If you’ve ever visited the beaches of the North Sea or the Baltic Sea in Germany, you’ve seen them: Strandkörbe. From far away, they look like tiny shacks but when you get closer, you’ll realize they are unwieldy box seats with solid sides, a high back and a roof. The northern coastlines of Germany are known for unpredictable temperatures, year-round storms and winds. Strandkörbe were invented so that beachgoers could have shelter. The first model appeared at the Baltic seaside resort of Warnemünde in 1882 and slightly improved versions followed in subsequent summers. They quickly found favor among German seaside vacationers. By the 1930’s, thousands of Strandkörbe lined mainland and island beaches; today the total number is estimated at more than one hundred thousand.
Inside, the Strandkörbe remind me of American lay-z-boys: while seated, you can adjust the back and pull out a footrest to recline comfortably. Like the bench seats of classic American cars, each Strandkorb can accommodate at least two people. In the old days, the top and the sides were made of willow boughs to allow for air circulation; today, they are woven of plastic strips. The seats used to be upholstered with canvas, today they are covered with striped plastic fabric. But they still have pockets in the sides for newspapers and sunscreen and a small fold-down tray to hold beverages. A string runs beneath the roof so bathing suits and towels can dry in the breeze. Under the footrest, a handy storage box allows occupants to keep their beach site uncluttered. At night, the whole thing can be locked up with a trellis-like contraption. That way, you don’t have to carry shovels and buckets and air mattresses back and forth between your hotel and the beach. Literally translated, Strandkorb means beach basket: a practical container for people as well as their possessions.
The design of beach baskets has has not changed in the hundred years of their existence even though beach culture has evolved.
In the early 20th century, a beach vacation was the privilege of the wealthy bourgeoisie. People went there to “take the good sea air” and they sat in their semi-enclosed Strandkörbe fully dressed, protected from rain, wind and sun. Sunbathing was taboo because bronzed skin was evidence of low class, outdoor work. For the extremely adventurous, bathing (which meant submerging in water rather than swimming) was possible, but only in body-covering bathing attire, in special private areas, designated for men or women. In the late twenties, vacationers started exposing a bit more skin and men and women were allowed to walk together from their Strandkörbe directly into the waves. Still, most vacationers remained tucked into their beach refuge rather than frolicking on the sand or in the water. German writer and Nobel Prize recipient Thomas Mann used his Strandkorb as a study during seaside holidays. Inspired by what he called “the isolating roar of the surf, “ he put fountain pen to paper in spite of winds and sands.
Typically, families would rent their beach refuge for the duration of their vacation and make it the centerpiece of their beach activities. Children and adults dug moats and built sand castles and painstakingly decorated their “property lines” with shells and pebbles and little flags. After Hitler took power, swastika pennants were popular. In the war years, of course, seaside holidays ceased. When the Wall was built in the sixties, East Germans enjoyed their Strandkörbe at the Baltic Sea and West Germans at the North Sea.
I remember a childhood vacation on the island of Amrum, in the West: my cousins and I would sneak into an unoccupied Strandkorb to play. Not for long though, the beach warden kept an eye on things. If you didn’t pay, you didn’t get to use one. To get back at the privileged beach loungers, we’d kick our ball near their elaborate sand moats and the fortresses, laughing at the shouts that were supposed to shoo us away.
Today, most beach life on German coastlines happens out in the open, in the sand and the water, with volleyball nets, kite surfing and boogie boarding. But in their Strandbkorb, vacationers can hide from the elements and they can also hide from each other. The other day, walking along the beach of the Island Sylt, I saw only legs stretched out on the footrests. It was a blustery day, so people had wrapped themselves in blankets to enjoy the “isolating roar of the surf.”
Beachgoers still rent their Strandkörbe for the duration of their stay – that’s why the private shelters have bold numbers painted on the outside. The beach wardens who groom the sand also take care of the baskets. When you get to the beach in the mornings, you’ll see the Strandkörbe lined up in neat staggered lines, so the view isn’t completely blocked for the back rows. Throughout they day, occupants will shift their box seats by their large handles to block the wind and follow the sun. On the next day, the Strandkörbe will be lined up perfectly again, facing the sea like they are expecting a grand theatre performance.
The German word gemütlich is usually translated as homey and cozy. It also connotes comfort, pleasure and safety. In a Strandkorb, Germans make a retreat for themselves in an unlikely place: the beach.