Skip to main content

Dolls' Houses
Past & Present

A website and ezine about dolls' houses: antique, vintage and modern.
Plus furniture and accessories.

Issue 31 (October 2019)

Necessity is the mother of invention - a small rustic roombox from Wirsberg

by Sigi Ulbrich

Guesthouse in Gorbitz/Dresden on an old postcard

I never really thought about what it means to be banned from your profession. I mean the effect it has on the person concerned and his family.

“An occupational ban is a state regulation forbidding a specific person or group of persons from practising certain occupations.” This is how Wikipedia defines it, and this is how it is currently practised in Turkey, for example. But how about here in Germany? Well of course it was a problem in the past. For example between 1933 and 1945 and then came the other side of the coin.

One person who was affected after the war was Fritz Böhner. Or Fritz Boehner as he preferred to spell it. Up to the end of the war he was a popular and successful film producer with a studio in Dresden. In 1938 he bought a pub called “Zum Reichsschmied” (“The Imperial Smith”; it had a capacity of 900) and converted it into the Boehner Film Studios.

Guesthouse in Gorbitz/Dresden today

After fleeing from the Red Army in March 1945, Boehner first returned to the town where he was born. In 1946 his studio was expropriated, and because it was so conveniently well equipped, DEFA [the East German state film company, editor’s note] moved in and set up the DEFA Studio producing popular science films. In 1955 it was renamed DEFA Cartoon Studio and was the most important producer of cartoons in the GDR up to 1990. Many well-known puppet and animated films for children were produced here, as well as work commissioned for East German television and public institutions. We visited it a few years ago and looked at the building. It didn’t have much to say to us.

And now dear reader, I am sure you are wondering how I will make the leap from the film maker Fritz Boehner to a little rustic roombox. Well, that is easy – he made these roomboxes.

The town of Wirsberg

After his flight in 1945 and expropriation in 1946, Boehner first attempted to set up a new film company in Wirsberg in Upper Franconia, close to Erlangen where he was born. However, the American occupation authorities refused him a licence.

Unemployed by force of circumstances, he looked for a new source of income and found it, of all places, in Wirsberg’s emergency accommodation. Here, with the help of home workers – mostly refugees from the East, who were also living in the temporary accommodation – he began to build little Bavarian roomboxes.

His market were the GIs returning to America. This was why the rooms had to be small, sturdy and cheap. Production costs were kept to a minimum.

I searched for the tiny Wirsberg roomboxes for a long time. In January 2012 one came up on Ebay and I won it on 29 January 2012. It was offered as a “Bavarian farm room. Made in US Zone Germany”. It was mine for 22.50 euros. That was cheap, because it came in its original box. But they are rarely sold for more [prices have risen since Sigi wrote this article, editor’s note].

But some sellers hope for more.

Wirsberg roombox

Any time I saw one of these roomboxes the furniture was the same. Only the curtains and cushions varied in colour, material and pattern.

Sometimes they were quite unusual for such small room. And very occasionally you could see the loving hand of a former owner. I thought that was strange. But when I got my roombox and opened the lid of its nicely printed cardboard box the explanation presented itself.

The furniture is stuck down – since 1947 and with a glue that may still have been full of dangerous chemicals, but at least it really stuck – and still does 70 years later.

I delightedly wrote to my friends about this purchase and … what a surprise! Stefanie Ludwig replied. “I have one too.” Of course I wanted to know more about it. But she wasn’t able to tell me much.

According to her mother, her father had received the roombox in lieu of payment from a customer in the 1940s. She remembered looking at it sometime with her mother, But she had never played with it.

Steffie's Wirsberg roombox

Well, that actually wasn’t possible. The roombox isn’t suitable for playing with. Unfortunately, it is stored, well-packed, in Ludwig’s attic. But, what joy, Steffie found really old photographs (1975) and I am allowed to show them here. They have suffered over 40 years and show signs of age but … my husband and “photo wizard” has amalgamated them into a single photo – of the double roombox – with a little patience and some help from photoshop.

I think he did a great job.

Peeping out from Sigi's Wirsberg roombox

The first thing I noticed when I took my roombox out of its box were the three windows with painted shutters. My husband couldn’t resist the opportunity and straight away took one of his favourite “I see you” shots.

The mini Edi doll with its little blue hat – a present from my friend Jutta – moved into the roombox for the photo.

I’m not really a fan of so much kitsch, but here you just have to say, “Oh how sweet”.

Sigi's Wirsberg roombox

The trial visit of the “measure of all things” – an Edi doll – has become permanent. The hat-wearer moved in – but man is not an island. He needs a wife.

I dressed a little naked Edi at my kitchen table.

Little Edi doll dressed by Sigi

I am not entirely satisfied with the result. Since then I have discovered a trick to make the top a bit nicer. But that doesn’t really matter. The best thing is the sweeping brush. I never found another brush this tiny. I was given it by Gabo Richter. Wouldn’t I love to know more about where it came from – but here again: nothing is known!

The good room

The table is set for a meal. That wasn’t mentioned in the seller’s description.

The table is set for a meal

In the other auction these things were missing. You have to get lucky. A beer mug and two slices of bread – probably spread with Obatzter (Obatzda or Obazda [Bavarian delicacy consisting of soft cheese mixed with butter, editor’s note]) – on a “wooden” plate made of card, and there are three more plates on the table.

