© Robert W. Eshbach 2017


The Kaffeter

In 1843, the three Arnim sisters, Maximiliane, Armgart, and Gisela, together with Caroline and Wilhelmine Bardua, [1] Ottilie von Graefe [2] and Marie Lichtenstein formed a literary-artistic club — a Jungfrauenorden — which they called the Kaffeter. It was an unusual company of women: at the time, Caroline Bardua was sixty-one years old, and her sister “Mine” forty-five. At fifteen, Gisela was the youngest. In her memoirs, Maxe von Arnim tells how the idea arose:

One day in March, when the Bardua sisters were visiting Mother, I read them . . . a few things out of [Johanna] Mathieux’s interesting letters from Bonn — among other things about the “Maikäferbund,” composed of intellectually spirited young men who (in June 1840) gathered around Mathieux as “Directrix.” Each member was required to bring to the weekly meetings an anonymous literary contribution of his own, which was criticized, and eventually collected in Maikäfer: A Journal for Non-Philistines. The members were young scholars and students, whose names later acquired a good reputation, among them University Lecturer for Protestant Theology Gottfried Kinkel, who was at that time composing his delightful epic “Otto der Schütz,” Jakob Burckhardt, later culture- and art historian in Basel, the Hallenser theologian Willibald Beyschlag, the poet Wolfgang Müller von Königswinter, the chemist Karl Fresenius and others. Their high intellectual niveau did not prevent this fraternity from taking pleasure in singing and also much merry “Firlefanz,” as die Mathieux called it; so, for example, on meeting days each member had to wear the Order of the Maikäfer from early morning on, even to class.
I had hardly finished my reading when Giesel cried out: “We could also do that here, actually!” and the always-enterprising Mine Bardua concurred enthusiastically. So it was agreed that we would gather suitable girls for members, the Barduas from their circle of close friends, and we from ours. [i]

The first official meeting of the Kaffeter took place on March 30 at Ottilie von Graefe’s Berlin home, Behrenstraße 48. Officers were elected, and each Kaffeologe took a ceremonial name. Maxe von Arnim was elected “President Maiblümchen” (“lily-of-the-valley,” literally: “May-blossom”). With the exception of Maiblümchen, all the members took on male aliases. Mine Bardua, the true presiding spirit of the Kaffeter, became “Minus,” and was named to the post of recording secretary and editor of the group’s journal, the Kaffeterzeitung. As “Altmeister Bardolio,” Caroline would provide a folio frontispiece for each issue of the Kaffeterzeitung. On account of her bossiness, Armgart von Arnim became “Lord Armgart.” Ottilie was “Sir Odillon,” and Marie “Marius.” Gisel originally took the name of “Herr Giseloff,” but changed it later to “Marilla Fittchersvogel,” and finally “Spatz von Spatzenheim,” after the title of her fairy tale Aus den Papieren eines Spatzen (From the Papers of a Sparrow).

President Maiblümchen
(Maxe von Arnim)
Drawing by Ottilie von Graefe for the Kaffeterzeitung

Before long, others were eager to join the circle, which had only two ironclad rules for membership: Kaffeologen must be unmarried and female. Over the course of six years, members included:

Valeska von Grabow [3] (“Valescus”)
Pauline (“Paulus”) and Anna (Annollo”) von Wolzogen [4]
Nina (“Ninus”), Marie [5] (“Mario”) and Hedwig (“Hektor”) von Olfers
Louise Bardua [6] (“Lucio della strada di Lenné”)
Amalie von Herder (“St. Malo”) [7]
Fernanda von Pappenheim (“Schwälble”)
Countess Elisabeth von Königsmarck (“Meister von Kannix,” “Elias Drosselmaier”) [8]

The group also included some non-resident members:

Marie von Guaita, a cousin of the Arnims who lived in Frankfurt am Main (“Sepperle vom Berge”)
Johanna Mathieux, who lived in Bonn
Mathilde Krummacher, who lived in Elberfeld

Various married women were invited as visitors. The name Kaffee-Tanten was given up as hideous, and the title Patroness settled upon. Among the Patronessen were:

Bettina (“Princess Dodona”)
Frau Savigny
Frau von Bardeleben
Frau von Olfers

Not to be overlooked was the Bardua’s dog, Beauty, an honorary member and occasional contributor to the Kaffeterzeitung via Gisela.

