The Politics of Everyday Repair Opportunities

photo project

The following text was written by Thomas Hoppenheit, PhD candidate in the REPAIR project, and reflects his presentation at our Closing Conference, “Repairing Technology – Fixing Society?” from 13-14 October 2022 in Luxemburg.

Independent repair shops have long been a staple in everyday urban and rural life. They offer many services, from alterations to (pre-emptive) maintenance and the repair of various objects. In my research, I am investigating these businesses’ overall development, focusing on repairing clothing, shoes, and early electronics (radios). I refer to these and other professions like locksmiths or blacksmiths as “everyday repair opportunities”; in other words, those with a shop open to the public relying on everyday repair jobs. Clothing and shoe repair businesses arguably faced a harsher environment than electronics businesses. They could not shift their business to repairing new products like electronic repair businesses moving to TVs, washing machines, phones, and more. This paper thus focuses on the former.

From telephone books, statistics, trade journals and other sources, it is evident that the number of these shops decreased dramatically during the short 20th century (1918-1990). This paper will highlight three aspects that can help us understand this development, looking beyond the argument that the throwaway society has rendered repair opportunities obsolete. These aspects are competition with the iron and steel industry for skilled workers, the impact of rationalisation as a new dogma, and finally, a loss in cultural capital and reputation for skilled trades and crafts.

Competition for Apprentices and Workers

Since Luxembourg’s industrialisation and especially as the country has sought full employment, competition for skilled and talented workers – from Luxembourg and beyond, with the influx of migrant workers – has been an everyday reality among businesses. My story spans the short 20th century, the times of extremes between 1918 and 1990, and therefore starts at a crucial time of industrial expansion after the First World War. Although the interwar period was accompanied by many changes in the country’s industry as Luxembourg had to leave the German Customs Union (Deutsche Zollverein), in which it had played a major role as a supplier to the comparatively large German market, traditional crafts and trades were still in a relatively healthy state considering what was to come.

Soon after the Second World War, an economic boom rushed through the Western World. In its wake came not only the acceleration of (mass) production and consumption but also new possibilities: new jobs, new long-term prospects, and new dreams. More specifically, it led to auxiliary jobs in the industry that required little to no education – as the Chamber of Skilled Trades and Crafts bemoaned in some instances as the reason for the lack of new apprentices – new prospects that allowed people to plan for retirement thanks to new social safety nets, and lastly dreams, especially on the part of parents, of a brighter future for their children.

These new developments stood in stark contrast to the low pay, (complex) manual labour and many years spent gaining qualifications in skilled trades and crafts. When we observe the number of apprentices in the sector, it becomes clear how much these professions were beginning to lag behind. Over the years of the economic boom (from approximately 1945 to 1973/4), their numbers fell from 1,851 in 1949 to 1,375 in 1973. With the end of the boom and people’s renewed burden of choosing a career path, numbers rose dramatically to 1,879. For seven years, they continued to grow, reaching a total number of 2,636 apprentices in 1980. To put these figures in context, the Luxembourgish population grew from roughly 291,000 after the war to about 365,000 by 1980. The active working population rose from 135,000 in 1947 to 153,000 in 1981. Yet the upward trend in skilled trades and crafts, already celebrated by the country’s craft and trade organisation, proved to be only temporary. By 1988, the financial sector had confirmed its role as the country’s economic engine, and there were only 1,459 apprentices left.

While this drop is significant in the small country of Luxembourg, one more aspect is essential to note from this perspective: these numbers refer to all apprentices in all crafts and trades, not only those specialising in repairing everyday items. When we focus on this sub-category, the development is even more dramatic. In 1969, as an example of a peak year of the post-war economic boom, only 41 of about 1,500 apprentices in skilled trades and crafts worked as dressmakers, one as a tailor, two as milliners and one as a furrier. No shoemakers were registered in repair, traditional shoemaking, or orthopaedics.

