Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Some notes on the Tobacco College of King Frederick William the First of Prussia



Republican equality, though questionable in practice, seems to be an innate feeling of the mind, and inseparable from at least social amusement and rational intercourse. Not even despots can find pleasure in society without divesting themselves at such moments of their usual arbitrary will and authority, which necessarily exclude free conversation and exchange of thoughts. The necessity for such a free intercourse was so intensely felt by the above-mentioned stern and despotic prince, that he thought fit to establish a sort of Liberal club, under the name of “Tobacco College,” where he could indulge in all the free discussions on the political events of the day.

That prince used to hold a sort of a smoking conversazione every afternoon at five o’clock in his private study. The company consisted of six or eight of the generals and staff officers of his suite, as also of captains famous for their general information and conversational powers. To this party were also invited literary and scientific travellers who happened to pass through Berlin. All the guests assembled were served with pipes and tobacco. The old Prince of Dessau, who did not smoke, was obliged to hold in his mouth a cold pipe, while the Austrian ambassador, Count Seckendorf, even managed to give himself the appearance of an inveterate smoker by puffing with his lips, between which he held a cold pipe. The pipes—of which there is still a complete collection in the Museum of Arts at Berlin—were short and of common Dutch clay, and kept in simple cases of wood. Those (the cases) of the king’s pipes were mounted with silver, and were besides adorned with some neat carvings. All the pipes in that collection are so oil-coloured as to indicate a long use of smoking. The tobacco, small Dutch leaves, stood in little baskets upon the table, and at the side of them small pans with ignited turf. The king showed anger if any of the guests happened to bring with him his own better tobacco. Before every guest was placed a tumbler and a white jug with beer. As no servants were in the room, the guests helped themselves to the contents. At seven, bread, butter, and cheese were served up, while ham and roast veal were sometimes placed at a side-table for those who wished to cut a slice for themselves. At other times, the king regaled his guests with a dish of fish and salad, the latter being dressed with his own hands.

Also subaltern officers, distinguished for knowledge or humorous wit, were admitted to the party. Two lieutenants especially, Gröben and Leben, were always cheerfully received, for the merry tricks they played upon the erudite Court Fool, Baron Gundling, and his witty retorts upon them. On one occasion when Leben was speaking of his estates in the sandy parts of Pomerania, Gundling asked him if he was aware that allusion is made to them in Porsten’s Hymns. “No,” was the reply. Gundling then recited the following verse: “What are the goods of Life (Leben in German) but a handful of sand,” &c.

Frederick William was particularly anxious to have in his party some men familiar with History, Geography, Political Economy, and other practical sciences, who made speeches, or dwelt on the topics of the day in a conversational way, so as to lead to debate and discussion.

French, Dutch, and German papers always lay on the table, the leaders of which supplied the company with matter for conversation. The king felt much interest in, and had even read to him aloud, all the strictures made in the papers against his government and himself; after which he used to defend himself before the company by ready wit and sensible observations.

The “Netherland Current,” a Dutch paper of large circulation at that period, once informed its readers that recently a corporal of the tall Grenadier Guard had suddenly died at Potsdam, who, after dissection, was found to have had two large stomachs, but no heart. On this being read to him by one of the company, the king at once penned a note to the editor, saying, that the fact related was perfectly true, but that the deceased was a native, a Dutchman, who had enlisted in the Prussian service. By way of change, the king allowed the company to amuse themselves with a game of chess or draughts, but would not tolerate cards. He himself sometimes played backgammon with General Flauss, a blunt Pomeranian nobleman, who, on the king proposing to him one day to render the game more interesting by the stake of a groschen, flatly refused to accede to the proposal, saying: “Your majesty gets so angry on losing a game when played for love, that I expect every time to have the dice thrown at my head; what might I not expect, should your majesty happen to lose a groschen into the bargain!”

Frederick William not only allowed such free jokes to pass, but even encouraged the company to indulge in them, even at his own expense, to render the evenings free, easy, and pleasant. At a later period, when he began to suspect treason in his nearest relations and the immediate members of his suite, such as the Prince of Anhalt and other illustrious personages, the king selected for his smoking companions at Potsdam a few of the notable citizens of the place. When at Wüsterhausen, he frequently invited the schoolmaster of the small place to the smoking entertainment. The latter had by this means acquired such a high respect among his pupils, that they considered him a far superior authority to even the king himself, whom, on his once ordering the boys on their leaving the school door to sing out, “Our schoolmaster is an ass,” they flatly refused to obey.

The most welcome guest in the College was Stanislaus, King of Poland, during his stay in Berlin in 1735, when he and the king used to smoke for a wager, each finishing from thirty to thirty-two pipes in the course of the evening.

The young princes usually entered the Tobacco College in the evening, to bid their father good night. On that occasion they were there drilled for half an hour by one of the officers present. When the Crown Prince (afterwards Frederic the Great) became of age, he was obliged to join the College, though he detested both smoking and the fool’s tricks.

The king wished to appear in that company as a private individual, and he therefore forbade all ceremonial salutations, so that nobody took the least notice of his entrance or exit. This equality of rank was carried to such a degree, that the king sought satisfaction in a common challenge for any affront offered him by any one of the company in the course of the evening. Major Fürgas, one evening, indulged in some critical remarks on the immoral conduct of some of the favourite courtiers of the king. The latter got angry, and called him a fool. “It’s only a blackguard,” retorted the other, “who would dare to apply to me such an epithet,” saying which, he rose and quitted the room. Frederick William then declared to the assembly that, as an honest soldier, he could not brook the insult, and that he was therefore resolved to fight the Major with swords or pistols. The company, however, strongly protested against the proceeding, and an arrangement was finally made that the duel should take place by proxy on the Royal part. Major Eisendel at once offered himself as the king’s champion, and the duel was fought next day with swords, when Eisendel was slightly wounded in the arm. On presenting himself to the king, the latter thanked him, and slinging round him a musketeer’s knapsack, asked him if he had any objection to march thus through the streets, if the knapsack was filled with hard thalers. Eisendel having replied in the negative, the king filled it, and giving the command, “March!” Eisendel walked home, well satisfied with the adventure.