German Working Boys Clothing: Schwabenkinder

Figure 1.--This picture shows two Schwabenkinder from Graubünden, a region of Switzerland about 1900. They are with a family at Arnach now being a part of Bad Wurzach, Baden-Württemberg. The caption says only the boys wearing hats would be Schwabenkinder, but the boy to the very left also looks very tidy and neat. Image courtesy of Thomas Scharnowski. Click on the image to visit this site. It contains an English translation of an interesting, but also touching article written because of the exhibition in Vogthaus, Ravensburg.

One institution that seems uniquely German is the Schwabenkinder. The term Schwabenkinder means literally "Swabian children". This practice began before the industrial revolution, but continued into the 20th century. There were markets at Wangen, Ravensburg, Bad Waldsee, Tettnang, Friedrichshafen, Württemberg, Baden, Pfullendorf, Überlingen, Bavarian Allgäu, and Kempten. The biggest was in Ravensburg. Sometimes up to 5,000-6,000 children would go under direction of a preacher over the Alps, to work at farming houses from spring to autumn as shepherds boys or cowboys or when being a girl as housemaid. They did get some money and were clothed new, because they came there mostly only in rags. It was mostly poverty that forced their family to do this. They were from 7-14 years old, but sometimes children even as young as 5 year olds were sent. They are first mentioned in 1626 and continued until 1921 in some cases even until the 50s. In 1836 Württembergian new regulations required children had to attend school, therefore the German Schwabenkinder had to be replaced with foreign children.

The Children

One uniquely German institution involving children was the Schwabenkinder. They were poor children from Austria and Switzerland would work in Germany during the Summer. The children mostly came from Grunsch, Tessino, Voralberg, Tyrol and South Tyrol in Austria and worked area) . These were realtively poor rural Alpine areas where there were often few prospects for adults, let alone their children. The children involved came from families which were having difficulty sustaining the children. So the children were sent to work over the summer. Not only woulkd their parents not have to support them, but whoever engaged them would cloth them and pay them small amounts of money. The children primarily worked during the summer. Most worked in Baden and Württemberg (especially the towns Friedrichshafen and Ravensburg, but others too.) These were more prosperous areas, especially in the 19th century with the growth of industry. In those cities these were established markets called Kindermärkte where interested people could come looking for children. Later in he 20th century, as the economic situatin improved in home countries of Austria and Switzerland, the children no longer had to be sent to Germany.


The term "Schwabenkinder" litteraly means Swabian children. But it is used in the sence of children that had to go to Swabia to work. "Schwabengehen" means "to go to Swabia". Swabia is a region in southern Germany. The people there speak in small variations the same dialect called Swabian. It consists the East part of the Black Forest, large parts of Württemberg and the region in Bavaria called Schwaben (e.g. Allgäu) to about the river Lech, but in some places it is crossing the border. Over the border the people speak Bavarian. But in the North of Bavaria and Württemberg they speak Frankian. While in the region in the West of Baden-Württemberg they speak Badisch, thus this region is called Baden. When the two parts were put together and in fact still sometimes today, there are some disharmonies between the Swabians and the Badener. The Austrians are speaking a kind of Bavarian dialect too. Although you can say if they are Bavarians or Austrian people. Expect for the parts of Voralberg and a part of Tyrol were they speak an Alemanian dialect. (Swabian is an Alemanian dialect, too) In Switzerland they speak Switzerdüstch, in different dialects, too.

The region of Franken is quite large reaching till Frankfurt on the Main. That’s all about the region I’m familiar with. But there’re also people speaking Hesse. In the North of Germany they speak Westphalian, North lower Saxian. Holsteinian, Schleswigian on some Islands Friesian, And in East Germany they speak Mecklenburg-Vorpomerian, Märkian, Berlinerian, Sachsian, Large areas of former speaking regions in Poland and Czech Republic have been lost since World War II. (e.g. Pommerian, Schlesian and the dialect the Sudenten Germans spoke--a kind of Bavarian)

These dialects were spoken by different teutonic tribes when they first settled there after driving away the Celts. The Romans built several walls (the limes in large parts of (South) Germany, the wall of Hadrian in England to keep away the Scots or Pics (HBC English readers may be more familiar with these people). I know it will be confusing for non-Germans, because I can’t translate the terms of the different dialects proper, thus a map would be great, otherwise you won’t imagine it very well.

Thus meaning going to Swabia meant going mostly to Württemberg and a part of Bavaria, although there were also markets in Baden.


Schwabenkinder appaered before the industrial revolution, but continued into the 20th century. They were first mentioned in 1626. New Württembergian regulations in 1836 required children to attend school, therefore the local Schwabenkinder had to be replaced with foreign children, mostly Austrian. Thus the Schwabenkindergehen did continue. World War I (1914-18) brought a slowing down of the Schwabengehen. Austrian children, as of 1921, were required to attend school even in Württemberg and, as a result, Schwabenkindergehen ended. Since the reign of Maria Theresia (1717-80), Austrian regulations required children to attend school. There were, however, many exceptions and many poor children did not attend school. Some because of poverity had "to go to Swabia". Since then there have been only isolated individual instances of children working in Germany until the 50s.


There were Schwabenkinder markets in Württemberg at Bad Waldsee, Friedrichshafen, Ravensburg, Tettnang, and Wangen. In Baden they were at Pfullendorf and Überlingen. In the Bavarian Allgäu at Kempten. The biggest was in Ravensburg.


Sometimes up to 5,000-6,000 children would go under direction of a preacher over the Alps, to work on farms from spring to autumn as shepherds boys to care for livestock. The girls worked as housemaids. They did get some money and new clothes because they arrived mostly in rags. It was mostly poverty that forced their family to send them.


The children were generally 7-14 years old, but sometimes children even as young as 5 year olds were sent.


The American press in 1908 started a campaign describing the Kindermarkt at Friedrichshafen as "barely revealed slave market". Embarassed German authorities took actions against it, concerned about the country's image. There had also been some criticism some criticism in Germany as well. But the vast majority of Germans did not object to the Schwabenkinder markets.


There’s been a film made called Schwabenkinder (2002). Thefilm was directed by Jo Baier, who also made Der Laden, a film based on the 1900 autobiography of Erwin Strittmatter, a GDR writer, especially the first part is interesting for you. The film Schwabenkinder features Tobias Moretti, Jürgen Tarrach, Hary Prinz, Vadim Glowna and 10 year old South Tyrolian Thomas Unterkircher, playing the boy “Kaspar”. After World War I, the South Tyrol, although German speaking, was transferred from Austria to Italy. Musollini in the 1930s attempted to Italianize the South Tyrol. (The Germans there were one of the few Germans in foreign countries that Hitler did not champion. It is now an autonomous province in Italy.


Elmar Bereuter. Die Schwabenkinder: die Geschichte des Kaspanaze, Herbig.

Reinhard Mueller

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Created: January 23, 2003
Last updated: January 28, 2003