The fortunes of Beate Uhse have been well documented over the last few years but do you want to know more about this German symbol of sexuality?
An icon of German entrepreneurship and the most successful retailer in the country’s adult sector, Beate Uhse is a household name across many European countries. Though once a leading pornographer in the country, the company has been plagued with financial problems over the last decade. So much so that this former flourishing beacon of the German sex industry has been downsizing its fleet of adult stores. From its humble origins in 1962, opening the world’s first sex shop to its heyday in the 1990s, Beate Uhse is a story of success but could this iconic company be facing its final chapter?
In this feature, we take a look at the colourful history behind the founder of this famous chain of sex shops as well as considering the highs and lows of this erotic retail giant.
What Is Beate Uhse AG?
For anyone living in Germany, Beate Uhse is a household name that calls to mind sex toys in the same way that Ann Summers does for those living in the UK and USA.
Established in the 1940s but formally created in 1962, Beate Uhse AG was the company behind the world’s first sex shop. Though originally opened as a ‘marital hygiene’ store, the adult store in Flensburg, West Germany eventually became renowned for supplying intimate sex toys and erotic bedroom accessories.
The woman behind the name (see below), Beate Uhse, was an innovative and forward-thinking entrepreneur who had already established a demand for quality sex education products.
So, when pornography was legalised in West Germany in 1976, Beate Uhse was way ahead of the curve having already established a trusted brand name and was able to quickly provide a mail order service for interested parties.
By the early 1990s, the company had opened 30 sex shops with 25 erotic cinemas and turning over an estimated 10 million deutschmarks per annum. At its peak, Beate Uhse had stores in 60 countries and employed more than 1,500 people, generating sales in excess of €280 million.
In 2004, the company had the privilege of holding the title of the world’s largest adult product distribution company.
However, the last decade or so has seen the company’s fortunes fall from grace as the organisation struggles to compete with the world of online retailing. Since 2004, the number of employees has fallen to just 600 people (in 2016) and sales slashed to €128 million (in 2015). This massive decrease in turnover has resulted in the closure of stores internationally and domestically with numerous job losses across the workforce. Finally, in December 2017, the company filed for bankruptcy.
In 2018, the financial investment company, Robus Capital took over the running of the organisation and began a huge undertaking in restructuring Beate Uhse.
Aimed at better coping with the demands of a modern market, the new owners (EDC Retail Group) are working towards a relaunch of the company’s website in September 2019 to offer a new and exciting online shopping experience.
In a recent press release, EDC Retail Group stated:
The company founder was an advocate for people to be themselves, to have a right to their own view of life and own their sexuality — essentially to be yourself. We are updating this philosophy to reflect today’s reality of female empowerment and a vibrant LGBTQ community.
A part of this restructuring is a change to the company brand which remains Beate Uhse but with the focus being on the new slogan; Be You.
Though the company continues to operate online retailing across countries which include Belgium, France, Netherlands, Austria, United Kingdom and Czech Republic the vision for Beate Uhse AG is to reach more than 30 countries over the next 12 months.
A History of Beate Uhse
Whilst the name, Beate Uhse AG, may be synonymous across Europe with sex shops, the stores are actually named after their original owner, an entrepreneurial woman called Beate Uhse-Rotermund.
Uhse is widely recognised as one of the most important people in the German speaking world when it comes to sexual liberation and has received the German Cross of Merit for her contributions to the country.
As the Chairman of Beate Uhse AG up until her death in 2001, she has a fascinating personal history that makes for entertaining reading and sheds an important light on just why her company grew to become one of the biggest retail success stories of post war Germany.
A notorious and much-loved character, Uhse was born in Prussia in 1919 to Otto and Margarete Köstlin. The youngest of three children, she first became a stunt pilot in Germany during the 1930s well before the start of her sex shop empire.
Given the era, this certainly raised a few eyebrows but Uhse was born to progressive parents who fostered her love of adventure as well as being liberal and open-minded when it came to the matter of sexual education.
Her mother was one of the first five female doctors in Germany and her father was a farmer. Together they encouraged their children’s interests and nurtured their ‘wild’ sides. However, each of the children received a good and ‘proper’ education; Uhse herself was sent to Britain in the mid-1930s at the age of 16 to work as an au-pair for a year.
A Flying Start
When she returned to Germany, she visited the capital, Berlin, on a trip with her father where the two met with a lecturer (Mr. Sachsenberg) on motorsports. Confessing his daughter’s love of flying to Sachsenberg, and confiding in him that the idea was ‘nonsensical’, it was a surprise to find that the lecturer was actually rather excited by the idea of a female pilot.
Uhse was enrolled in pilot school in 1937 and she received her flying license on her 18th birthday. By 1938, she had passed her stunt pilot exam and was competing in races and competitions. Quite aside from being just a hobby, Uhse was working as a commercial test pilot and delivery pilot over the next few years. She was also approached by the UFA film studio to work as a stunt double and completed several appearances, some in propaganda films.
The Outbreak of WWII
It was during her time working as a stunt pilot that she met and fell in love with her instructor, Hans- Jürgen Uhse. After several proposals of marriage, Beate finally agreed to marry him but their wedding was cancelled just after the outbreak of the Second World War. The two married in secret a few hours before Hans was due to leave for his posting with the German air-force.
