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~ The Hurdy-Gurdy Girls ~

Over the years, the German hurdy-gurdy maker Kurt Reichmann has assembled an astonishing collection of early graphic and historical material, much of it original, depicting hurdy-gurdies and bagpipes; in 1995 he opened a gallery in Frankfurt to display these works, a very few of which are shown below, in reproductions from his brochure.

A few items from of Kurt Reichmann's graphics gallery
A few items from Kurt Reichmann's graphics gallery (photos from his brochure)

Note that several of the graphics above depict beautiful young women playing hurdy-gurdies. There's a fascinating if sad history behind this that begins in the German state (then a principality) of Hessen in the early 1800s and continues to gold-rush California. Kurt Reichmann researched the associated events and circumstances extensively, and in 1998 mounted a spectacular exhibition, titled "Hurdy-Gurdy Girls," in a Frankfurt church founded in 1227 to minister to "fallen" women. The showing included lectures, music, early graphics and a series of very large (life-size) highly dramatic color photographs by Kurt (who along with everything else he does is a graphics designer & photographer) of modern women with hurdy-gurdies in interpretive poses, derived from the stories of the original hurdy-gurdy girls. With Kurt's permission some of these photos are reproduced here; before viewing them it is recommended that the synopsis of the history, below, be read. (This is my condensation and translation of the background material from the exhibition - thus the content is not my own, but any errors are mine. - O.S.)

The Hurdy-Gurdy Girls

In the beginning of the 1800's bitter poverty ruled in wide areas of Hessen. This had several causes, including a population increase due to families having many children and subsequent division by inheritance of the land into ever-smaller pieces, to the extent that viable farming became impossible.

To supplement their incomes, in the 1820s farmers and farmworkers began to make wooden brooms and fly-whisks during the winter which they, as itinerant peddlers, sold in the summers in the surrounding areas. This trade soon expanded beyond the borders of Hessen and reached England, France and even Russia.

It was soon discovered that the wares sold better when accompanied by dancing, hurdy-gurdy playing girls. Quickly the dancing and music became ever more important and the pretty girls became ever better known; it was soon realized that there was a lot of easy money to be made.

an engraving from Kurt Reichmann's collection
An engraving from Kurt Reichmann's collection

The success of the hurdy-gurdy girls then began to attract what in German are called "soul-merchants," who put the naive village girls under contract while enticing the parents with tales of how much money their children would be sending home; as a result, there were often no young women to be found in many villages of the region. The soul-merchants took the girls to dance halls and such, where the clientele was mostly sailors and miners. Thus the girls of Hessen came to nearly all countries of Europe, especially England (where they were called "Hurdy-Gurdy girls" and "Hessian Broom Girls") and also to Australia, Cuba and North America - where California was a particularly desirable destination, as the gold fields there promised brisk business, and where, because of their origins, they were also known as "Rhinelanders."

A very few young women, well-off through prostitution and dressed in finery, returned to their villages and encouraged the stay-at-homes to make the same journeys. But the life of most of the hurdy-gurdy girls was hard and many returned home broken, penniless and sick. Often the girls were forced into prostitution by their "agents" and from there slid into a criminal milieu. Meanwhile, as the business intensified, it became something of a community secret in many places - even mayors and teachers profited, by brokering "contracts" between the girls and the "traders."

BC archives, call number G-00817
Hurdy-gurdy girls in the Canadian gold-fields, 1850s; photo, BC Archives

The first resistance to all of this came from the church. Pastors preached against the situation from the pulpit and protested it in newspapers. In 1848 a Pastor Schellenberg carried a petition against the practice of the "sale of souls into foriegn lands" to the government, but it was not acted upon. [The document was part of the exhibition]. In 1860 another pastor, Ottokar Schupp, brought public attention to the situation in the villages with his novel, "Hurdy-Gurdy." Finally, in 1865 the government issued a "most-highest prohibition" against the "taking along of children for the purpose of the fly-whisk trade" and so ended, eventually, because of public opinion and government edict, the time of the fly-whisk merchants, the broom merchants, the "Hessian broom girls" and the hurdy-gurdy girls.

Click here
to view some of Kurt Reichmann's black-light photos from the exhibition
"Hurdy-Gurdy Girls"

In looking into all of this further, this writer finds it interesting that something so once-notorious and spectacular as this lengthy and widespread episode seems to have been largely overlooked or misunderstood by modern historians. For example Susann Palmer, in her excellent reference work "The Hurdy Gurdy" (David & Charles: London, 1980) bristles at the suggestion of hurdy-gurdies in dance halls; she writes, "A supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary (1976) humiliates the hurdy gurdy further ... it gives as ... used in North America: 'hurdy-gurdy girl, a dance hostess in a hurdy-gurdy house, being a disreputable type of cheap dance hall.' ... It is almost certain that these 'hurdy-gurdy houses' were places where mechanical barrel-organs were installed." (pp. 41-42). Meanwhile, we find the government of British Columbia, Canada exhibiting confusion on its web site dedicated to the gold rush there, not about the presence and nature of the hurdy-gurdy girls who came there during the 1850s (see photo above), but about the meaning of the term "hurdy-gurdy" and the womens' relationship to the instrument. We at are continuing to look into this subject and will expand these comments as information is uncovered. We would also like to bring Kurt Reichmann's "Hurdy-Gurdy Girls" exhibition to North America, if suitable sponsorship can be found.


All text and images on this page not otherwise credited are original works by Oliver Seeler and are copyright 1999, Oliver Seeler.
Copyrights to images and text credited herein to other sources remain with the respective copyright holders.