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Economic History of Glarus

Before the emergence of the cotton industry in the 18th century, the Glarus economy was characterised by its natural resources, mineral resources (copper and silver mines, slate deposits), agriculture and forestry, as well as a surplus of labour.


As in the other mountain cantons, agriculture and the mercenary remained the most important branches of employment for the entire Glarus region until the first third of the 17th century. Field cultivation, still documented in the 14th century in the Sernf and Gross valleys, declined in favour of cattle breeding, a process which accelerated in the 16th century. The important role of the alpine pastures resulted from their large size compared to the hay meadows. The surplus of summering places made it possible to import additional cattle in spring, which could be sold in autumn. The interest in this business prompted the ruling families from the 16th century until the middle of the 18th century to systematically buy pasture rights from small farmers. From the 16th century onwards, the sovereignty of Glarus regularly controlled the grazing of pastures and the reclamation of land in order to prevent overuse. In the 18th century, the increased demand for dairy products led to a change in the composition of herds: More and more dairy cows were summered at the expense of slaughter cattle intended for export.


The lack of employment opportunities and the conversion of the agricultural sector (to the less labour-intensive dairy and livestock sector) meant that many Glarians moved into foreign services. This activity is documented from the 14th century onwards and played an important role until the middle of the 17th century. Between 1616 and 1641 the ruling classes of Glarus raised almost 30 companies. Subsequently, denominational affiliation determined the choice of professional activity. The Catholic ruling class relied exclusively on the mercenary service, which in the long run led to an impoverishment of the Catholic population. From the time of the Reformation the Protestants invested in trade and commerce, while the mercenary services represented only the last refuge in times of economic hardship and unemployment.


From the 15th century at the latest, various branches of production and activities contributed to the consolidation of the economy and trade in Glarus. In 1240 a rather insignificant market is mentioned in Glarus. When the village of Glarus became the main town in 1419, it was forbidden to hold a market in Näfels. This decision confirms the growing importance of trade in the whole of Glarus - and no longer only in the plain. From the 17th century onwards, Glarus was active in the expanding economies of Northern and Eastern Europe. They drove cattle to the Italian markets and loosened wood intended for the Netherlands. From some raw materials they produced products with high added value: the Schabziger made of cow's milk and blue clover, probably the oldest export product of Glarus; cloths called Mätzen, from the 15th century on made by using traditional fibres (wool and linen), whose waste was used to produce cotton wool; tables with slate panels embedded and polished, exported to the remotest parts of Europe; a spirit drink made from plant roots, in particular gentian; Glarus herbal tea, invented in the 18th century.


Institutional factors contributed to the success of the economy: low taxes, the absence of the guild system with its restrictive regulations for crafts, industry and trade and the absence of the authorities on the salt tax until the second half of the 18th century. The actual Glarus wholesale trade began in the second half of the 17th century; from this time on, state economic policy pursued the goal of guaranteeing the Glarners the exclusive marketing of their products. This led to the emergence of a class of merchants who were active in local and international markets and who succeeded in displacing foreign - in particular "French" - intermediaries who were competing with them. Internally, however, the authorities enacted numerous laws to prevent speculation: in the areas of weights and coins, consumer goods prices, wages and food quality; some alpine production was subject to market constraints.


The opening up to foreign trade favoured the development of additional activities and an infrastructure that also benefited inland trade: the embankment of the Linth from the 15th century, canal navigation on the Linth, shipbuilding and the construction of a customs house in Ziegelbrücke for the traders in the 17th century, as well as a cantonal postal service (denominationally separated from 1766). The road network was of mediocre quality until the 1830s. The improvement of the traffic routes oriented towards the economic areas in the north took place only hesitantly, as it was exclusively the responsibility of the owners of the land adjacent to the paths and roads, while the costs for the construction and maintenance of the bridges from 1471 on were borne jointly by the Tagwen. Towards the south there were only mule tracks (Kistenpass from Linthal, Panixerpass and Segnespass from Elm).



The Glarus textile industry - a chronology 


In 1714, moved by the poverty and lack of merit in Glarus, Andreas Heidegger, vicar's assistant and deacon in Glarus, brought the cotton hand spinning mill in the publishing system to Glarus. He secretly ordered spinners from the Zurich area to lead the way to the hand spinning of cotton. The publishing system was an organisational form of decentralised commercial production. Publishers made loans available to homeworkers in the form of (money for) raw materials and, in some cases, means of production. In return, they produced the required goods at home and received a piece rate from the publishers after completion. The publishers then distributed the products. This system enabled the pre-industrial production of large quantities of goods.


In 1720 the hand spinning mill spread throughout the canton and remained the most important source of income for the Glarus population until the end of the 18th century. 

 In 1740 Johann Heinrich Streiff opened the first Indiennes or textile printing works in Glarus. Indiennes, colour printed cotton fabrics, were imported from India to Europe from the 16th century onwards. In 1678, printing on cotton cloths began in Europe. Streiff was not very interested in the time-consuming printing of textiles with wooden models, but he engaged an expert colourist (colour chemist) of Huguenot descent. Although the indigo blue cloths from Streiff's manufactory found good sales, the Glarus printing industry developed only slowly in the 18th century. 


In 1780 the English machine yarn was introduced and there was a change from hand spinning to hand weaving of cotton cloths. 


In 1813 the Blumer brothers opened the first factory spinning mill in Glarus. 


In 1814, after the end of the Napoleonic wars, which brought the entire economy to a standstill, the great boom of the Glarus textile industry began, initially with printing and home weaving, later also with machine weaving and spinning; the manual spinning mill completely disappeared. The Linthaler priest Bernhard Becker later mentions the mountains as the cause of industrialisation, "which leave us no space between them, so that we could plant our bread. We had to make artificial products and let the bread be given to us from other places”. 


