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125 years of “Königlich Höhere Weberschule in Münchberg” – The historical roots

With a specially produced series of articles on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the Royal Higher Weaving School in Münchberg, “campuls-digital” celebrates the great tradition of our university location Münchberg. We would like to start this series with the historical roots of textile education – a contribution by regional historian Dr. Adrian Roßner.

The smoking vents (in the foreground of the Schoedel weaving mill) once stood for the economic power of the town of Münchberg; at that time, no one spoke of the environmental pollution; photo: Münchberg town archive;

Anyone driving through Kulmbacher Strasse in Münchberg today can still sense the spirit of the centuries-old textile tradition of the town on the Pulschnitz: amidst the impressive workers’ dwellings – built in the typical style of brick Gothic – and HofTex, which was once founded as the C. Seiffert weaving mill, rises the proud building of the “Königlich Höhere Webschule” (Royal Higher School of Weaving), which has been part of the Hof University of Applied Sciences as a campus since 2000. Along with the Schoedel weaving mill, which a good hundred years ago was one of the largest businesses in the town along with the long since demolished stock dyeing mill, and the only recently exemplary renovated Stoeckel & Grimmler weaving mill in Gartenstraße, it is one of the last artifacts that tells of the beginning of industrial textile production in and around Münchberg.

The textile tradition in Münchberg

Its history is a long one: as early as the 14th century, after agriculture had fallen into crisis due to deteriorating climatic conditions, the people of the surrounding area had turned more and more to hand weaving, which was originally based purely on linen production. From the early 15th century, the more expensive cotton was introduced for the first time, with the help of which the quality of the goods could be constantly increased. However, the sourcing of raw materials proved to be problematic: While the flax needed for flax produced quite good yields even in the harsh conditions of northern Upper Franconia, cotton had to be imported from Asia and Africa via Nuremberg, which led to the emergence of the so-called “publishers.” The eponymous publishers concentrated on sourcing the raw materials, passing them on to the locally based weavers and then selling the products made from them, which led to a clear separation between production and distribution and turned the area between Bayreuth, Hof and Kulmbach into the famous “German textile triangle”.

Skillful economic policy, especially during the Prussian government under Karl August Freiherr von Hardenberg in the late 18th century, enabled the sales of the fabrics to be pushed further and further, but this also created new problems:

After all, the expansion of the market was also accompanied by a heating up competitive situation, which was mainly determined by Saxon and English producers. In both regions, the use of water or steam power had made it possible to mechanize spinning as the first sub-sector of textile production, thus rapidly reducing costs.

In the north of Upper Franconia, however, since neither water nor coal were available in sufficient quantities, specialization in increasingly complex products was seen as the only way to withstand the growing pressure from competitors.

Increasing competition and specialization – the idea of the weaving school

While Saxon and English “factories” concentrated on inexpensive yard goods, attempts were made, especially around Münchberg, to promote “color weaving”. In this type of production of so-called “Tüchlein” introduced by a publisher from Hof, the pieces were not completely dyed, but the variegated yarns were processed into impressive patterns by means of increasingly complex dobbies (and later with the help of the Jacquard technique). Unlike in Silesia or England, where human labor was replaced by machines within a few years as part of a “revolution,” in Münchberg this resulted in a slower development, a process-based industrialization in which hand weaving was able to hold its own well into the 1880s.

The modern mechanical weaving mill in the weaving school; photo: Münchberg municipal archives;

Therefore, the training of weavers was recognized as one of the most important tasks. in 1853, various groups of people met in Münchberg for the first time under the leadership of the district court assessor von Baumer to discuss the establishment of a textile training center, a “technical school”. In addition to representatives of the weavers’ trade associations, “factory owners” were also among them, as the publishers called themselves in the meantime. Starting from this local initiative, the plans were quickly pushed forward in ever greater directions, and as early as December 1853, the group wrote a letter to the government of Upper Franconia, in which it was made clear that “Münchberg, as the center of the Upper Franconian weaving industry,” would be a perfect location for an educational institution to be founded. Certainly, a financial contribution was hoped for, but it turned out to be much lower than expected. In the end, the government did provide funds from a fund that had been established in 1848 to support the weaving population, but the initiative, along with its basic financing, can clearly be defined as local.

Resolution of the Bavarian State Ministry of Trade and Public Works of June 23, 1854, granting permission for the first weavers’ school; photo: Münchberg City Archives;

As early as 1855, the school was able to begin operations in today’s Bismarckstraße: Classes began on a total of sixteen looms, dobbies and Jacquard machines, consisting of practical and theoretical parts and also including general education, for example in arithmetic and history. All those students who could not afford the school fees were allowed to help out with local manufacturers in order to earn some extra money. Theodor Fleißner, who not only chaired the school’s administrative committee, but also repeatedly placed orders with the students from his own publishing house in order to help them out.

The triumph of steam

Nevertheless, despite all the encouragement and support, the first years of the Weaving School were marked by the struggle for survival not only of the institution, but of hand weaving en masse. in 1864, the institution finally passed into the care of the Münchberg district, which at least calmed the strained financial situation a little. In addition, “foreign patterns” were increasingly imported and presented to the students in order to introduce them to the latest fashions and tastes, which in the end also led to the first medals being won at various trade exhibitions. And yet one thing remained absolutely clear: sooner or later – despite all the training and encouragement – hand weaving would lose out to the ever-developing mechanical production. The Münchberg publishers had long been aware of this turn of events and had become active.

