Sixty Years of Germany's Beate Uhse: When Sexual Liberation Arrived By Mail
In the 1950s, Germany was a place where many women were terrified of getting pregnant and kept woefully ignorant about sexual matters. One dauntless woman changed that almost single-handedly. The empire of Beate Uhse started small as a mail-order provider of sex-education brochures. But it grew to become the world's largest seller of sex toys.
The young woman with wavy, short hair casts a worried glance into the camera. Her look reveals a mix of doubt, pensiveness and innocence. Beneath her full lips and oval face is the five-word sentence meant to sweep over postwar Germany like a thunderclap. "Is everything alright with our marriage?" the caption asked in curvy schoolgirl handwriting. And, of course, the honest answer was 'no'.
In the 1950s, many German couples' bedrooms were ruled by shame, uncertainty and prudishness. Instead of lust, their relationships were marked by frustration, misunderstanding, unwanted pregnancies and impotence. All of this gnawed on the nerves of the already troubled postwar generation and threatened the most bourgeois institution of all: marriage.
It was exactly this situation that triggered the release of Beate Uhse's first catalogue in 1952 -- the one with the worried girl on the cover.
The catalogue is just one of the items in the archive neatly assembled by Beate Uhse herself, the grande dame of the German erotica industry, about the early days of her company. A note attached to the 30-page, palm-sized brochure, and written in Uhse's own handwriting says: "Millions of copies sent to addresses from phonebooks nationwide -- very successful."
Today, her archive is stored in thick, gray binders in the basement of the Research Centre for Contemporary History in Hamburg (FZH). The early selection of products on offer in Uhse's catalogues offers no hint at the racy sex toys and flavored lubricants her company would later offer in spades.
In the '50s, what would grow to become a sex empire advertised itself as a simple, down-to-earth instructional institute solely dedicated to preserving happiness in German marriages with faithful wife Beate Uhse as its respectable figurehead. In the early days of her company, the target groups of this entrepreneurial woman celebrated as the "orgasm muse," "sexpert" and "love slave of the nation" were not hedonists or the sexually adventurous, but women rebuilding Germany from the rubble of the war.
'Love without Fear'
After World War II, everything started with "Pamphlet X." On seven pages, Uhse explained the system of periodic abstinence based on the findings of Japanese gynecologist Kyusaku Ogino and his Austrian counterpart Hermann Knaus that has come to be known as the rhythm method. The pamphlet also included a table with which women could calculate the days they were unlikely to conceive. The former Luftwaffe pilot and war widow sold the brochures by mail to households in northern Germany.
"It should be the self-evident right of all people to determine their family size based on their social circumstances," Uhse proclaimed in the pamphlet. Uhse's mother, country doctor Margarete Köstlin, had thoroughly informed her about sexual matters at an early age. Her sentiment struck a nerve. Pregnancy was unthinkable for many women after the war. In 1947 alone, 32,000 of these women ordered Uhse's pamphlet.
Along with her pamphlet, Uhse also sent informational brochures about female frigidity ("Mrs. Müller Wants a Divorce") and male impotency ("Something's Wrong with Mr. Krüger"). But it wasn't long before the women were asking for more than explanations. Now they wanted other products, such as condoms, which were in short supply after the war, but also advice books on married life, such as "Love without Fear" and "The Perfect Marriage," a best-seller from the 1920s written by Dutch gynecologist Theodoor Hendrik van de Velde.
Condoms in the Nursery Dresser
Beate Uhse listened to what people were saying, forged ties with publishing houses and condom companies, and expanded her product line. What had started off as merely a brochure company morphed into a small mail-order company known as the "Betu." At this time, it was still a mini operation whose storage facility was nothing more than the bottom drawer of a nursery dresser in Uhse's small apartment in the northern city of Flensburg, near the border with Denmark. In her memoirs, Uhse describes transforming the space she used to change her son Ulrich's diapers during the day into the place that she and her second husband, Ernst-Walter Rotermund, used to pack little boxes for customers full of brochures, books and condoms at night.
But soon rising demand rendered the nursery dresser too small. It was time for Uhse's company to expand. At first, she rented a basement and then a room in an office. In February 1951, Uhse finally founded her "Specialist Mail-Order Company for Marriage and Sexual Literature and Hygienic Articles." That same year, she hired a doctor to answer questions from customers that were grotesquely naïve by today's standards. Uhse recounts receiving questions such as "Can you get pregnant from kissing?" and "Do children come out of your belly button?"