Additionally, about a third of these apprentices would not go on to obtain their journeyman qualifications. Another growing proportion of those left would move to industry, with its seemingly never-ending need for more skilled workers, forcing crafts and trades to rely on foreign workers.

The Everyday Reality of Rationalisation

Rationalisation, the almost magical idea in the process of industrialisation, has also been the bane of small craft businesses unable to compete with the productive output of the industry. Seeing these smaller competitors quickly lose ground, Luxembourg’s officials and the country’s craft and trade associations started to urge professionals to rationalise their businesses as well.

This process began by trying to make craft professionals adopt more transparent accounting methods. Considering the laws on maximum prices for goods and services, decisions on minimum wages, and the need to communicate one’s prices clearly in writing, bookkeeping became a significant obstacle for many small businesses. Additionally, they were further urged to buy and use new tools and machines. While essential to stay competitive, this came with high costs and required a significant investment of time and effort.

Instead of looking for alternative perspectives for skilled trades and crafts to avoid the danger of ending up in obscurity, the Fédération des Artisans (FDA) claimed that many of its members were still living in the past and saw their primary job as producing new things and waiting for customers who would eventually buy them.

Within a few years of the Second World War, craft and trade professionals had to re-envision their understanding of what a modern, prosperous store would look like. Some achieved this goal in one way or another, yet many did not. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this harsh break with the old was just too much to handle for some of the latter, sometimes ending in people struggling with their self-worth and identity as a (former) craft professional.

Loss of Reputation and Cultural Capital

Closely connected to the former aspects, a loss of reputation and cultural capital strongly influenced the long-term development of skilled trades and crafts.

From a consumer perspective, the reputation loss was the sector’s fault. The FDA considered that many of the problems were self-inflicted, and as early as 1950, it was already urging its members to uphold the need for quality. Cheap and botched work was a violation of the sector’s professional honour. Such occurrences would be harmful not only for the future of the individual business but also for the sector as a whole – one minor hit to its reputation at a time, culminating in a loss of trust from its customers.

The loss of (institutionalised) cultural capital led to a decline in the importance and reputation of being a master craftsperson. Individuals with this qualification could open their own businesses in Luxembourg, take on apprentices, and more. The growing Europeanisation of everyday life in Luxembourg challenged this key marker of being a professional. In 1963, for example, the working group on skilled crafts and trades in the European Economic Community (EEC) arranged for the mutual recognition of levels of training within the Community. This was necessary to ease many hurdles for migrant workers. Still, Luxembourg’s trades also feared a loss of reputation due to the acceptance of foreign qualifications that would not necessarily require the same effort and level of training.

A good example that highlights this aspect is the emergence of so-called shoe bars, which have appeared in increasing numbers in our town and city centres. By publicly showing the simplicity of some repair services, they impacted the public perception of the traditional work.  Mister Minit, probably the best-known (but far from the only) provider of these services in Western Europe, was founded in Belgium in 1957 and has more than 650 stores in 2022. In addition to simple shoe repairs, these stores offer key duplications, sign engravings, and watch battery replacements. From this wide range of services alone, it is easy to see that the shoemaking trade had little to offer to compete with the industrial mass production of simple consumer goods.


These three aspects show that many different strands of societal development can affect the everyday reality – and politics – of operating a small repair business in the 20th century in Luxembourg. With traditional trades and crafts engaged in harsh competition for skilled labour against the monolith of the country’s industry for many decades, politicians and craft and trade associations believed that the only feasible way forward was to push small businesses to behave like large industrial companies. For many craft and trade professionals, this became too much to handle, and many ceased to operate. They were faced with customers who demanded services beyond the scope of many businesses. They were lumped together with (former) working migrants offering comparatively simple services like regluing a heel to a shoe or altering clothes, further impacting the businesses’ standing in public opinion. What was once a wide-ranging and, at times, very prosperous trade turned into a niche occupation that demanded a lot of its protagonists if they were to succeed towards the end of the century.