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Alba Iulia –an economic puzzle

Let us start by stepping into the shoes of a passing traveller who, watching from the window of a coach, caught some fleeting glimpses of the outward-facing sides of Alba Iulia around the year 1900. Entering the city from the south, the imposing size of Johanna Mill, a true embodiment of the idea of industry, would have impressed this visitor. However, this impression would be short-lived. The next sequence of sights would give him reasons to think that he was just passing through a settlement with a retail economy. Indeed, what economic wonders could one expect from a city with a multiethnic community of only 11,000 inhabitants?

This introduction aims to emphasize the contrast between the impression of a passing visitor and the real life of an urban community. In 1900, Alba Iulia was a small modernizing city. Even though its economy was dominated by retail, an industry, linked with the agriculture practiced by most of the city inhabitants and those in adjacent areas, was developing. 

For the beginning, it is time to make justice by rehabilitating the concept of “retail economy”. The average customer preferred to enter the shop of the Jewish trader, where he could purchase needles, scythes, and also lamp oil, salt or beer. Adalbert Cserni’s eye was enticed by such a shop, located in Novák Ferenc Square, called the “Old House” by the famous archeologist and photographer. In this photo, our attention goes to the image of a small building seemingly sunk into ground because of the continuous heightening of the ground surface. Its thick walls, its artistic metal hardware, and the shape of its roof suggest the architecture of the early nineteenth century, if not earlier. Unfortunately, this image is all that is left of the shop of Antal Lakner.

The retail business in Alba Iulia surpassed this basic level, which could be encountered in well-off villages as well. Both, photographic images and other sources offer us the surprising discovery that the little city on Mureș River was tied to the saga of a famous family of Transylvanian traders. Although their origins were much older, the Saxon name Misselbacher appeared in sources of Sighișoara in the seventeenth century. The trade firm of the family was registered in 1818. After achieving success in Sighișoara, the prosperous Misselbachers moved to Sibiu, where their enterprise continued to thrive. In 1902, in one of the most grandiose buildings of the Great Square of Sibiu, the grocery store of Julius B. Misselbacher was opened. Around the same time, the firm began its operations in Alba Iulia, precisely in the central business district of the lower part of the city, in Novák Square, or Great Market, nowadays Iuliu Maniu Square. The business developed relentlessly and in no time the “D. Misselbacher J.B.” firm was posted on the adjoining, and more imposing, two-storied edifice. Their wholesale or retail store from Alba Iulia sold internal or imported food products, chemicals and building materials.

This example of “big business” was not unique in Alba Iulia. Although initially hesitating, we are compelled by the sources to accept that in 1929, in the center of the city, operated a grand store for luxury vehicles. It belonged to Aszlanyi & Baumann enterprise, which was the exclusive supplier of Chevrolet cars in Alba County. The same store traded Firestone tyres.

Five of the trade firms were organized as joint-stock companies. The city guides display commercials for almost 40 enterprises of this sort, but their number was probably greater. In the inter-war period, according to sources, Romanians, who controlled only five enterprises, but in reality more than that, were striving to expand in a business dominated until that time by representatives of other ethnic groups. The Chamber of Trade and Industry of Alba County was established in 1927, which proves of a certain tendency of economic development. Its headquarters were inaugurated shortly afterwards and still preserve the architectonic charm of the period.

Should we envision Alba Iulia as a trade center in the first half of the twentieth century? That would be an overstatement because the city was not unique in this respect compared to other cities of Transylvania. However, the memory preserved by photographs discards the myth of a dusty town with insufficient and obsolete trade life.

The industry of Alba Iulia could be discussed along the same lines, although this economic branch was far from competing with the trade activities. For a city located near a vast agricultural expanse, it was natural to expect the preponderance of enterprises specialized in cereal processing. This visual memory exercise recalls to mind the image of Johanna Mill, which is still dominating the southern entrance of the city, although nowadays it has a different name and owners. The mill was built in 1894 by Adolf and Samuel Glück and developed its production reaching in 1912 a daily output of six wagonloads. Two more mills were built in Alba Iulia. The mill owned by Rudolf Glück started in 1907, followed by Elisabeta Mill in 1930. Alba Iulia’s economic position was improved with the important production of flour for internal consumption and export provided by these three mills.

Another kind of industry that prospered in Alba Iulia was the hard liquor distillery. This fact illustrates the abundance of grains and a somewhat unhealthy consumption habit of its citizens regardless of their ethnicity or social background. Iacob Glück, the entrepreneur who brought his family among the richest Jewish houses of Transylvania, built the most important spirit distillery in 1873. With a daily output of 1200 liters pure alcohol, the distillery’s chimney dominated the urban landscape of the lower part of the city until recently. Two more distilleries were built in Alba Iulia in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

One can add five furniture factories, “Muschong” tile factory in Sântimbru, a soap factory, “Helia”, the shoes factory built later, in 1926, which makes a total number of 18 industrial facilities. To ponder whether this number was high or low, such an economic development must be measured according to the parameters specific to its historical context. (V.M.)