entire city took part in this festival, with numerous houses and ships in the port displaying American flags and those of the German states. The main celebration began with a parade in which the mayor, other dignitaries and the German organizations of the city all took part. The parade featured an elaborate float with a large bust of Schiller, which was later presented to the city and installed in the Fisk Public Library. The festival of 1869 for the natural scientist and geographer, Alexander von Humboldt, and the Franz Schubert festival of 1897, honoring the 100th birthday of this famous composer, were other notable celebrations.
In the German tradition of spring wine festivals, a Maifest (May Day celebration) was held annually. This affair, inaugurated in 1854, soon became the amusement highlight of the German community’s year. The Volkfest began with a parade of military and fire companies bearing the American, Swiss and German state flags. Brass bands, decorated floats and horse-drawn wagons followed, tracing a route along Canal Street to Union Race Course, now Metairie Cemetery. There, booths of food and drink, platforms for dancing, gambling, racing, shooting contests, competitive games and other entertainments were provided for the enjoyment of the German community. The profits were given to German charitable organizations as well as to others benefiting the wider community.
The Harmonie Klub, a Jewish men’s organization for promoting the arts, put on an annual parade, with brass bands led by a grand marshal and the club’s president in his carriage, drawn by three horses draped in the colors of the German flag. German Day, October 5, was celebrated in much the same way each year, with a parade and presentations honoring the contributions of the Germans and German-Americans to the city, region and nation. The typical German man participated in one of the many volunteer military or fire companies, which frequently paraded in showy uniforms on weekends and civic occasions. The native love for dressing up, parading and dancing endeared the Mardi Gras activities of the city to the Germans. During the carnival season, the various German societies gave a number of street parades and festive balls, all well attended by their members, families and friends. Of note was the annual Liedertafel (song board) ball held by this singing society at Grunewald Hall, festooned with flowers both inside and out for these occasions. In 1908 a large and elaborate extension was built onto this concert hall, which became the German-owned and operated Grunewald Hotel, later renamed the Roosevelt. Now, as the Fairmont, it still holds its premiere position among the hotels of the city.
Other pastimes involved calisthenics and gymnastics rather than tennis, golf or team sports. The Turnverein built a large structure on Lafayette Street, which now houses the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. This building, Turners’ Hall, contained a gymnasium, a theater, a library and a hall for meetings, banquets and balls. Men well into middle life performed regular “work outs,” as physical culture was considered essential for achieving a “refined humanity.” German children were expected to build healthy, sturdy y bodies through gymnastics and long hikes. Instead of American sports they practiced folk dancing, weight lifting and pyramid building.
Gardening was another pastime the Germans cultivated. Just as in the homeland, the German housewife in America planted flowers wherever space permitted. Lush yard and patio planting were sources of pride for every German household. German immigrants were drawn to the nursery and florist business and were said to have introduced the concept of colorful flower gardens to New Orleans. These furnished a German alternative to the Creole garden, which was traditionally based on smell. It was said that the wealthier Germans, who moved from Lafayette into the adjacent area, were responsible for this section being named the Garden District.
Beer Brewing Empire
The German community of New Orleans was credited with the introduction of beer to the city as an everyday beverage and substitute for the more expensive wine preferred by the French. Before the 1850s a brew called “city beer” was consumed by the common man in the saloons and restaurants of New Orleans. This concoction was made according to a secret formula but contained no preservatives. Consequently, it would spoil during transportation and had to be drunk soon after it was brewed. It was the custom for the oldest boy in German families to fetch a bucket of beer at the end of the day to be drunk with dinner. A number of breweries sprang up which supplied the demand for this beverage. Despite its popularity in the German community, the brewing business was hampered by the necessity of drinking the beer on the day it was brewed.
In 1851 the first lager beer was imported from Pittsburgh by the local saloon keeper Christian Krost. The superior stability and taste of lager beer were immediately recognized. Its success, however, was impeded by the difficulties of transportation. In the winter, the barrels froze en route; in the summer they exploded on the docks. The next year Krost began to popularize imported bottled beer from Germany. The “bottle art” seen in the French Quarter (broken green and brown beer bottles cemented along the tops of patio walls as a security device) stems from this period.
In 1864 Georg Merz was successful in brewing the first lager beer in the city, which he introduced in his restaurant/bar on Orleans Street Later this site became the first lager beer brewery in the city, the Southern Brewing Company. Since cooling was essential to its production, Merz attempted to ship in “natural” ice from the North. Because of time and distance, however, the ice melted before it arrived at the docks. Such difficulties prevented the industry from developing until the invention of the Windhausen Refrigerating Machine in 1879 and the establishment of insulated ice-houses for storage With these developments more than 30 lager beer breweries were established between 1880 and the tum of the century. Perhaps the most successful of all was Lawrence Fabacher’s famous Jackson Brewery on Decatur Street. Fabacher soon established Jax as the most widely drunk beer in New Orleans and developed the brewery into the largest in the South.
Associated with the larger breweries were beer gardens, owned and operated by the beer manufacturers. These gardens were more like parks than drinking spots and were attended by the whole family, usually on Sunday nights with dancing commencing in the pavilions at twilight. The National and the more elegant Tivoli Gardens were the most popular of the German biergarten. The Tivoli, located on Bayou St. John, also served as New Orleans’ first recreational park.
A general description of the German beer gardens appeared in the Times Picayune on October 30, 1849: “The beer gardens of New Orleans [began] a few blocks beyond the [ship turning] basin in Faubourg Treme. The largest, the Tivoli, charged a dime, but gave a glass of refreshment to each guest. The gardens were thickly planted with choice trees and shrubbery beneath which were benches and tables, and … latticed bowers and arbors. There were buildings for barrooms, ice cream, cakes, coffee, etc. The capacious ballrooms, bare of furniture, were almost entirely open at the sides. In galleries far above musicians poured fourth German waltzes, to which couples danced for a half-dime for each 10 minutes . . . German beer, quite bitter and strongly flavored with hops, was the favorite beverage, accompanied by a curious German doughnut and ginger cakes. Good order, a spirit of mutual accommodation and intense vivacity prevailed. Sunday afternoons and evenings drew the largest crowds of old. young and middle-aged Germans, [but also] French, English, Irish, Spanish and Italians …”
Today beer remains the favored alcoholic beverage of the common man in the New Orleans area. It is said that more beer is drunk in New Orleans per capita than in any other American city, with the exception of Milwaukee, a city well known for its German population. But beer drinking is not the only surviving practice of the pre-war German culture. The German heritage of New Orleans is still being preserved at the Deutsche Haus, an organization formed between the wars by the German Society and several signing clubs. Because it housed the German language newspapers of the day and the records of the many German organizations and institutions as they disbanded, the German culture which once flourished can be reconstructed. Remnants of this culture can still be seen in the many German family names of the city, in the legacy of its important members such as the German-American mayors Louis Wiltz and Martin Behrman, in the street names, in the many German churches which once conducted German language schools, in the public and private structures designed by German architects, and in the predominantly German cemeteries of the older sections of city. Unfortunately, the two world wars of the 20th century forced the German culture of New Orleans to go underground. With time the German language was lost, the customs forgotten, and the pursuits abandoned. But the heritage still continues as part of the history of New Orleans, enriched by the German contribution to its past and present.
Ellen C. Merrill received an LEH research grant for her study of German culture in New Orleans.