As in many countries, the war offered women far more opportunities to work in fields that had predominantly been male-orientated; so too was Uhse able to expand her flying career, piloting Luftwaffe combat aircraft. As well as the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 and Messerschmitt Bf 109, Uhse also flew the world’s first operational jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me 262.
During the war, she fell pregnant and gave birth to a son, Klaus, in 1943 but even this did not prevent her from her love of flying. Granted special permission to have a nanny, Uhse continued her role with the Luftwaffe and was promoted to the rank of Captain of her own squadron in 1944.
In 1945, her husband, Hans, was killed in an air-crash leaving her a widow and their son without a father. Despite this tragic personal loss, Uhse was a dedicated part of Germany’s war efforts and she continued in her role.
In April of the same year, Berlin, surrounded by Soviet troops, was evacuating its air force personnel and aircraft.
In an epic tale of bravery and commitment, Uhse collected her injured son and his nanny from their home outside the base and returned with them to escape the ravaged city. Unfortunately, her squadron had already left without her and she was forced to commandeer a small aircraft; a type she had never flown before but taught herself to operate by quickly reading the manual. Though she escaped to North Friesland, she and her son were captured by the British forces.
Released shortly after the end of the Second World War, Uhse settled in Flensburg with her son in what would become West Germany.
The Start of an Empire
After the war ended, Uhse’s career as a pilot was effectively over as former members of the Luftwaffe were forbidden from flying.
In a financially crippled country, Uhse set to work making money anyway she could and began earning a living by selling products door-to-door on the black market. A gregarious, outgoing and natural salesperson, Uhse was quick to win over the trust of her customers (mostly housewives) who talked openly to her about their problems. Uhse quickly became aware of a lack of knowledge when it came to sexual hygiene, contraception and fertility. Soldiers returning from war were getting their wives and girlfriends pregnant and the dire economic situation meant the families could not face the burden of more mouths to feed. As a result, many women were forced to take matters into their own hands, some visiting untrained back-street abortionists. Subjecting themselves to great risk of injury through the procedures and with inadequate access to after care, Uhse was appalled by what she learnt.
The daughter of a progressive mother who was a trained doctor and whom Uhse remembered offering lectures on these very subjects, it was a natural step for her to realise that there was a need and a demand for this kind of information to be made available to women.
Though her mother had died during the war, Uhse researched what she could remember of her mother’s lectures and produced a brochure for women based on the Knaus-Ogino rhythm method of contraception; Pamphlet X.
By 1947, she has sold more than 30,000 copies of her brochure using a mail order company that she named Betu.
It was at this time that Uhse was becoming more aware of a wider need for sexual education as customers wrote to her asking advice about other aspects of their sex lives. Within a few years, she had expanded her business to other cities including Bremen and Hamburg as well as offering new guides on marriage, sexuality and eroticism plus contraceptives in the form of condoms; all via mail order.
By 1951, Uhse had employed a further four members of staff and she changed the company name to the Beate Uhse Mail Order Co.
Expanding all the time, she was soon employing a few dozen people to help her manage her business and in 1962, in her hometown of Flensburg, she finally opened a bricks and mortar store; the world’s very first modern sex shop.
Though there was a very real and pressing need for access to the products and information being sold here, the store was not received with open arms by all. The local police were called to her premises on numerous occasions and Uhse was perceived by many as being morally corrupt and selling products which served to “inflame and satisfy lustful desires in a manner contrary to decency and morality.”
Over the next three decades, her flagship store was indicted more than 2,000 times and Uhse was openly discriminated against by national and local organisations. For instance, she was refused membership to her local tennis club on the grounds of ‘general concerns’ and her publishing house was barred entry to the professional and financial organisation “Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels” due to ‘moral concerns’.
Despite all of the barriers erected in her way, Uhse made the business a huge success and, when in 1999 the company was listed on the German Stock Exchange, shares in the company were oversubscribed more than 64 times over in its initial public offering.
The original shares are now collector’s items due to their depiction of two women in erotic lingerie.
In her personal life, Uhse remarried in the 1950s to a fellow retailer, Ernst-Walter Rotermund, with whom she had a second son, Ulrich, and from whom Uhse later divorced in 1979.
Throughout her life she remained an eccentric character, obtaining her first driver’s license at the age of 75 and opening an Erotic Museum in Berlin in 1996. Though diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1983, she survived this but sadly passed away in 2001 following a bout of pneumonia for which she was receiving treatment at a clinic in Switzerland.
Beate Uhse: The Next Chapter?
Despite the collapse of the company’s finances in 2017 and the restructuring of the company, the famous Beate Uhse has not been absent from European city high streets and, with the new investment in online sales, there is every hope that the legacy of one of Germany’s most colourful characters can survive well into the new millennium.
We, for one, will be watching with great interest as the new parent company of this iconic brand takes up the reins to launch its revival.
Sadly, the erotic museum that Uhse was so proud to open in 1996 was closed in 2014.
Featured image via Wikipedia.