The Child of the Old Town

Before the January Rising, the Old Town was the heart of Warsaw. After the Rising, it soon turned into a peripheral district. Find out how the centre of Warsaw moved and what role the Old Town played in the January Rising.


The Growth of Warsaw after the January Rising

Theatre Square (Plac teatralny) became the hub of new Warsaw. Find out how Warsaw developed after the January Rising.


The Growth of Industry in Warsaw

- The days of Prus are frequently called “the second Industrial Revolution” – in Warsaw it primarily translated into a dynamic city growth. At the time, it was one of the main centres of trade and industry in the Russian Empire.


The Growth of City Transport

The late nineteenth century was a time of rapid growth of modern transport, which transformed both urban commute and long-distance travel. Warsaw, as the bridge between the West and the East, was at the very centre of these developments.


A Revolution in Sanitation

In the days of Prus, Warsaw witnessed a revolution in sanitation, which he whole-heartedly supported and reported on its progress.


Głowacki’s Warsaw

The Child of the Old Town

04 Stare Miasto

The Old Town

The Old Town was an extremely important place for the events happening in Warsaw in the years 1860–61, preceding the outbreak of the January Rising. The gradually increasing patriotic atmosphere was accompanied by the more and more explicit national manifestations (among them, the arrival of the remains of the Romantic poet Zygmunt Krasiński or the funeral of Katarzyna Sowińska, the widow of General Sowiński, the defender of Warsaw’s Wola District during the November Rising). These manifestations turned into fully explicit political demonstrations. People openly sung “Boże coś Polskę,” a patriotic song by Alojzy Feliński, changing the lyrics of the refrain into “Give us back our homeland, freedom.” On 27 February 1861, during a large demonstration, five people were shot by Russians, and their funeral and further demonstrations resulted in a massacre at Castle Square (Plac Zamkowy) on 8 April, when, according to various estimates, between 10 and 110 people were shot by Russians. On 14 December, martial law was introduced in Warsaw, which ended the period of pre-insurrection demonstrations. Patriotic actions went underground.

These events became part of the insurrectionary mythology thanks to a series of novels by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, written under the pen name of Bolesławita (The Child of the Old Town, Moskal, Us and Them, etc.) and thanks to a series of drawings by Artur Grottger (especially Warsaw I).  The events became an essential element of the insurrectionary legend, which was characterized by the celebration of defeat, the cult of victims, and the stereotype of unity (because the demonstrations were joined by the representatives of numerous ethnic minorities living in Warsaw).


The Growth of Warsaw after the January Rising

03 Plac Teatralny

Theatre Square (Plac teatralny)

At the times of Prus, in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, Warsaw turned from a provincial town to a modern industrial and commercial centre, a dynamically developing multicultural city. Paradoxically, during this period of time, the city’s boundaries remained unchanged. As a result, Warsaw at the turn of the 20th century became one of the most overpopulated cities in Europe. The reason is simple: from 1879 to 1913 Warsaw has the status of a fortress – its boundaries are determined by its fortifications.

Its military-base status did not inhibit the development of the city, which was primarily determined by the growth of railway network and its geographical location. In Warsaw, the European rail tracks came to the end, and on the eastern shore of the Vistula River, the wide-gauge Russian rail tracks began, which naturally made Warsaw an ideal transit centre. It was thus not accidental that the focal points in the city’s growth were its railway stations: Vienna Railway Station on the western shore and two neighbouring stations on Praga shore – Terespol Station (which serviced the Moscow direction) and St. Petersburg Station (built to service the connections with Saint Petersburg, but later servicing nearly all routes leading into the Russian Empire). Equally important was the fact that Warsaw was the most westward city of the Russian Empire, and thus Western innovations arrived here first.

09 mapa rozrostu Warszawy 2

To see how Warsaw developed after the January Rising, click the map.

Despite the fixed boundaries, at the times of Prus, the shape of Warsaw changes fundamentally. At the beginning, the city centre was outlined by the Royal Route. The Old Town is still busy as the bastion of small commerce and craft as well as the seat of old Warsaw elite, the symbol of Warsaw’s patriotic traditions. The rhythm of life, however, is determined to a greater extent by Krakowskie Przedmieście, the central street of the Royal Route, and its side streets, where the offices of financial institutions are located. This is the area of the old nobility and magnates, such as the Zamoyski family, and the powerful banker families, such as the Kronenberg or Bloch families, all engaged in their huge capital investments. Further down, Powiśle District becomes the centre of Warsaw industry. At this time, three major changes with far-reaching consequences take place. Firstly, in the 1850s, Praga District, which in the first half of the century was more of a village than a city, grows and its population significantly rises. Before the Rising, it was the district of the poor, but with time, due to the presence of railway, it attracts small commerce and industry. Secondly, new railway routes are built, to Vienna (1845–48) and to St Petersburg (1862). Thirdly, in 1864, the first steel bridge over the Vistula River, designed by Stanisław Kierbedź, is opened.