After the “Adler” between Nuremberg and Fürth had successfully completed its maiden voyage in 1835 as the first steam train on German soil, plans were made to cross the entire Kingdom of Bavaria with the help of a “magistral line”: This “Ludwig-Süd-Nord-Bahn” (Ludwig-South-North Railway), named after Ludwig I, who, contrary to older views, was quite open to technical development, was not only intended to connect the south with the north, but also to ensure border traffic with Saxony and thus enable the import of a resource that was of elementary importance for the further development of Münchberg’s industry, namely coal!

The machine house of the weaving school (StA Münchberg)

It was clear everywhere that a connection to the line would mean the “take-off”, the possibility of mechanizing production, which aroused certain desires. In the end, Hof and Münchberg had joined forces with other towns so that they could push for the construction of the line along their own borders, clearly arguing with the well-performing weaving and other “industries” that – should the railroad not come – would lead the region into a golden age.

In fact, the line did come; and indeed, with the first train in 1848 and the import of Saxon coal in the Hof area, the triumphant advance of steam began: just one year later, the first steam engine went online, heralding the beginning of a new era. Within a few years, the first large-scale enterprises sprang up, whereby it is noticeable that, in addition to spinning (in Bayreuth, Hof and Kulmbach), finishing was also at the forefront, while weaving still remained in the hands of the craftsmen. From this, a certain backwardness was derived again and again, which, however, does not correspond to the facts. On the contrary, the development of weaving machines had simply not progressed far enough to be able to take over the specialized production that had settled around Münchberg, which is why the focus was on mechanizing the remaining sub-sectors.

The original weaving school (it later served as a boarding school for the students) in the
Bismarckstrasse; photo: Dr. Adrian Roßner;

On the way to becoming an early technology hotspot

After the first looms came onto the market in the 1880s, however, the mechanization of this production step was caught up with all the more quickly: in 1883, Johann Georg Schlegel, a publisher from Zell, founded the first mechanical weaving mill in Münchberg, followed in 1884/85 by Friedrich Schoedel, Thomas Hofmann and other manufacturers. Despite this development gaining more and more momentum, the weaving school remained focused on handicrafts, which was mainly due to its director, Hirschberger, who “had never made a secret of his dislike for the ‘power loom'”. The subsequent initiative for the long overdue realignment of the institution again came from local entrepreneurs: They had immense interest in well-trained “skilled workers” and in many cases sent their own sons to teach. The Helmbrechts factory owner Heimeran and the Münchberg publisher Jahreis therefore pushed for a complete reorientation of the Syllabus from 1895 onwards, with a clearer focus on factory production and specialized professions such as “pattern draftsman” and machinist.

At the same time, the aging school building in the middle of the city posed an increasing problem, so that plans were made for a completely new building. The representative building, which still exists today, was finally erected on a plot of land in Kulmbacher Strasse provided by the city and adjoined by a modern shed. In it, a 25 hp steam engine supplied the power to operate 25 looms and other machines necessary for weaving preparation. in 1898, the institution, now taken over by the state and dubbed the “Royal Higher Weaving School”, was able to begin operations under the direction of its director Josef Schams, which provides the occasion for this year’s anniversary. From then on, the weaving school was not only the heart of training for the Münchberg companies, but also the center of the textile industry in Bavaria. This importance is also evident from Scham’s own involvement. The works he wrote on weaving were standard for decades and were also popular for teaching purposes outside the school.

A “prospect” for the inauguration of the school; source: Münchberg municipal archives;

Despite this triumph of mechanics, the hand weavers, who still accepted smaller orders, were not simply left to their fate: from 1900 onwards, an itinerant teacher, who visited every weaving village several times a year, provided them with the latest “Dessins” (designs) and introduced them to increasingly modern methods of production. Meanwhile, he recruited particularly talented young people for the weaving school in Münchberg in order to transfer them from hand weaving to factory production. In the 1910s, he was also the one who negotiated modern wage rates for hand weavers that were adapted to factory work, thus leading to an equalization of the different types of production.

The graduating class of the weaving school in the war year 1916 under Dr. Reinhardt Schmalz; photo: Münchberg City Archives;

From the royal weaving school to the modern university location

After the end of the First World War and at the same time of the Kingdom of Bavaria, the institution became the “State Higher Technical School for the Textile Industry” and was expanded for the first time: The main building was given another floor and separate rooms were added for hand weaving training, embroidery and weaving preparation. in 1950, another profound change took place: The “State Textile Technical and Engineering School Münchberg” paved the way for a comprehensive reorientation, which allowed the separation of the technical school and the university as part of the reform of the university of applied sciences in 1968. Three years later, the latter became part of the Coburg University of Applied Sciences as the “Textile Technology and Design Department” and was assigned to the Hof University of Applied Sciences as a campus on March 1, 2001.

The history of the Weberschule in Münchberg thus also exemplifies the ever-necessary reinvention of the textile industry par excellence: Starting with the locally operated training center, through the state institution to the modern university, it has experienced various highs and also some lows, which could be navigated through by inventiveness and a certain adaptability. Moreover, it is important to make clear that all those developments always started “from the bottom” and were carried by the local people; their commitment to the cause, their courage and their business acumen made Münchberg – like the Hofer Land in general – the “Bavarian Manchester” with the highest industrial density in Germany. We can be proud of this development – and also of the fact that the school is a center of science and industry, which at the same time contributes an elementary component to regional culture and identity.

To the author:

Dr. Adrian Roßner (picture):
After graduating from high school in Münchberg, Adrian Roßner studied English and history for the teaching profession at high schools at the University of Bayreuth. From 2017, he did his doctorate at the Institute of Franconian Regional History in Thurnau on the topic “Ordered Modernity through Industrial Development. Impulses of industrialization on economy, society and infrastructure in the Münchberg area”. He completed his doctorate in 2023 and has since worked as a project coordinator for the Speinshart Monastery Science Center.

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