From Old Hamburg

Jacob Hinrich Hudtwalcker, 20.11.1710. – 28.10.1781.

Jacob Hinrich Hudtwalcker

According to Mary Lindemann,1 the merchant and senator Johann Michael Hudtwalcker in 1795 began to set down his family’s history and autobiography. At age 48, he looked back on many years of activity as a merchant but, in describing his life, he also reflected on that of his father, Jacob Hinrich (1710 – 1781) and grandfather, Johann (deceased 1720).

At the age of 14, not long after the death of his mother, Jacob Hinrich Hudtwalcker arrived in Hamburg from Altona on 14 January 1724. He came from a frugal household, Mary Lindemann writes, and by the time he turned 17, in January 1727, he was able to find employment in the form of a apprenticeship with the businessman Meinert von Winthem, who lived in Reichenstrasse and dealt with Herring, Cod Liver Oil and assorted Fish products.

Jacob Hinrich thus began as did many other merchants in Hamburg: working for a retailer or small-time wholesaler. It was a simple life, Lindemann continues, innocent of all extravagance. In his recollection of his family’s history and autobiography, Johann Michael Hudtwalcker offer a more detailed account of his father’s years with von Winthem:

 “In his 17th year, my father was installed with the merchant Meinert von Winthem. The question of monetary security for his employment became necessary, and both his guardians, people of great fortunes but of no family relations to him, supported him. He often told me with tears of gratitude, that they made their decisions based on his honest face only. With a tap on the shoulder they told him: “Boy, do not disappoint us” and they signed.”

From a severe scbool, a sparse fatherly house, where life was very monotonous, the boy (Jacob Hinrich) arrived at even stricter lodgings with his new master. He was not allowed to leave the house without permission and had almost no pocket money. He was well protected from temptations, because temptation had little hope of obtaining anything at all from him.

At 17 my father was of s very tender and weak physical condition, but one could make no exception for him. The conditions of the business apprentice were at that time no different from the conditions of a craftsman apprentice, but in many ways probably worse.

He had to eat at a table together with the maids. One gave him a frock and an apron. All day long he had to assist the herring packers, the barrel makers and the workers without complaint, and in the evening he worked as a scribe in the office. With tears in his eyes he used to tell me how painful the mornings were when he with bandages wrapped around his raw fingers still hurting from the salt used for Herrings the days before, commenced work. He had to brush his master’s shoes and of the ones his assistant, who more than often than his patron, reprimanded him. And in the evenings when his mister went out for a visit, he had to walk in front of him with the lamp. He endured it all, but together with the female cook, he also had to carry all the litter swept up from the house across the street, a task which often pressed forth tears of displeasure. He continued to be small and weak, but stayed healthy. These sad conditions lasted four years until his patron started to see his larger usefulness. He employed another young boy to carry out the work he had been doing, and instead placed him at his own table.

Now he felt very happy, and although his work still consisted of many kinds of manual labour, they gave him pleasure as he conducted them under the eyes of his patron and with his approval.

He now obtained knowledge about new goods, how to write letter, and among other things bookkeeping, although Italian letters at that time not were commonly used. He had no relatives or connections in Hamburg, no money for merry-making but was entirely restricted to the circle of his house and business. The whole week was spent uninterrupted with work. On Sundays he went regularly twice to church, took a walk in the summer afternoons, drank a glass of beer while smoking a pipe, and spent the Sunday evenings during winter in his room with his book.

The frequent goings to church which at that time were common, had for many young people in a similar state as my father, the great benefit that it represented a continuation of aid in learning which otherwise was severely lacking at that time. His readings during this time was his Bibel. The only other books he had in those days were by Brockes, the favourite of his father city and then much more read than what Klopstock is today. He thanked him for many sweet hours and especially for the prevailing sentiment of nature’s beauty, which remained the source of his purest joy all his life.”

A further description is given by John W. Van Cleve:2

“Although Jacob Hinrich provided his employer with such extensive, demanding service, his compensation was minimal, and his treatment befitted the most humble of menials. He took meals with the house servants, and in fact had to shine his master’s shoes as well as those of the senior employees. His tasks also included helping the cook clean out the kitchen and holding a lantern for von Winthem whenever the latter went visiting in the city after dark.”

The strict conditions are also mentioned by Ernst Samhaber:3

”Don’t disgrace us, boy!” his guardian said to young Hudtwalcker – later to become a highly respected Hamburg merchant – when he took him to be apprenticed to a herring merchant. The apprentice shared the servants’ table with the maids, eating whatever was set before him – and that, according to his own account, was not much. During the day he had to work in line with the herring-packers; even if he had cut his finger he had to dip his hand into the smarting brine; in the evening, when the other workmen went to their homes, he had to do office work in the counting-house. He was not allowed to go out without permission. In the morning he cleaned not only his master’s shoes, but also those of the firm’s servants. The one thing that got him down, to the point of tears, was having to carry the filthy refuse of the house across the street. His apprenticeship lasted for years. He had very little pocket-money.”