In the 1880s, the outline of the city centre and of the outskirts changes drastically. The desolate Old Town becomes the district of the shadows of history, more and more on the peripheries of urban life. This is partly due to post-insurrection repressions, and partly due to the development of industry and commerce. As a result, old merchant and artisan families practically lose their status, even on the internal Warsaw market. The entrepreneurs who want to do big business have move to the south. Krakowskie Przedmieście is still important, but the most elegant shops and cafes are located in Theatre Square, which then becomes the heart of the city. The most elegant location and the real salon of Warsaw, however, is Aleje Ujazdowskie. The closer to the turn of the century, the more Marszałkowska Street becomes the second central axis of Warsaw. Until then Marszałkowska was rather peripheral, but now the majority of large trade companies open their shops there. The big industry remains in Powiśle, but due to the abundance of space and the proximity of railway tracks, new factories are being opened also in Wola District. The northern part of the city, which before the Rising was populated by the poor of various religions and was the base of small industry (mainly the dynamically developing tanneries), becomes the largest centre of Jewish population in Eastern Europe – a city within a city. For the Jewish Diaspora, eliminated from the Empire and persecuted in the provinces, Warsaw becomes the city of opportunity and promise.

The Jewish minority is only a part of the city’s linguistic and religious. Prus is a deliberate chronicler of the Polish Warsaw, but it constitutes only a fraction of the real city. Due to Warsaw’s military-base character and the russification of the offices, many Russian clerks and military men arrive in the city. Russian minority concentrates around Miodowa Street. Many of the Russian employees are naturalised Germans. They join the German minority, which had been very strong since the end of the eighteenth century and which included the majority of Warsaw plutocracy. German families (and, to a smaller extent, Germanised Jewish families) dominated banking and industry already in the first half of the century, and the situation did not change in last decades. It is not accidental that the most famous Warsaw-born citizens at the times of Prus include the figures of the greatest Russian poets: Alexander Blok (of German descent), Osip Mandelstam (of Jewish descent), and Boris Savinkov, the number one terrorist of the early twentieth century. It seems, however, that the russification of the city (the obligatory bilingual character of the signboards, the russification of the schools and offices, the lavish design of some buildings in the city centre, including the huge but redundant Orthodox Church built in Saski Square) exerted also a beneficial influence on the development of Polish culture, which was forced to intensify its actions and to achieve artistic maturity, as evidenced by the literary output of Prus.


The Growth of Industry in Warsaw

07 Fabryka na Woli

A Factory in Wola District

In the second half of the century, Warsaw is undoubtedly one of the most important industrial and trade centres of the Russian Empire – its industrial window on the world. Besides the obviously geographically-determined transit character of the city, Warsaw can also boast of the dynamic development of several branches of industry. Even before the Rising, metal industry is the pride of Warsaw. On this field, at the end of the century, Warsaw is a regional power, second only to St Petersburg. In the second half of the century, chemical, light, and food industries develop, although they all mainly cater for the needs of the domestic market. Traditional craft thrives as well.

Apart from the growth of railway, the main cause of this economic boom was, paradoxically, the defeat of the January Rising and the consequent end of Polish autonomy in the following decade. Before the Rising, the export of Polish goods to Russia was liable to enormous customs duty; as a result, Warsaw-based production was limited to the domestic market. After the Rising, this ceased to be problematic. Partial unification of the Empire opened the Russian domestic market for Polish financiers, who willingly used this opportunity. In 1870, Bank Handlowy (Trade Bank) was founded, mainly by the Kronenberg family, and one year later the Epstein family set up Bank Dyskontowy (Discount Bank). By the end of the century, thanks to investments, mainly in Russian industry, Bank Dyskontowy increases its capital from 2 to 10 million roubles. The capital of Bank Handlowy rises from 3 to 20 million roubles. Enormous capital investments were also made by other well-known families of Warsaw financiers: the Blochs, the Landaus, the Lessers, or the Wawelbergs. These were exclusively German or Germanised Jewish families. As far as nationalities are concerned, the structure of Warsaw-based industry was similar. The only difference was that the main branches of Warsaw-based industry were controlled by German and Polish families. The biggest manufacturers of metal industry were Lilpop, Rau, and Loewenstein (railway and trams), Borman and Szwede as well as Scholtze and Repphan (equipment for sugar factories and distilleries), Rudzki (steel bridges), and some smaller companies, such as Rohn and Zieliński (pumps), or Orthewein and Karasiński (steam engines). The leading manufacturers of metal accessories were “Wulkan” and “Labor” companies while Konrad and Jarnuszkiewicz virtually monopolised the production of hospital beds. The Warsaw-based production of silver-plated cutlery and vessels was dominated by the Fragets’ and Norblins’ factories and constituted 80% of the output in the whole Empire.