At the beginning of industrialisation there was no regulation of factory work at all and any interference of the state in the relations between employer and employee was rejected. Working conditions were dictated unrestrictedly by the factory owner. A sultry, hot and humid atmosphere prevailed in the printing rooms. The rooms were poorly lit, the ventilation was inadequate, oil and colour odours rose and the monotonous work had to be carried out with great hecticness and often in a stooped posture. The usual working time was 14 hours a day. "In the spinning mills the children have to endure from 5.00 in the morning until 19.30 in the evening, often even longer until 20.00. If, as is often the case, they still have a long way to go to work, they have to be taken out of sleep at 4.00 a.m. or even before that, from sleep, which for children is almost indispensable to a great extent" (Bernhard Becker). 


The first factory health insurance fund was founded in 1816 by workers from the Egidius Trümpy textile printing works in Glarus. 


In 1837 there were already 9 mechanical spinning mills in Glarus, employing around 400 people. In the same year, the workers at the Egidius Trümpy textile printing plant went on strike for two weeks to prevent the introduction of a factory bell signaling the beginning and end of working hours. However, the strike did not lead to the desired success. 

The textile factory "Blumer & Jenny" in Schwanden. From 1864, the 12-hour working day applied here first.

In 1840 the import of machine-woven cloths began and many home weavers lost their jobs. The lack of earning opportunities forced many Glarners to emigrate in the following years. 

On April 9, 1844, Johann Jakob Blumer, later member of the Council of States and first president of the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, said in a district court hearing: "In former times we had a natural outflow of human resources, the mercenary service, now we have no other means than emigration”. With the outbreak of the potato disease in the same year, a great famine spread in addition to the unemployment. Glarus was "one of the most unfortunate areas on earth where many people die of slow starvation every year". 


In 1845 193 emigrants from Glarus set off for Wisconsin, USA. With the support of the Glarnerischer Auswanderungsverein (Glarus Emigration Association) they settled the small town of New Glarus. 


In 1845 a decree issued by the government council in November, which provided for improved working conditions in the factories, was repealed two months later under the pressure from some manufacturers and replaced by the manufacturer-friendly "Factory Owners Decree".


In 1850, mechanical weaving also began in Glarus and the textile industry flourished in the following years. 


In 1858, the Sunday work was forbidden due to a request of Pastor Becker. 


In 1864 the factory police law, which was submitted by 4 workers from Luchsingen to the Landsgemeinde, brought substantial improvements. The law provided, among other things, that school-age children could no longer be forced to work in the factory, that daily working hours were limited to a maximum of 12 hours, that from 8 o'clock in the evening until 5 o'clock in the morning no work was allowed in the factories and that women were not to work before and after childbirth, in total for 6 weeks. It was the first law in Europe to establish a normal working day of 12 hours for adult men as well. 


In 1868 3843 people were employed in the 18 spinning mills and 17 weaving mills. There were still 800 home weavers and 80 people preparing the cotton fabric for printing in the 5 bleaching mills. 5516 were employed in the 22 printing factories, 250 worked as lace brusher and there were 70-80 model engravers and 40-70 fringe weavers. Around 10,600 people, including small children and elderly people, worked in the textile industry at the time, with a total population of 35,200. The small canton of Glarus took first place among the Swiss cantons in the textile printing, second place in the weaving and third place in the cotton spinning. The Glarner textile printing had a monopoly position on the world market with some articles. 


In 1872 the daily working time was reduced to 11 hours against the resistance of the employers. 


In 1877, the 11-hour day was incorporated into the new Federal Factory Act, which was strongly influenced by Glarus experience. The first federal factory inspectorate was headed by Fridolin Schuler, a physician from Glarus, who had worked hard for the interests of the workforce







With the advent of the mechanical printing process, the hand or model printing commonly used in Glarus was increasingly superseded. In addition, many countries began to protect their own goods with high import duties. Some companies were able to circumvent this protectionist policy by relocating their production to other countries. But the decline of the textile industry in Glarus, which had already begun towards the end of the 19th century, could not be stopped. 


The decline of the printing and textile industry towards the end of the century hit the country hard. Nevertheless, the Glarus economy managed the structural change despite these disgusting circumstances.  Today, for example, high-tech companies can be found in the "Hänggiturm" - wooden tower in which the printed colored cloths were once hung out to dry. The versatility gained made the Glarus economy more resilient; the enormous dependence on exports has remained.

Source: Historical Dictionary of Switzerland (HLS) /

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Textilfabrik Blumer und Jenny.jpg

The factory bell from the Egidius Trümpy textile printing works in Glarus (Museum of the Land of Glarus, Näfels). At the beginning of 1837, a bell was hung in the factory to indicate the beginning and end of working hours.  The textile printers reacted by stopping work on 21 January. The strike of the factory bell symbolizes the first major factory strike in Switzerland. 

Fridolin Schuler.jpg

Fridolin Schuler (1832-1903) was one of the pioneers of the Swiss welfare state as a doctor and first Federal Factory Inspector. From an early age, he was committed to improving the living conditions of factory workers and introducing legislation to protect workers. As a factory inspector, he played a key role in implementing the Federal Factory Act of 1877.

The Hänggiturm on the site of the former textile printing company Blumer & Jenny in Schwanden was built in 1828 when the Blumer company was founded. It is one of the few remaining drying buildings that once formed a characteristic feature of the Glarus printing industry in large numbers.

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