St. Malo
(Amalie von Herder)
Drawing by Ottilie von Graefe for the Kaffeterzeitung

The members took turns hosting the Kaffeter. At first, only coffee and breakfast rolls were served — simple fare, such as would not distract the Kaffeologen from their artistic concerns. But little by little the rules were bent, and flights of fancy did not appear to suffer as hot chocolate replaced the coffee, and cakes and tortes supplanted the rolls. After refreshments, Maxe, arrayed as Maiblümchen in a high, pointed cap of white fabric, would take up her scepter, a white staff to which blossoms were entwined with a pink ribbon, and call the meeting to order. The other sisters wore similar hats of brown glazed paper. Affixed to the peak of each cone was a pink veil, to help a bashful maiden conceal her embarrassment or steady her nerves. Minus would then read the minutes of the last meeting, done up in humorous mock-ceremonial style, after which the girls would gather round to admire Altmeister Bardolio’s latest frontispiece for the journal. Each Kaffeologe would present an example of her work. Poems and tales were read, artwork viewed, musical compositions sung. Critical judgement, so important to the gesellige ethos of the time, was passed on each effort. Each sister was issued a ratchet-noisemaker with which to express disapproval — and a toy trumpet to administer praise. Contributions of a particularly distinguished nature were rewarded with a charm strung on a pink ribbon: the order of the golden coffee pot was reserved for founding members, and the order of the silver coffee pot for the others. All members were given a miniature silver coffee spoon as a token of their belonging.

Herman Grimm by Ludwig Emil Grimm 1848

Herman Grimm
Etching by Ludwig Emil Grimm, 1848

It was Gisela who first broached the question of relaxing the all-female rule. Early on, Hans Christian Andersen (“Anderlein”) had been admitted as an honorary member, but Gisel agitated to have her best friend, Herman Grimm, admitted as a regular. After considerable debate, it was decided that “male individuals” might be acceptable, but only those who “were not dangerous.” Soon after, the Kaffeterkreis acquired its first male Kaffeologe, and one of its most talented and enthusiastic members: the fourteen year-old “Laban Habelmann” (Hermann Grimm). Apparently, only two others were benign enough to be admitted: the poet Emanuel Geibel [9] (“Götz mit der eisernen Hand”) and Gebhard von Alvensleben (“Apollo Plüsch”).


“After the principle of female exclusivity in the Kaffeter had been breached, the onrush of male applicants was no longer to be withstood. Especially after the king had publicly praised the Kaffeter, we could hardly ward off the many lieutenants, each of whom reckoned it an honor when a contribution that he had sent in was included in the Kaffeterzeitung. The Kaffeter was now no longer a violet that bloomed in secret; rather, it had become a kind of celebrity in Berlin.” [iv]

Sir Odillon leaves the Kaffeter
(Ottilie von Graefe, upon marrying Hermann von Thile)
Frontispiece for the Kaffeterzeitung by Caroline Bardua

The Kaffeter would occasionally host parties for the court, at the home of Bettina’s brother-in-law, minister Karl von Savigny. Princes and princesses, counts and countesses, ministers, and even a Catholic prince-bishop were among the attendees. In 1845, the King and Queen themselves were fêted by the Kaffeter. On this occasion, Caroline Bardua created tableaux, and, at the King’s request, Das Band, a pastoral play by Gellert, was performed. Bettina (“Princess Dodona”) painted sets, and created a fairy garden out of colored paper. Marie von Olfers appeared as a shepherdess, singing arias in her bright soprano and leading her three year-old brother Enne, “das Kaffeterkind,” on a pink silk ribbon as her sheep.