German domination in the world of huge capital investors did not entail its Germanisation. Already before the November Rising, the German elite closely integrated with Warsaw and became strongly Polonised. It is perfectly illustrated by the life of the Minter and Beyer families, who were braziers and engineers. The two families formed one organism. Wilhelm Henryk Minter, an outstanding military engineer, arrived in Warsaw at the times of the Prussian rule; he quickly chose to fight on the Polish side and spent many years in the army of the Duchy of Warsaw and the Congress Kingdom of Poland. Although he supported the November Rising, he was persecuted by some of the insurrectionists who were looking for a scapegoat after the battle of Olszynka Grochowska. It seems, however, that Minter’s patriotism, courage, and services were unblemished, which could not be said about some of his ethnically Polish critics. Karol Beyer, his nephew and the pioneer of Warsaw photography, was persecuted (also financially) many times by the authorities because of his patriotic activities. His involvement in the January Rising was the cause of his financial ruin. The next generations of Warsaw’s Germans, no longer middle-class but rather plutocratic, did not bring disgrace to Poland. The three most important salons of the city, all located in Królewska – the salon of Deotyma (Jadwiga Łuszczewska), a poetess – and the bankers’ salons in the lavish palaces of the Blochs and the Kronenbergs were the pride of 1870s Warsaw. The bankers’ services for the development of Polish national culture were equally significant to those of the extremely patriotic salon of the poetess. Kronenberg’s salon was practically a home to the Warsaw school of historians.

The growing city was enthusiastically adopting new modern conveniences. The new water supply system was the most important achievement at the time, but it was not the only one. Already in 1880, the Telephone Bell Company developed a telephone network in Warsaw, and one year later, it gained 800 subscribers. In 1906, the Cedergren Company, which took over the telephone monopoly in 1900, could boast of nearly 8,000 subscribers. Gas monopoly was held by Towarzystwo Dessauskie (Dessau Society), which was often criticised by Prus. In 1888, it opened the second gasworks in Wola District in Dworska Street (the first one was located in Powiśle), which aptly reflects the topography of Warsaw-based industry. It started in Powiśle, and boomed in Wola. The process of electrification took place relatively late; it was completed by Schuckert Company in 1902. No wonder then that in such a city the market of services was blooming. Warsaw stood out among the main cities of the Empire thanks to a high level represented by its gastronomy, craft, and trade companies (with Bogusław Herse’s fashion house, opened in 1898 and located between Marszałkowska and Zielony Square [today Plac Dąbrowskiego], as the jewel in the crown of the city’s trade). Prus was an unrivalled yet often spiteful advocate of these changes.


The Growth of City Transport

05 Dworzec koleji Warszawsko-Wiedeńskiej

The Station of Warsaw-Vienna Railway

Bolesław Prus wrote:

“One of the most significant social events in Warsaw is the opening of tramway transportation system. It is a common opinion of many Warsaw residents that tramways are one of the most beautiful inventions of the nineteenth century.

Having become a passionate enthusiast of tramway rides myself, I also fully share this opinion even though I must openly admit that trams – at least on the streets of Warsaw – have one thing that is faulty and one that is incomprehensible.

The ones that could speak volumes about the drawbacks of tramways are horses. […] From what I have observed, we could think that a horse, when starting to pull the car, seems to be bending over backwards, regardless of the fact that some big-hearted passengers are getting up from their seats.

08 plan linii tramwajowej z zaznaczonymi dworcami

To see the map of Warsaw tramway tracks, click the map

The cost of the mechanical work of electric engines is not that different from the cost of work of steam engines, not as much as it used to be before. Finally, the electric demon became so cheap that it could be used even in destitute Warsaw.

Shortly, it was announced that electric cars will be used soon, and then the announcement was revised to state that they are not going to be used yet. After that, the electric cars were officially blessed, and the first attempts were undertaken in depots and the neighbouring courtyards. And then, on the occasion of various celebrations people started to wish each other: “May we live till the times when electric tramways start to operate!”