The new man of the house can sit right down to eat. Isn’t that great!

Also very pretty is the delicate calendar picture. A tear-off calendar!

Tear-off calendar

How nicely it fits the period of the roombox – nowadays we hardly ever see one. I had one once, when I was 6½. It had a bible verse for every day. Sadly, the whole year was already torn off by March. It was my brother’s birthday and I was looking for a something nice to write on a piece of paper as a birthday present for him – for now I could write and not just read (I was able to read when I was 5 [German children don’t go to school until they are 6, editor’s note], I was an insatiable reader of fairy tales and stories My siblings never wanted to read to me, so they taught me to read myself). But since then I have always loved tear-off calendars.

Recently another Wirsberg roombox was auctioned on Ebay. The calendar was dated 1946. So I assume the roombox was made in 1946 and mine in 1947.

If you look closely, you can see that Steffie’s calendar is also for 1947, and that there is something on the table.

I imagine that the table is set with bread and cheese, just like in my roombox. As expected the curtains and cushions are made of different materials from those in my roombox. It seems that they just used what was in the scrap bag. How glad I am only to have experienced those times through other people’s stories!

The good room

One of these rough cushions is on the corner bench in the “good room.” It is very well stuffed. It is made of a very rough fabric with a large plaid pattern. That wouldn’t happen today.

Both windows have simple pale blue curtains of fine cotton. The windows are not glazed. The curtain rails are only attached by a single nail. Every now and again you have to straighten them.

The tiled stove is especially nice. It makes you think of cold winter evenings with delicious baked apples.

The little wall clock is also lovely. The pendulum is a piece of thread. Unlike the clock in an article that I once read, mine shows 2 o’clock and I think it means 2 p.m. By the way, in model railways most clocks are a 5 to 5.

The bedroom

The bedroom

The bedroom furniture is in a shade of red that is almost orange. The pretty dressing table is remarkable. The mirror is just a piece of foil. No matter!

The very thick bedclothes are rather surprising. An eiderdown and pillow, very thickly stuffed. Here again rather large patterns. The bed things in the little cradle are also thickly stuffed. They are stuck into the cradle. But I am of the opinion that the cradle needs a baby. I carefully loosened the glue – fortunately without damaging the bed clothes – and found a suitable child for the family.

The baby is made of hard plastic by Plastic Baby, I think it is from the 1960s. To be quick, I just crocheted it a simple “sleeping bag” using very fine cotton instead of an elaborate jacket and tights. You can judge the actual size of the baby by the one cent coin.

As you can see, the base of the cradle was carelessly glued. The paint shows that it didn’t come apart later on but was painted in this state. Quick and cheap was the motto in the huts of Wirsberg.

Cradle

The pink curtains, with a restrained pattern, are stuck to the curtain rail and this in turn is attached to the wall of the roombox with a single nail. The rug is stuck to the floor. It is just a piece of woollen cloth. The mat on the dressing table is also just a piece of cloth and is stuck down.

Wardrobe

The wardrobe is made from a solid piece of wood. It has a little curved decoration. If you look closely you can see that the tiniest Dora Kuhn wardrobe may have been its inspiration.

The doors don’t open. A thin painted door is stuck on – I am not quite sure if it is card or extremely thin wood.

Whatever it is made of, the door has come loose. That is very surprising as everything is so firmly stuck, it’s hard to believe that even the smallest corner is out of place.

Wirsberg roombox exterior

Seen from outside the roombox is very rustic indeed. Apart from the shutters it is made of rough, completely untreated wood. Hardly even smoothed. But isn’t that the secret of its charm? The thick base with a big knot under the “good room” has already split on the left-hand side. Luckily the split is short and doesn’t extend over the entire roombox. If you look underneath the roombox you can clearly see how it stops at the logo.

Can a paper sticker really stop it permanently? I hope so.

Wirsberg Workshops label       Trade association stamp

Bavarian Roomboxes label   Made in US Zone stamp

You can’t miss the relatively thick nails that hold the roombox together.

Made in Bavaria! Was the situation really so uncertain in 1947 that people in Wirsberg dreamt of a Bavarian state? Well, now we know that “Made in Germany” would have been more realistic.

How clear the paper logos and the stamps still are. There is nothing left of the Wirsberger Werkstätten (Wirberg Workshops) today, but at least the trade association [on the round stamp, editor’s note] still exists in Munich. I love continuity, which for me doesn’t mean stagnation but security.

Technical details

And now for some “technical” details of the Wirsberg roombox, unless otherwise stated width x depth x height in cm.

Technical details

Sigi's roombox with inhabitants

As always in my houses, as well as human or rather doll inhabitants, dogs and cats and most especially a little tortoise have moved into the roombox.

My husband had a nice protective cover made for the roombox. These covers are rather expensive, but provide virtually 100% protection from dust. But I mainly use them so the teeny tiny objects cannot fall out to disappear forever in the hoover!

A delightful roombox – even if it was totally unsuited for playing with.

Sigi's roombox with perspex cover

The little Dora Kuhn roombox beside it is lit. Of course I liked that much better. And when a third little roombox recently took up residence in this corner I tackled the “problem”. I bought tiny battery-run LED fairy lights. Now there are no dark corners left in our living room. The batteries for these LED lights last forever.

It’s so beautiful:

Sigi's roombox illuminated

And just one more thing of interest: in 1956 Fritz Boehner was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit, First Class.

Top