Uncertainty and a rigid sexual morality dominated the 1950s. At that time, even a harmless film named "The Sinner" staring Hildegarde Knef could trigger a scandal. People's mindsets were still shaped by the so-called "Himmler police regulation" instituted in the Nazi era, which banned the sale of condoms, and the statute on procuration that punished those who allowed unmarried couples to spend time in bed together under their roof with jail time.
'Carefree' for Men and Women
To be successful under such circumstances, Uhse had to hit the right tone by coming up with a sales strategy that didn't put off either customers or judges. Uhse solved this problem with flying colors, stylizing herself as the rescuer of marriages and, as such, the guardian of bourgeois society.
What's more, she came up with a business model that made almost everyone aware of her company. The brochures and leaflets in which Uhse advertised her wares made their way to German homes free of charge and unsolicited. Just as she had done with her "Pamphlet X," Uhse sent out this business literature to addresses primarily taken from public directories.
When infuriated recipients tried to sue her for allegedly jeopardizing their personal rights, Uhse put a red seal on the double-wrapped package and stamped it with a notice saying "You are receiving this small amount of literature unsolicited."
When Germany's Federal Court of Justice decided in 1959 that sending "elaborate details about sex" by mail would no longer be permitted, the tireless entrepreneur struck upon a new idea: voucher letters. Instead of sending out entire catalogues, Uhse sent out a voucher allowing interested parties to order them.
As the young republic became more open about sexual matters, these catalogues grew ever thicker. And the lists of available products in them came to include not only instructional guides, erotic novels and rhythm-method tables, but also more sexual aids. These ranged from studded condoms, "power bonbons" and sugar-coated "erotic pills" to floor-length nylon negligees named "Annette," which retailed for 41.50 deutsche marks and were "midnight-black, see-through, seductive" and expressly recommended by doctors.
It wasn't long before the catalogues also offered the first dildos on the market, which were chastely described as "Carefree," "K.G." (for "Kunstglied," or "artificial limb") or "pneumatic partial prosthesis."
Respectable Woman and Happy Wife
Uhse entitled the brochures advertizing the faux penises "A Serious Problem Happily Solved," establishing a direct connection between impotence and war. Whether the product was a negligee or a dildo, it came with a doctor's recommendation and was available in three sizes: "normal," "extra" and "special." Yet another dildo sales pitch claimed that the French, experts in all things love-related, had been using them for a long time.
As a trailblazer for lust, Uhse tirelessly worked to get recommendations for her products from medical specialists, quoted the ancient Greeks and euphemistically labeled her erotic wares "hygiene articles."
In her catalogues Uhse also marketed herself as a "happy wife and mother of four children," and a respectable woman who didn't have to hide behind a pseudonym -- even including a picture showing her cleaning a car window. The tactic created an aura of respectability that the competition -- which had grown to more than 40 companies across Germany by 1952 -- just couldn't keep up with.
By 1955, the sales of Uhse's company had climbed to 822,000 deutsche marks. Three years later, this had skyrocketed to three times that level. Even the numerous court cases (some put the figure at roughly 2,000) on charges such as incitement to fornication, incitement to adultery, youth endangerment or insult couldn't hurt the "mail-order company for marital hygiene."
In 1960, Uhse's company had sales of 5 million deutsche marks. The next year, it was 7.3 million. The world was ready for its first proper sex shop. So, right before Christmas 1962, Uhse opened her first "specialty store for marital hygiene" in her adopted hometown of Flensburg.
'I'm Not Jesus'
The sexual revolution ultimately transformed the businesswoman once lauded by SPIEGEL as the "First Lady of German sex" into a multi-millionaire -- and the Germans into thoroughly enlightened and imaginative sexual citizens.
In 1989, Uhse would receive Germany's Federal Cross of Merit for helping postwar Germany discover a new and more relaxed sexuality. A decade later, she would be made an honorary citizen of her adopted hometown Flensburg.
But even though many viewed her as a "pioneer for liberal sexuality" or the savior of many marriages in the nation, she thought of herself mainly as a businesswoman. "I am not Jesus," she once said. "And I am also not someone out to improve the world. I am a saleswoman. I have to offer and sell people what they want to have."
This story originally appeared in German on SPIEGEL ONLINE's history portal, einestages.de
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