Working in a Merchant’s Office – Overseas Trade

Permanent exhibition in the Museum of work

During the Industrial Age, overseas trade in Hamburg experienced an immense boom, as the factories of the 19th and 20th centuries depended increasingly on raw materials that had to be imported from distant countries and continents. Commerce shaped the city’s appearance and the jobs of an ever-rising number of employees. The expansion of the goods handling and warehousing capacities in the docks, the construction of telegraph centres and merchants’ offices , the creation of futures markets on the stock exchange, the foundation of a botanic institute and a university that offered commercial courses were all facets of an infrastructure that was essential for the needs of commerce in Hamburg. The success of a deal was due to the professions based in Hamburg, including merchants, shipping companies, office staff, dock workers, tallymen, as well as the people who played a role in producing and harvesting the raw materials overseas and organising the exports. Taking the cocoa and rubber trades as examples, the exhibition shows the workplaces and professions of the people who were involved in this trade. Objects, photographs and interviews give visitors an impression of what all these professions and jobs entailed, and they can trace the routes the commodities took, from the tropical farms to the shipping routes, through to quality control in the port of Hamburg. Visitors are also invited to experience trade in the pre-internet era by trying to decipher the overseas message the telephone operator is passing on. Interesting details include tools from a cocoa plantation in southern Ecuador: a harvesting basket and a large wooden shovel which was used to move the cocoa beans during the fermentation process. Also on display are the headlamp and the knife of a rubber harvester from the Brazilian state of Acre. The home-made petroleum lamp was essential when harvesting latex in the forests, which was done in the early hours of the morning before sunrise. Accounting is represented by photographs of the typical clothes worn by male and female bookkeepers around 1900: women wore long, black, sturdy skirts and white blouses with a detachable collar; men wore suits, white shirts with bowties and the sleeve guards that were once ubiquitous in offices. The electric accounting machine, a significant technical innovation which replaced hand-written ledgers from the beginning of the 20th century, on display here is a Mercedes Addelektra from 1931. After 1925, these machines were used in most large trading houses, banks and insurance companies, and a little later also in public administration offices.

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Opening hours

Monday 10.00 - 21.00

Tuesday closed

Wednesday - Friday 10.00 - 17.00

Saturday and Sunday 10.00 to 18.00

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