At that time, Hamburg supplied almost all of Germany, and a greater part of Austria, with Herring and dried fish, as well as Cod Liver Oil. Beside his “Comptoirarbeiten”, Jacob Hinrich had to take his share in the storage and warehouse, beside participating in the packing of various goods. The long working hours, together with the more than humble living conditions, made the youthful and formative years a tough period.

Jacob Hinrich stayed with Meinert von Winthem for 16 years. By then he had obtained his full confidence. And not without reason: when he started, von Winthem was not a wealthy man. However, when at the age of 33 Jacob Hinrich left his employment with von Winthem, the latter had 300 000 German Mark in his account, a considerable amount of money in those days.

According to Mary Lindemann, Jacob Hinrich set up his own business on a slender capital of about 5000 marks after staying with Winthem for over sixteen years. His enterprise amounted to little more than a slightly larger than average store; he bought and sold to smaller retailers. In the 17400s and 1750s, his wealth slowly grew; he married, bought a house, then a bigger one, and acquired a garden.

Another source4 says that during his 16 years with von Winthem, Jacob Hinrich had managed to save 1000 marks. His old employer gave him 4000 marks “as proof of gratitude”. Further he received around 5000 marks from his brother Nicolaus Diedrich in Altona. With these 10 000 marks he set to work.

On 18 April 1743, Jacob Hinrich, using the phrase of that time “chose to establish himself”, and founded his own company, Hudtwalcker & Co., in Hamburg.

However, the beginning was small and slow, with long days. In Johann Michael’s words from his autobiography:

“The business of my father was really like a peddler shop. My father ordered Cod Liver Oil or Herring from Holland, or bought it here and mostly sold it again by half or a quarter ton from his warehouse; – to local peddlers or to merchants in Lauenburg or Mecklenburg, or to coachmen, who at that time came to Hamburg in big numbers, and always were eager to take with them some cargo at their own expenses when they were short of other freight.

He had his dinner for 8 Groschen, lived outermost sparse and reserved, and earned by this business so much that he after two years, in April 1745, had the courage, when mayor Anderson died, to buy the former mayor’s house in the Catharinastrasse for 26 000 marks, where he lived until his death.

He rented out a part of the house, paid cash 6600 mark on the purchasing price and thereby did not live expensively, although he often told me this purchase had been a step too fast given his situation at that time.”

Mary Lindemann writes that Jacob Hinrich, like many compatriots, prospered during the Seven Years War: as fortunate Hamburg enjoyed (the fruits of) peace … It was just then that (Hamburg) became for the first time a major merchant-state (Handlungsstaat).”

Sara Elisabeth Ehlers
Sara Elisabeth Ehlers (2 April 1728 – 26 April 1799)

In 1746 Jacob Hinrich married Sara Elisabeth Ehlers (1728 – 1799), the daughter of a confectioner. The couple had ten children.

During the later years, Jacob Hinrich’s life took a remarkable turn from the poor orphan he had been as a boy: In 1762 he was appointed head dispenser at the hospital Gast- und Krankenhaus, in 1767 church juryman to St. Catharinen. In 1770 he became a member of the city treasury, and in 1774 its chairman. He died in 1781.


Johann Hudtwalcker d. 8 October 1720, Ramhusen

Catharina Margaretha née Wichmann d. 22 August 1724


Sara Elisabeth née Ehlers b. 2 April 1728 – d. 26 April 1799

Children (born in Hamburg)

Johann Michael Hudtwalcker b. 21 September 1747 – d. 14 December 1818, Hamburg

Margaretha Elisabeth Hudtwalcker b. 2 October 1748 – d. 20 October 1794

Sara Elisabeth Hudtwalcker b. 12 March 1750 – d. 22 May 1819

Catharina Magdalena Hudtwalcker b. 14 November 1751/52 – d. 8 March 1806

Jacob Hinrich Hudtwalcker b. 28 June 1753 – d. 7 April 1799

Johanna Margareta Hudtwalcker b. 15 January 1756 – d. 22 May 1785

Nicolaus Hudtwalcker b. 3 May 1757 – d. 25 January 1832

Caecilia Hudtwalcker b. 28 January 1759 – d. 29 June 1765

Christian Martin Hudtwalcker b. 15 October 1761 – d. 8 September 1835, Itzehoe

Daniel Conrad Hudtwalcker b. 3 September 1765 – d. 25 June 1796, Neukirchen


  1. Mary Lindemann: The Merchant Republics, Cambridge University Press, 2015
  2. John W. Van Cleve: The Merchant in German Literature of the Enlightenment, University of   North Carolina Press, 1986
  3. Ernst Samhaber: Mercants Make History: How Trade Has Influenced the Course of History
  4. See Notes to “Through the Ages” on this website 2019