From medical massage to BDSM brothels in Berlin, 1900-1930s

Sarah Scheidmantel retells the history of Berlin massage institutes and the surveillance of sexuality in early-20th century Germany.

CN: This text includes sexual (consensual violent) practices.

When Max Ferling, aged in his mid-30s, visited a friend in Berlin in 1921, the friend had thought of something special for the last day of his visit. His friend wanted him to get to know ‘Berlin, the cesspit of sin’ and found in the adverts section of the Berliner Tageblatt ‘various addresses of the institutes […] that we want to visit today to complete your knowledge of flagellantism’. But Max wasn’t convinced: ‘Yes, but – I don’t really understand – do these institutes advertise publicly?’, as he read: ‘Energetic masseuse experienced in tapping, stroke and apparatus massage, recommended. Office hours 3-7 pm.’ While Max believed that these were medical masseuses, his friend rebuked him: ‘You can see again that you are not a city dweller, not a Berliner, and that your dried-up provincial brain is not even capable of grasping the simplest things’ (Ferling 1921, 5).

And Max’s friend was right. When they entered one of the “institutes”, Max found himself in an establishment that ‘was the purest brothel’ specializing in BDSM (Ferling 1921, 18).

From medical massage to the massage institute

The massage institutes were a Berlin-specific feature for Berlin as an ‘indefinite promise, an infinite possibility’, as author Curt Moreck writes in his ‘Guide to vicious Berlin’ (Moreck 1931, 5). Big cities such as Berlin helped grow hidden places of sexuality being under surveillance at that time. This brings me to the subject of this article: How could specific forms of sexuality that were at that time due to them being considered “abnormal” and therefore regulated still be lived out?

That Max initially believes the ad is for medical massages is obvious, as the profession of medical massage had become more significant since the mid-19th century. The Swedes Per Ling and Gustav Zander had developed new approaches to healing the body using massage, using therapy with mechanical devices and remedial gymnastics, by focussing on controlled body practices aimed at the patient’s physical health. Body practices became the key to health.

Massage was particularly suitable for general treatments increasing ‘the functional activity of all body organs, including muscles, nerves, glands and cardiac activity, by which the metabolism becomes more lively’ (Castor & Pollux 1900, 5). It soon became widespread in European hospitals and doctors’ practices, such as the massage centre (‚Massageanstalt’), run by Isidor Zabludowski, at the Charité Hospital in Berlin (Zabludowski 1901, 3), and became institutionalised with the emergence of the profession of state-certified ‘masseurs’, explicitly aimed at men and women (Zickfeld 1927). At the same time, commercial massage institutes helped customers on site, while also selling adapted devices for private use. Already the variance of the actual practical meaning of the terms ‘institute’ and ‘massage’ both in public and private medical contexts helped different actors advertise their products which opened the way for the using the terms for advertisements of massage of another kind.

These claims of the medical benefits of massage fell on fertile ground, especially in big cities such as Berlin. For beyond the Roaring Twenties, Berlin became a melting pot for science and culture, attracting people who wanted to indulge in the lustful pleasures of life in various ways. This made Berlin a ‘sexy space’, where also sexualities, which went beyond hetero-normalised sexual practices, were lived out (Prickett 2011, 157, 161). One could say that, in Berlin, sexualities were no longer progressively tabooed, but increasingly regulated (Templin 2016, 269), since they repeatedly became the focus of the German moral police (‘Sittenpolizei’). These gatekeepers controlled the prevailing legal situation and saw dangers in practices that shook ‘morality and order’ and thus bourgeois sexuality. In the German Reich and later the Weimar Republic, brothels were subject to strict regulations (Schmitter 2013) and massage institutes that specialised in BDSM were pathologised or criminalised. The institutes themselves were subject to the paragraphs of the Criminal Code to regulate immorality, prostitution (§180) and the distribution of lewd/pornographic material (§184) (Rheine 1932, 8, 92, 94). Visitors could be blackmailed, as their sexual preferences were grounds for divorce according to §1568 of the German Civil Code (Rheine 1932, 75). Yet loopholes in this system were exploited (Prickett 2011, 158) to the advantage of massage institutes.

Illustrated woman with high pink boots and a riding crop, stood in partial profile
Source: Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Abteilung Historische Drucke, Signatur: Tc 10226/9<b>: R.

The adverts

Even though the Berlin Masseurs’ Association complained about them being ‘consistently accused of fornication’ since the term ‘massage institute’ was used to refer to brothels (Rheine 1932, 11), and two doctors writing under the code name ‘Castor and Pollux’ reported on the ‘masseuse nonsense’ that brought medical massage into disrepute (Castor & Pollux 1900, 10), the eroticising potential of massages became apparent (Bühner 2021, 231) through advertisements – such as the one that Max read (above).

