History of the Ampelmann

Wandering through Germany’s capital you may notice there are two different designs in the pedestrian crossings. One is the pretty ubiquitous boring version seen across the rest of Europe, whilst the other is a much cuter, much fatter little chap who wears a hat. Our more rotund fella is the ‘Ampelmann’, which essentially means (Traffic) ‘Light Man’. He was born in East Berlin during the Cold War making him decidedly communist.

Just a couple of months after the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, a traffic psychologist named Karl Peglau submitted a selection of new road safety designs to the city council, in response to growing concern over rising road accident rates. The Ampelmann was designed as such, fat and cute, to stand out to the elderly, children and people with learning disabilities. Road-users tend to react quicker to appealing symbols and people tend to trust someone they like, making the Ampelmann a safe design as well as an aesthetically pleasing one.

With the help of his secretary, who sketched the actual designs, Peglau brought the Ampelmann to East Berlin in the early sixties. He was immediately loved by one and all. Not least by Peglau himself who said ‘The East German Ampelmännchen are true children of Berlin’. The adoration reached tipping point in 1982 when the Ampelmann hit the screens featuring as a guardian angel in road safety films for children. The cartoon version of the Ampelmann offered advice in hazardous traffic situations. When children exhibited good road safety knowledge in schools they would receive Ampelmann badges and keychains, making him a solid figure in many childhood memories.

As the country was reunified in 1990 and Berlin was once again made the capital, many proponents of East German life started to disappear. The reunified German government decided to swap out the Ampelmann in favour of his more serious and svelte West German traffic light man cousin. An understandable attempt to eradicate one element of the physical division of the city. The people were up in arms and by 1995 solidarity campaigns had begun in the hope of bringing him back. Of course there were many things that former East Germans were keen to get rid of from the GDR; the Stasi, the Death Strip, Trabants but the Ampelmann was not one of them.

Around the same time an industrial designer called Heckhausen had started making and selling lamps from the original traffic lights which had been taken down. The media jumped on this, sparking a discussion across the country on how best to deal with the dark history of the GDR. Erasing all traces that it had happened was surely neither healthy nor fair. So the Ampelmann was resurrected.

You will find the Ampelmann today on both sides of Berlin, and both sides of the country, meaning it is not a good indicator of where you are. He tends to be found on secondary roads and municipal streets. In 2004 people began to protest again, calling for equal rights in traffic lights. This lead to the birth of the more feminine ‘Ampelfrau’, who now features at the cross walks in many towns and cities in Germany. The love Germans have for the Ampelmann is strong even today, part of what we call ‘Ostalgie’, nostalgia and affection for certain aspects of East German culture. Another beloved product from the former East, is Röttkapchen, which is a rather tart German Sekt, they sell around 120 million bottles a year, making it one of the most sold wines in Germany. If you are in Berlin and feel the need for some Ampelmann in your own home, then don’t worry we have you covered. Our little communist friend has been somewhat capitalised upon, there are three shops across the city selling everything a design team can think up that is Ampelmann adorned; lamps, umbrellas, pasta and much much more.

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