Vojta Naprstek

Vojta Naprstek

By Alena Skodova.

Vojta Naprstek was a man who liked technical progress, books and oriental arts. When one looks at his life, the first thing that strikes us is the fact that he was a man who - together with many of his friends - tried to contribute to the creation of a modern Czech nation. And as we'll hear in this week's Czechs in History, he was immensely successful ....

Vojta Naprstek was born in Prague in April 1826. His widowed mother, Mrs. Fingerhut, which is the German version of the name Naprstek, owned a big house in the centre of the city with a brewery, wine distillery and a pub called U Halamku. The pub later become a meeting place of Vojta's friends - prominent personalities in Prague public life. But as we hear from associate professor Josef Kandert from the Faculty of Sociology at Charles University, as a young man, Vojta was certainly not kept on a short leash.....

"He started his teenage years literally in a revolutionary way... In the revolutionary year of 1848 he took part in student riots in Vienna, and quite soon he had to leave the Czech lands because a warrant on him had been issued by the Austrian police. He stayed for some time in Germany and then sailed to the United States, where he lived for ten years. After returning home, his mind was set on a plan to change the Czech nation - which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire - into a modern society that would match other developed nations."

He started materializing his plan through established state-owned institutions, such as the National Museum in Prague, but realized very soon that it was not the right way to go. No one wanted to have anything to do with Vojta, as his name was still on the police list. That's why he started realizing his dreams with the help of his friends, and all his activities from the 1860s to 1890s were pursued with this vision in mind.

"On the one hand his work was inconspicuous and quiet, but on the other hand it was immensely efficient, resulting in the establishment of the Industrial Museum in Prague which bears Naprstek's name, but also in creating the largest Czech encyclopaedia of his time - the Otto Encyclopaedia, and in numerous little improvements that made people's life easier and more pleasant."

Vojta Naprstek
Later on, Vojta Naprstek even became involved in political life - in the 1870s and 80s he worked as a Prague councilor, and his work yielded very good results, which enhanced the people of Prague's quality of life. Naprstek was a rich Prague burger, who made his living on the family's brewery and wine distillery business, and he had enough money to act independently in state institutions. Quite often he was at war with them and liked to show his independence....

But his stay in America seemed to play a pivotal role in his further life, as we hear from dr. Kandert:

"Naprstek left for America because of the warrant issued on him. In America he tried all kinds of jobs, ranging from unskilled work to a newspaper publisher. Here, too, he wanted to live independently, but after some time he saw that being independent was not an easy job. However, his wealthy mother started sending him money from Prague and he established quite a good standard of living in the United States."

Already during his stay in the US, Naprstek started thinking about the best way of how to help his nation. During an expedition to the Indian tribe of Lacoots on the Missouri river he started collecting items for the National Museum in Prague. From America, Vojta brought to Prague the first refrigerator, sewing machine and pressure pot and started fighting for women's equality. In the U Halamku pub he reserved certain weekdays for ladies only and in 1866 he established an American Ladies' Club. The club organized lectures and trips, where men had no access. It had dozens of members and outlived its founder by more than 50 years. And regarding the influence of his mother and later on the role played by his wife Josefa - nicknamed Pepca - women must have played an important role in Vojta's life:

"He left for America together with his girlfriend Tinka Krakorova, which made his mother furious. That's why she hadn't sent him a single dime before Tinka found another man and the two split.... All in all, he loved beautiful women, and his wife Josefa was of much help to him. She worked for many long years in his mother's wine distillery and was one of Mrs. Naprstkova's main helpers."

Although Vojta and Josefa lived for many years as a common-law husband and wife, Vojta's mother didn't want to hear a single word about their marriage. She wanted to remain the master of the house, and so Vojta married Josefa only after 17 years of mutual love, after his mother's death. Their wedding - Vojta was then 49 and Josefa 37 - was the first ever civil wedding, concluded at Prague's Old Town Hall, and it caused a sensation. But the marriage proved very useful, because the modest and diligent Pepca helped her husband to manage their business, did all his correspondence even in the English language, and also helped him in his work on a newly established Industrial Museum, which he founded in the 1870s in the Red Eagle House in Prague, inherited from his aunt.

"He opened his museum in what is now a historical building, that's the part of the whole complex where today there are offices and a library. The whole area comprised of a cluster of five medieval inter-linked houses, and the first expositions opened in the basement of those houses. Only several years later, a new building was constructed, where Naprstek's items are still exhibited. He was buying and collecting exhibits from his friends who travelled a lot, such as dr. Emil Holub, the first Czech traveller to Africa, doctor Stekr and many others. His collections, including mainly items from Africa, Indonesia and Japan, had been obtained from his friends or at auctions. In today's Naprstek Museum we can find items that no one was willing to pay for in the 1890s except Vojta Naprstek."

Although Vojta was rather conservative as far as his political views were concerned, he was a real innovator in the everyday life. In 1891 he was one of the organizers of the General Industrial Exhibition in Prague, was one of the first people in Prague to have a telephone installed in his house, he was an ardent promoter of shorthand, a supporter of public tram transport in Prague as well as a patron of countless cultural ventures.

Although the Naprstek Industrial Museum and his American Ladies' Club have ceased to exist, the Museum of Oriental Cultures and its rich library - Naprstek managed to collect some 46,000 copies and 18,000 photographs - go on living and are still very popular.

Vojta Naprstek was an innovator and a bit of eccentric not only during his life, but even after his death. When he died in September 1894, he was one of the first Czechs to be cremated. And because there was no crematorium in the Czech lands in those times, Naprstek was cremated in the German town of Ghota, and the urn with his ashes was then exhibited in one of the halls of the Naprstek Museum.