Zurich’s economy – highlights
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Zurich becomes a motor of the Swiss economy. The city’s industry, railway construction and Zurich’s banking sector help to usher in the modern era. Come with us on a tour of Zurich’s economic history, from industrialisation to the Swissair grounding.
From plough to factory chimney
Industrialisation is a social and economic transformation that brings sweeping changes to the canton of Zurich. Rural families work from home weaving and spinning by hand for the textile industry, particularly in the Zürcher Oberland; soon they will be working in factories. The first mechanical looms come to Switzerland from England in the 1830s.
Entrepreneurs build their factories where there is water to power water wheels, and later turbines. This exceptional development changes the face of the countryside, villages and towns. Most prominent today are the above-ground constructions from that era: factories, factory-owners’ houses and hydraulic structures. A walk along the Zürcher Oberland industry trail reveals numerous vestiges of that pioneering economic age.
The railways come to Switzerland
“Steam is creating a new world, and all peoples are rushing to find their place in the new division of the Earth and set themselves up there”, writes the NZZ in 1852.
Steam-powered machines and steam locomotives play a major role in the second phase of industrialisation. Switzerland, however, is a latecomer in terms of railway construction. The first tracks on Swiss soil are not laid until 1844 in Basel, and extending the line into the Central Plateau proves a difficult undertaking. By that time, thousands of kilometres of railway lines have already been constructed in Germany, France and Austria.
Belle époque and the cannons’ roar
During the belle époque, everything becomes bigger and more glamorous. The bourgeoisie, with its faith in progress underpinned by science and technology, is in a strong position during the two decades leading up to 1914, but the working class too benefits from the general economic growth.
Then the upturn comes to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the First World War. Nevertheless, the new institutions and developments in the early years of the 20th century continue to shape life in Switzerland today: nationalisation of the railways, countrywide business censuses and the Swiss National Bank. The interwar period brings a brief economic upswing, while the end of the 20th century witnesses the global economic crisis.
Boom after the Second World War
The post-war period is a time of unprecedented economic growth that endures into the 1970s. Extensive construction activity and growing mobility change the face of Zurich and Switzerland.
The country moves from a war economy to a social market economy. The years that follow witness a boom: hydroelectric power generation is expanded, new roads and the first motorways are built, and Switzerland consolidates its welfare state with the introduction of old age and survivor’s insurance and disability insurance. From the 1960s onwards, economic growth fuels demand for foreign labour in the construction and tourism industries. The oil crisis of the 1970s, however, brings the economic upswing to an abrupt end.
Our economics experts recommend:
- Joseph Jung: “Das Laboratorium des Fortschritts: Die Schweiz Im 19. Jahrhundert”
Jung examines how the small state of Switzerland becomes an economic powerhouse. An entertaining guide to economic history.
- Patrick Halbeisen et al.: “Wirtschaftsgeschichte der Schweiz im 20. Jahrhundert”
An extensive, academic analysis of individual sectors based on statistical estimates of the economic trends in Switzerland.
- Jean-François Bergier: “Wirtschaftsgeschichte der Schweiz: Von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart”
A comprehensive overview of Swiss economic history up to the 1980s by a seasoned expert in the field. Still worth reading.
The Turicensia Department recommends books, articles, videos and more on this topic from the Zurich Bibliography. For more fascinating insights into the textile industry see the Schwarzenbach family and company archive in the Manuscript Department.