Historical document: Ulla Schley found this photo, from 1908, in her grandmother’s estate. It shows the future married couple Elsa and Paul Karlau upon their engagement. A reproduction is now kept in the tesa archive.
In Germany, its home, tesa® enjoys 98 percent name recognition. The word “tesa” can even be found in the Duden authoritative German dictionary as a general term for adhesive tape. And yet the story of the woman who gave the tape its name, Elsa Tesmer, was almost completely forgotten. Now a photo of her has come to light for the first time, thanks to painstaking “detective work.”
Flanked on the left by an old yew tree and on the right by a pine, there it is, in section AA 6, the site numbered 115/116: a black granite stone bearing an inscription in gold. Of particular interest are two dates: September 23, 1887 and September 30, 1968. And a name with them: Elsa Karlau, née Tesmer. The mystery has been solved: Elsa Tesmer, whose name lent the syllables “te” and “sa” to form the name “tesa,” which was entered in the goods register about a hundred years ago, is buried at the cemetery in the Ohlsdorf section of Hamburg.
She died in 1968, at the age of 81. Finding her exact place of rest was like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack; since 1877, about 1.4 million burials have taken place here, at the world’s largest park cemetery.
In total, 273,000 gravesites are still in use. Individual graves normally exist for 25 years. The grave of the Karlau family has existed since 1910,” explains Lutz Rehkopf, press spokesman of the Hamburg cemeteries, who was enormously helpful in giving the brand tesa®, which is well known throughout Germany and in many other countries, a “face” at last.
“It is astonishing that in the archive we have a lot of documents about the founding fathers of Beiersdorf, but none about the ‘mother’ of tesa®,” says historian Thorsten Finke.
All the archive has is one letter: In 1960, Elsa Karlau asked for three inflatable blue NIVEA balls for her grandchildren. The elderly lady asked, almost in an aside, “Do you know how the name tesa came about? At that time, we in the office were given the task of forming names.” And the rest, as they say, is history… The company answered promptly: “Further to your request, we are sending you one hand dispenser for each of your grandchildren, along with the tape that bears your name.”
After extensive research, including by telephone and at government agencies, failed to turn up anything, tesa’s efforts were helped by coincidence and a well-organized computer at the cemetery administration. Lutz Rehkopf was the one to finally contact Ulla Schley.
Elsa Karlau’s 61-year-old granddaughter moved to Munich with her husband in 1990. She was able to report various details of the life of her grandmother, who from April 1903 until the end of October 1908 was employed first as an office clerk and then as the office manager.
“The fact that she left in 1908 was a logical consequence at that time,” Schley says. “That was the year my grandmother got married. Then she had five children: Irma, Erich, the twins Heinz and Gerda, and Wilhelm.”
Her husband Paul was considered a truly “good catch” – he worked in a supervisory position on the construction of the old Elbe tunnel, in Hamburg. The couple celebrated their golden anniversary in 1958. “We grandchildren knew very well that our grandma was the famous ‘Mrs. tesa,’” says Schley with a smile. “I have kept an old dispenser made of brown bakelite as a souvenir to this day.”