History Time! Sustainability in Vienna: ‘Kleiderschwemme Rothberger’

If you believe the internet (and why would it lie to us?), the sharing economy and its various connected efforts are not really old. Wikipedia gives the origins of the term as lying in the mid-2000s, while the timeline in this article sees start-ups arising from it in the mid-90s.
One focus of efforts to increase sustainable consumption was and is centered on clothes. Clothing swaps and so-called ‘swishing’ are examples of this. Both of these also seem to have a very short history, dating back only to the nineties. Personally, I would bet that swapping clothes itself has been happening for about as long as there have been clothes, but the anti-consumerist framework seems to be rather new.
Or is it?

Let’s look back about 150 years. Vienna was industrializing fast, even though lagging behind other Western cities, and was still a center of the fashion and clothing industry. Enter Jacob Rothberger. Born in a small Hungarian village in 1825, he emigrated to Paris as a young man, and came to Vienna around 1850. He had become a tailor in the meantime – a profession that he, as a Jew, had not been allowed to learn in Austria before 1848! – and opened his first clothing store in 1856.
After moving the store to the Stephansplatz in 1861, he established the ‘Kleiderschwemme’ there (loosely translatable as ‘clothing glut’). The principle was simple. You could bring your old clothes to the store, and the estimated value of that piece would be subtracted from the price of the new clothes you bought. The old clothes were then reworked and sold anew. In this way, less waste was produced and people with lower incomes could afford new clothes in the store (not something the Stephansplatz is known for today).

It is unclear whether the Kleiderschwemme itself was a completely new idea. Vienna at the time adopted many commercial influences from North America and France, such as warehouses or storefronts that were completely transformed into shop windows, so this could have been another one (if you have any info, send it to us!). In any case, the Kleiderschwemme remained an important part of the Rothberger enterprise until the Nazis dissolved it after the Anschluss of Austria.
So, when today you see cloth collecting campaigns such as those by H&M or M&S’s ‘shwopping’, they’re obviously sensible reactions to a hyper-consumptive society, but they’re also updated versions of what is a not so new idea.

Want to learn more?

Christine Maria Wiesner – Auf dem Weg in die Moderne. Die Wiener Warenhäuser 1863 – 1918

Christina Gschiel/Ulrike Nimeth/Leonhard Wieidinger – Schneidern und Sammeln. Die Wiener Familie Rothberger
or just simply check out Wikipedia.

Written by Jakob Jorda
Picture through Wikipedia