The Kaffeter was a casualty of the March revolutions of 1848. During those turbulent times, regular meetings ceased. On April 28, 1848, Maxe and Mine published a “manifesto” in which they state: “Our beloved Kaffeter was carried off by the merciless teeth of the Present in the scarcely unfolded bloom of its sixth year. It was too good for this world. Peace to its ashes.” [vi]

[1] Caroline (11 November 1781 — 2 July 1864) and Wilhelmine (26 May 1798 — 17 June 1865) Bardua lived together as unmarried sisters. Caroline, a professional painter, trained with Heinrich Meyer in Weimar and Gerhard von Kügelen in Dresden. She belonged to Goethe’s circle of friends. Wilhelmine had a beautiful voice, and in her youth had wanted to become a professional singer. As members of the Berlin Singakademie, the Bardua sisters were close friends of the Mendelssohn-Bartholdys. Their Berlin salon lasted from 1819 to 1852, with occasional long interruptions. Included among their circle of guests were Hans Christian Andersen, the Arnims, Adalbert Chamisso, Emanuel Geibel, Franz Grillparzer, Herman Grimm, the Mendelssohn-Bartholdys, Leopold von Ranke, Pierre Rode, Karl August and Rahel Varnhagen, and Carl Maria and Caroline von Weber.

[2] Ottilie von Graefe (1816-1898), daughter of Carl and Auguste von Graefe, later married Hermann von Thile (1812-1889)

[3] Lady-in-waiting to the widow of King Friedrich Wilhelm III.

[4] Daughters of General Ludwig Freiherr von Wolzogen. Anna was soon to become “Exkaffeologe Annollo” on account of her engagement to Marcus Niebuhr.

[5] Poet and painter, Marie von Olfers died in 1924 at age 97. (27 Oct. 1826 Berlin-8 Jan. 1924 Berlin). The von Olfers sisters were the granddaughters of noted salonnière Elisabeth von Staegemann, in whose salon such notables as E. T. A. Hoffmann, Heinrich von Kleist, Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano were guests. Elizabeth’s daughter Hedwig (1799-1891) became the playmate of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, as well as Luise (Lulu) von Kleist (daughter of the playwright), and Princess Elisa Radziwill. It was not uncommon for the daughters of salonnières to host salons of their own under their mothers’ tutelage. In 1816, Hedwig gathered a group of younger artists, poets and musicians in her mother’s home, including future historian Friedrich Förster (1791-1868), poet Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827), artist Wilhelm Hensel (future husband of Fanny Mendelssohn, 1794-1861), poet Luise Hensel (younger sister of the artist, 1798-1876), and writer and musician Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860). Also included were two older men, writer Clemens Brentano (1778-1842) and composer Ludwig Berger (tutor to the Mendelssohn children, 1777-1839). It was at a gathering of Hedwig’s salon that an improvised Singspiel was performed, later formalized by Müller into the poems that Schubert immortalized in his song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin.

[6] Niece of the Bardua sisters.

[7] Granddaughter of the theologian and philosopher  Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803).

[8] (1825-1901), Married Gustav Gans Edler zu Putlitz, Hoftheaterintendant in Karlsruhe.

[9] Margaret von Olfers refers to him as an “honorary member” only.

[i] Werner/MAXE, p. 103.

[ii] Werner/BARDUA, opp. p. 176.

[iii] Werner/BARDUA, opp. p. 176.

[iv] Werner/MAXE, p. 106.

[v] Werner/BARDUA, opp. p. 193.

[vi] This account of the Kaffeter relies mostly on information gleaned from Werner/BARDUA, pp. 175-184.

[vii] Werner/BARDUA, p. 182.

[viii] Werner/BARDUA, p. 183.