A hundred years ago there was great depression in the city
While other cities celebrated a golden age a hundred years ago with a lot of amusement and joie de vivre, there was great resignation in St.Gallen due to the decline of the embroidery industry and the severe economic depression – reinforced by the iron will to save.
Embroidery crisis In general, the decline of St.Gallen embroidery has so far been associated with changed fashion. The changes certainly had a significant impact, but as a new scientific paper (“Success and Crisis of the Swiss Embroidery Industry” by Eric Häusler and Caspar Meili) shows, the crisis was also definitely homemade. Many companies acted conservatively, hardly adapting their strategies to changed framework conditions. Their main goal was to reduce production costs because they expected higher sales from lower prices. A devastating price competition ensued that did not allow most actors to make a profit in the 1920s. Price agreements that were possible at the time, consistent market orientation and collective advertising were dispensed with.
The settlement of new companies was difficult
The decline of embroidery with the loss of thousands of industrial jobs called for the establishment of new companies. Thanks to the commitment of innovative entrepreneurs, but also targeted government aid measures, various promising companies developed in the 1920s, which also resulted in setbacks. Attempts to locate new companies were made difficult not only by the unfavorable economic situation, but also by the lack of skilled workers. The first attempt with a cantonal commission to introduce new industries failed and this had to be dissolved after a few years. But the pressure on the city council to create new jobs intensified and so a “central office for the introduction of new industries” was created. The central office regarded the task of finding new uses for the fallow factory and office space as a priority. Textile companies that concentrated on the domestic market, but mostly did not have a long lifespan, established themselves in St.Gallen. In addition, unfamiliar industries could be won for St.Gallen and glass, leather, rubber, paper and metal, for example, were manufactured and processed.
Canned food and glass processing
Many new production companies were not located in the city of St.Gallen, but in the Rorschach / Rheintal area, where embroidery production previously played a major role. In St.Gallen itself, at the height of embroidery, mostly administration and development was carried out in the stately trading houses. Here, through the mediation of the “central office” in Winkeln, the Conservenfabrik St.Gallen AG and Forma Vitrum were founded. The city built its own sewer system for the canning factory for the 800,000 liters of wastewater produced in the high season. The company started manufacturing canned meat and vegetables and quickly developed into a medium-sized company thanks to substantial deliveries to Migros. The Forma Vitrum also enjoyed many years of success.
The misconception that embroidery will recover
For a long time, however, the misconception persisted that the embroidery industry would recover and that one simply had to persevere. But only a few companies were able to hold out and survive after the Second World War with high-quality products. The characteristics of the much-vaunted «textile city of St.Gallen» have not completely disappeared. In terms of jobs, the textile sector is vanishingly small, but continues to be famous for success in fashion, especially by Akris. In cooperation with Empa, textiles for the health sector are also being developed, which could be widely used in the future.
Effects on all branches of the economy
When trying to conquer new fields in the textile sector, some companies had to be given up again because there was no demand. To make matters worse, the decline of embroidery affected all branches of the economy. The commercial banks were faced with a constantly falling demand. The bank in St.Gallen, which was only founded in 1919, had to be liquidated in 1922. Many hopes were placed with the “Ostschweizerische Aero-Gesellschaft”, which started regular air traffic to Zurich and Basel. However, since the take-off and landing conditions in St.Gallen were difficult, the St.Gallen airfield was integrated into that of Altenrhein of Dornier-Flugwerke in 1931 – not without criticism from the canton capital. Subsidies from the canton and the municipalities of Thal, Rheineck and Rorschach made it possible to build the airfield. The number of self-employed people, namely individual stickers and home workers, decreased drastically. But that’s not all: the long crisis pushed women out of business life. Their share of the workforce decreased from forty to thirty percent.
Difficult job search
Finding work in St.Gallen was extremely difficult a hundred years ago. When a waiting position had to be filled in St. Georgen in 1922, 240 people registered, and 400 applicants for a caretaker position in the Peter and Paul Wildlife Park. An example is the fate of Frida Köchli, who had to look around for a new job after leaving school at the age of thirteen a hundred years ago: “I set out on my way. There was a twist. Hopefully I headed for it. I quickly figured out what I had to say and stood in front of the porter’s house. The window was down and there was a note stuck to it with black inscription: No workers will be hired. There I stood and stared with my mouth open at the closed window with the note. (?) Yes, I thought, it has more factories. (?) I stood in front of the second, the third, the fourth porter’s house, the note was hanging everywhere. (?) I turned resignedly to the next village. It was half an hour’s walk, I didn’t have any money to use the train. (?) Only in two factories was the dreaded note not posted, but I wasn’t lucky there either. ” This bitter experience of the young Frida Köchli happened to many in areas where the embroidery industry had determined the welfare of almost the entire population for many decades.
Numerous emergency works
The city tried to attract the many unemployed to temporary work with emergency work, the costs of which were shared by the federal government and the canton. For example, renovation, conversion and repair work on the barracks and weighing house as well as on the shooting range at the Sitter were on the program. Often the unemployed were also used for civil engineering work, for road construction and digging for the sewer system. As part of a construction contract from SBB, 60 to 100 men could be deployed for several months. The area around Dreilinden prevented further emergency work. The Nellus pond north of the Frauenweiher was filled in and a “sun and air bath facility for women and girls”, today’s family pool, was created on the newly created meadow.
Closure of institutions
The “golden age” also led to the painful loss of institutions in St.Gallen, such as the British and American consulates and the SBB district directorate. The need to save money also meant that culture was put on the back burner and the city could hardly develop any further. The voters, for example, refused a loan application for the modernization of the tram. Not even the construction of a gym in Bruggen found acceptance. This, too, was a reaction to the economic crisis. Apparently resigned, the authorities hardly sought loans from the electorate from 1922 onwards. The city and local council no longer saw any political options for counteracting the crisis through a determined urban investment policy. This also meant that the 1920s left only a few traces in the cityscape, and the economic problems were exacerbated.
Parallels to the corona pandemic just experienced can be seen for the first few years of “Gross-St.Gallen” (with the incorporation of Tablat and Straubenzell). Because of the Spanish group, all restaurants were closed and meetings prohibited. Social life almost came to a standstill, but the crisis did not lead to any significant social changes. It just seems that conservative thinking has been strengthened, which has led to the “conservative city” cliché that still exists today. Hopefully this will not happen again. New ideas and new political decisions, in spite of the restrictions that have hit many hard, show a progressive way of thinking, with which targeted investment activity can prevent an economic downturn.
From Franz Welte