One of the pioneers of German sexology, Iwan Bloch, described the newspapers of the late 1900s as ‘teeming with advertisements’ of ‘unclean and dangerous practices of the “masseuses”’ – a euphemistic term of what was really going on and behind which the sex work in the brothels could be hidden (Bloch 1908, 785). These euphemisms went even further. In addition to the word “energetic”, which appears in Max’s advert, words such as “strict”, “genuine”, “strictly individual”, “determined”, “intelligent” or “adaptable” (Rheine 1932, 10) referred to the practices used. The female name “Wanda” used in advertisements also became a popular code name or sign for the brothels (Bloch 1908: 641), as the adverts for Wanda Gütt – with her ’tested, intelligent, strict and genuine treatment‘ – and the ’strictly genuine‘ Wanda Harbach prove (Berliner Tageblatt & Handels-Zeitung, 2.9.1902, 5.10.1902).

Yet, as a ‘public secret’ (Rheine 1932, 9), a considerable proportion of young people were aware of what was hidden behind the ‘massage institutes’. This was one of the biggest problems, as advertising to young people was ‘highly dangerous from a moral and possibly also a health point of view’ (Landesarchiv Berlin, A Pr.Br.Rep. 030;17159). In order to avert this danger, the “Schund- und Schmutzparagraph” (Scum and filth paragraph) was enforced from 1926 until 1932. Despite the lack of necessary evidence (Rheine 1932, 7), the Berlin police succeeded in repeatedly dismantling institutes such as a ‘Salon de beauté’ run by ‘Masseuse Schmidt’, which ‘was in fact just the poster child for an immoral trade’ (Vorwärts, 15.9.1922) and shows the increasing regulation of sexuality.

Inside the massage institute

Although through their advertisements the massage institutes made the unsuspecting reader believe it was all about medical massage, geographically these institutions were already close to places of street prostitution. There one could also find backstreet abortionists and other dodgy characters, that were at the same time close enough to bourgeois neighbourhoods so that the danger of being caught by state authorities when visiting the establishments stayed improbable which refers to the needs catered for there permeating the whole of society. Also, similar to other brothels the clientele of the institutes was coming from diverse social classes but united by their preferences.

In order to care for the preferences that were not cared for at other places because they were considered abnormal, the “masseuses” serving all genders (Castor & Pollux 1900, 10) had a letter system for their clients that limited the type of sexual practice to be carried out, such as ‘A. First-time visitors at all’ to ‘F. First-time visitors to the institute with demanding special requests’ (Rheine 1932, 17). These letters were essential to meet the customers’ needs and at the same time to prepare the masseuses for them who could either be a ‘chic, beautiful woman’ (Ferling 1921, 18) or a ‘40-year-old, heavily and badly made-up person’(Rheine 1932, 37). The variety of people both from the masseuses´ and the clients´ side was high, which underlines the need to places serving the “sexual abnormal“: for instance, in one massage institute one could find 21 riding masochists, 16 boot masochists, 7 faecal fetishists, and 11 Nate fetishists (Rheine 1932, 33), who were ‘healthy, vigorous men who […] find obvious sexual satisfaction through this complete reversal of their nature’ (Bloch 1908, 641).

The massage and its media

The reception rooms of these establishments often spoke for themselves by being an ‘elegantly furnished waiting room’ (Ferling 1921, 10) or being decorated with a ‘whipping post and three riding whips’ next to ‘dusty plush furniture’ (Rheine 1932, 37), which inevitably pointed to what was to be expected to avoid any misunderstandings. Although their sexual purpose became obvious upon entering, the massage institutes claimed to heal ailments in a similar way to medical massage, thus inscribing themselves in the history of medical massage from the ancient Greeks to modern institutes for massage and beauty care (Rheine 1932, 90).

Sometimes it was still understood colloquially as a medical massage institute,as Max describes his experience: ‘May I ask what kind of suffering you have?’ – ‘My friend has been complaining of pain in his back […], since […] your institute was recommended to me as successful for such ailments, I brought him here’ – ‘Let’s go and see where the source of the illness is’ (Ferling 1921, 20). One can read this as a fun situation, but sometimes the imagination of a place for medical massage was part of the sexual foreplay: The account by ‘Mrs Professor C.’ reveals the ways in which massages were discussed in connection with sexuality (Bühner 2021, 230). When she had herself massaged at a medical massage institute, she found herself sexually aroused. When the masseuse refused her request to knead her more firmly, even to beat her, Professor C. looked for ways to satisfy her desire for a stronger massage. As a customer in a massage institute, a ‘healing massage was the starting point’ supported by trained masseuses (Rheine 1932, 69, 25, 44), and the massage was finished by following her fantasy.

Instead of health, the fulfilment of peoples’ fantasies was prioritised. This ranged from ‘cunilingus to the most painful friction of the genitals’ (Rheine 1932, 18). Max for instance observed a man strapped naked to a wooden bench, behind him on the ground ‘knelt a woman wielding a leather riding crop’ (Ferling 1921, 12). Further sex toys were common in these institutes, such as balls made of iron or steel, fitted with spikes. Even sex dolls, ‘replicas of female and […] male bodies in natural size made of rubber, in which […] the pubic hair was reproduced’ were used (Rheine 1932, 18, 29).