When for the first time the huge, metal-like cars without horses appeared on the streets, the audience crowded on the pavements so massively as if it had been a funeral cortege of a Persian shah. And when the people were allowed to get inside, they would push and jostle as if they had been queuing for some lottery tickets. And for a couple of days, it was stylish to be able to say “I took a ride on an electric tram!”

Quite a few new houses were built in Warsaw, some of them rather lavish, or even stylish. At the same time, the cobbled surface of the roads and the pavements on the main streets were improved. More and more often we can also see better lighting, at least in the shops.

The streets of Warsaw also saw new mobility devices: bicycles carrying people and tricycles carrying goods. Due to increased traffic, however, the number of accidents also grew. The police are doing their best to prevent it, trying to teach hansom cab drivers to slow down, especially at the street crossings.

Finally, a company was established to operate “automobiles,” that is the vehicles which are not drawn by horses but propelled with heat or electric engines. The first automobiles are supposed to run from St Alexander Square [today Trzech Krzyży Square] to Krasiński Square.”

Kurier Codzienny no 10, 10 January 1897

06 Filtry

Warsaw Water Filters

A Revolution in Sanitation

Bolesław Prus wrote:

“The readers have already heard about Mr Lindley, an English engineer, who visited Warsaw and who is supposed to cure the city from its condition, which is known as the lack of sewerage system. Some did not like the costly visit of a foreigner and a natural enemy of the Slavs, but most were happy about it. No wonder. I myself have only one heart, but it can very well accommodate my personal Slavic ideas and the hatred towards Islamised Englishmen as well as the issues of hygiene and city order.

Mr Lindley did not manage to reduce mortality rates with his brief visit, but he managed to achieve one positive goal: with his solemnity, he legitimised the need to provide citizens with drinking water.

And this is an urgent need: the water from the Vistula River, which we all absorb in various forms, is fit for swimming the cattle, doing the laundry, washing the dishes, and the floors but not for drinking.” [1876]

“Those who will criticise the pipes and drains, point out the typographic errors of the design or oppose Lindley as the works manager, in their calculations, should consider the sick city and its citizens, wading in the filth. Specialists may care about directions and gradients, capitalists about taking over the enterprise, but we, the ordinary bipeds (and there are more of us than specialists and capitalists) care more about the fast pace.” [1879]

“If sewerage system building were a fine art, […] we could sing it, dance it, or show it on stage – sewerage system building would enjoy wide renown, and Mr Starynkiewicz would win an immense popularity. This distinguished man would have to let himself be photographed in thirty positions, he would be pointed out in the streets, and ladies would love him.

But sewerage system building is not a fine art, and although in the coming years it is going to serve millions of people well, its true value will be understood only by thousands.

On behalf of this handful of people, let me be the first to thank Mr Starynkiewicz for his useful and honest work for our city. It’s not a bouquet; it’s not a sonnet, but it’s a couple of kind words from the people who are neither in the habit of asking for anything nor have many opportunities to thank you.” [1880]

“It must be admitted that these gentlemen treat Warsaw without much ceremony – strange stories are told by specialists. First of all, the sewerage system was supposed to be built by Lindley Senior, an excellent practitioner. When the contract was being signed, however, it was Lindley Junior that came to the fore and was nominated as the manager of this enterprise. He, in turn, placed the burden of managing the works onto the delicate shoulders of his younger brother.

Such a substitution of people, often employed in circus acts, when none of those people is located in Warsaw, and none of them does anything even though all of them earn twenty thousand roubles of salary, proves that the Lindleys will never become martyrs of obligations.” [1883]

“For the very same reason I would not recommend changing Mr Lindley. Let us bargain with him – perhaps he will reduce the price; let us call him names – perhaps we will feel relieved, but let us keep him till the end. For we do not know if, under a new manager, the works will be as precise as they are today, and if, wanting to save a few roubles, we are not going to lose many thousands.

And who is going to replace him? Should we search for a new “sewerage-builder” all over Europe? Or, in order not to lose time, should we promote one of our technicians to the position of the works manager? But which one, if none of them ever built even one sewerage system?” [1887]

“Let us not suspect anyone of ill will. Those who wanted to offer us ‘cheap’ sewerage system acted in good faith. The only difference between them and Lindley is that Lindley has already built several sewerage systems and has acquired experience, whereas our gentlemen must learn the old truth ‘buy cheap, buy twice’ from their experience with house drains.” [1888]