What was considered bodily and sexually ‘normal’ not only gave rise to medical and legal control mechanisms. The example of the ‘massage institute’ shows how these concepts could be undermined and yet were necessary for a society attempting to regulate sexualities, which can be understood as signs of the time and which is also seen in other European contexts such as in France (Teyssier, 2010). Additionally, the separation of the massage into different spheres was not only dependent on prevailing moral and social ideas, but also on the context of the big city, such as the ‘sinful city’ of Berlin. As Max notes: ‘When my friend took me to the train the other day, we had to smile as we said goodbye. Yes, yes, Berlin has its faults, but it’s still beautiful’ (Ferling 1921, 30).

About the author

Sarah Scheidmantel is a PhD candidate and research assistant at the Chair for the History of Medicine at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, where she is investigating the influence of early vibromassage devices on conceptions about the female body. Her research interests include the history of sexuality, women and gender in a medical context as well as cultural history, material cultures and feminism. You can find her on Twitter/X and Bluesky.


Bloch, Iwan. 1908. Das Sexualleben unserer Zeit in seinen Beziehungen zur modernen Kultur.    Berlin: Louis Marcus Verlagsbuchhandlung.

Bühner, Maria. 2021. „Massagegeräte in der ersten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts,“ in: Roeßiger, Susanne, Teresa Tammer, Katja Töpfer, Maria Bühner, und Stiftung Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, Hrsg. Dinge und Sexualitäten: Körperpraktiken im 20. und 21. Jahrhundert. Publikationsreihe Sammlungsschwerpunkte, Band 6. Dresden: Stiftung Deutsches Hygiene-Museum.

Castor, Dr., and Dr. Pollux. 1900. Das Masseusen-Unwesen in Berlin. Berlin: Dr. R. Wrede.

Ferling, Max. 1921. Erotische Sittenbilder unserer Zeit. Berliner Masseusen. Bd. 3. Berlin: Privatdruck.

Moreck, Curt (Klarname Kurt Haemmerling). 1931. Führer durch das „lasterhafte“ Berlin. Leipzig: Verlag moderner Stadtführer.

Prickett, David James. 2011. „‚We will show you Berlin‘: space, leisure, flânerie and sexuality.“ Leisure Studies 30:2.

Rheine, Dr. Th. von. 1932. Sadismus in Einzeldarstellungen. Massage-Institute. Die erste            umfassende Publikation mit völlg neuem Material in Wort und Bild. Band I: Sadismus und           Prostitution Teil 1: Die Massage-Institute. Berlin: Sexualwissenschaftliche Verlagsanstalt.

Schmitter, Romina, 2013, Prostitution – das „älteste Gewerbe der Welt“?, online:

Templin, Christina. 2016. Medialer Schmutz.Eine Skandalgeschichte des Nackten und Sexuellen            im Deutschen Kaiserreich 1890-1914. Bielefeld: transcript.

Teyssier, Paul. 2010. Maisons closes parisiennes: architectures immorales des années 1930. Paris: Parigramme.

Zabludowski, Professor Dr. J[sidor]. 1901. Die neue Massage-Anstalt der Universität Berlin.        Vortrag, gehalten in der 22. öffentlichen Versammlung der Balneologischen Gesellschaft zu             Berlin, im März 1901, in: Sonder-Abdruck aus “Deutsche Medizinal-Zeitung”, 1901, No. 54,    München: Seitz und Schauer.

Zickfelds Sammlung von Prüfungs-Ordnungen, Ausbildungs- und Unterrichtsvorschriften für Lehrer und Lehrerinnen. Heft11b Die Krankenpflegerin und Masseuse. 1927. Osterwied am Harz: U.W.Zickfeld.

Archival Sources

Berliner Tageblatt und Handels-Zeitung, Morgen-Ausgabe, 2.9.1902.

Berliner Tageblatt und Handels-Zeitung, Sonntags-Ausgabe, 5.10.1902.

Landesarchiv Berlin, Signatur: A Pr.Br.Rep. 030;17159.

Vorwärts, 15.9.1922.

One thought on “From medical massage to BDSM brothels in Berlin, 1900-1930s

  1. Thanks Sarah, interesting research, some repeat offenders there. As a retired Australian physiotherapist we have much to thank our European colleagues for but the history of massage is more about the exploitation of men and women at that time. We had no idea as students in the 70s of the illustrious past of our profession. It is so important to know the past to see the future.

    Check out the website of the International Physiotherapy History Association ( IPHA).

    Best wishes for your studies.
    Dr Susan Waller
    Adjunct Senior Research Fellow
    Monash Rural Health

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