For members


Swiss history: The country was once so poor, people had to go abroad to survive

It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when tens of thousands of Switzerland’s citizens emigrated to escape a life of poverty.

Swiss history: The country was once so poor, people had to go abroad to survive
Mountain and rural regions were most affected by emigration. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

Switzerland, today one of the world’s wealthiest nations, wasn’t always so affluent.

In centuries past, a large portion of the population in this landlocked, mountainous country with no natural resources, struggled to survive. This was especially true of rural areas, where people remained poverty-stricken well into the 19th century.

Even as urban dwellers started to benefit from the economy-transforming industrialisation, those living in the countryside or in Alpine regions suffered from widespread famine, prompting many of them to seek their fortunes overseas — primarily in South and North America.

Immigrants from certain cantons went on to establish ‘colonies’ in their new countries of residence, such as Novo Friburgo in Brazil and New Glarus in the Unites States.

Many of those who did not go abroad moved from rural areas to the cities, where they continued to live in precarious conditions.

According to an official government document, “Anyone who was not a citizen of a commune was homeless and lived on the margins of the community or was left to wander the country as a vagrant”. 

So how did Switzerland morph from a poor nation to an affluent one it is today? And how did it become a country of immigrants rather than emigrants?

Its rags-to-riches story has roots in the economic boom of the late 19th century, which would continue into the 20th century — and beyond.

READ MORE: Why is Switzerland so expensive?

In the 1950s, Switzerland shifted from industrial to a service economy; its financial sector started to flourish by offering confidential — and not always totally legal — services and protection to the wealthy. (However, new laws have been enacted in past years, making Swiss financial institutions more transparent and compliant with international regulations).

But its success story goes far beyond banking.

Other industries, such as pharmaceutical, watchmaking, and tourism, have been growing and boosting the economy.

And let’s not forget direct democracy and political stability, both of which have contributed greatly to transitioning Switzerland from a pauper nation to a very prosperous one.

Member comments

  1. My name is Tom Ramstack from Milwaukee, WI, USA. I am a 67 year old retired Special Education Teacher from our area with a love for local history. Our family emigrated from Bavaria and settled in town of Brookfield (1844). I am in the process of writing a local history of our town which included more than 40 families from Canton Thurgau as well as well as Canton Bern during early 1850’s. I have little knowledge of conditios in Switzerland at that time which caused so many to leave. I am hoping someone might lead me in a direction so that I might learn more about the real conditions. in 2019 I publshed a book entitled “Looking into Our Grandparents Immigrant Eyes” available on…focued on the number of western European families who found their way to southeastern Wisconsin during mid-19th Century. The conditioms were ripe for Wisconsin.. negative quality of life throughout western Europe and Wisconsin calling out for immigrants in all languages as we were hungry to move from territorial status to statehood (self-goverenment). You might find the book to be interesting. I am not in it for commercial profit. Amazon takes 90% of all retail sales. I simply enjoy learning and sharing historical knowledge with others. Sorry, I got so “long-winded”. Have a wonderful day!!! Best Regards, Tom R., Milwaukee

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


What you need to know when taking your clothes off in Switzerland

As you know by now, the Swiss have laws and regulations for pretty much everything — ranging from how to throw away your garbage to how to boil a lobster. But what about nudity? Here's the bare truth.

What you need to know when taking your clothes off in Switzerland

The weather is getting warmer and you may want to shed as much of your clothing as you legally can. But how much skin can you safely bare in Switzerland?

You may be surprised to learn that Switzerland’s, um, penal code does not ban public nudity — as long as it is not indecent.

Interestingly though, the term “indecent” is not clearly defined in the Swiss law, so it is open to interpretation.

Be it as it may, the subject was widely reported in the media in 2009, when residents of Appenzell Innerrhoden complained about people hiking in their mountains, wearing nothing but backpacks and hiking boots.

Their concern had nothing to do with the fact that unclothed hikers took to the mountains in the middle of a cold Alpine winter.

Rather, they disliked that the walkers passed families with children and a Christian rehabilitation facility. 

The case eventually ended up before the cantonal court, which ruled that people should cover up when walking in public places. However, this ruling applies only in Appenzell, not in the rest of the country.

Another example of the liberal attitude that reigns in much of Switzerland regarding nudity has been the Body and Freedom Festival that took place regularly in August in various Swiss cities until 2018.

The festival exposed —  literally — actors performing in the buff in the midst of crowded city streets.

During one such event that took place in Bienne, local officials not only authorised the performance, but also contributed $20,000 of public funds to it.

The only condition they made was that, for safety reasons, naked performers stay clear of traffic, so drivers wouldn’t be distracted.

READ MORE: Naked artists cause stir with Zurich street performances

What about topless bathing in public?

This practice is much more common than walking in the nude (after all, how many naked hikers have you encountered on mountain trails?)

Nothing in the federal law addresses the issue of toplessness; cantons don’t have such legislation either, leaving final decisions in this matter to individual municipalities.

It is perhaps incorrect to say that the vast majority of communes in Switzerland actually authorise topless sunbathing and swimming, but they don’t ban it either.

In fact, there is currently a motion in the parliament (because apparently MPs are not busy enough with more pressing matters) urging Swiss officials to allow toplessness on public beaches.

“Such a topless rule is absolutely necessary in Switzerland”, said Social Democratic MP Tamara Funiciello.  “Women should be able to walk around, swim, and sunbathe as they please”.

Helena Trachsel, head of the Equal Opportunities Office in the canton of Zurich, also believes that toplessness makes sense: “From an equal opportunities perspective, it is clear that the same rules apply to all genders, including women and non-binary people”, she said.

However, Martin Enz, managing director of the Association of Indoor and Outdoor Pools sees no need for action: “If a person discreetly drops their bikini top and does not show off, this is accepted in most outdoor pools. The problem tends to be men who gape”, he noted.

So when and where can you take your clothes off in Switzerland?

What is clear is that you definitely should not walk around naked anywhere in Appenzell.

As far as other cantons and or /municipalities are concerned — whether you want to hike naked in the mountains or swim topless — it’s best to check with your local authorities about what is and is not permitted in your area before you leave your house buck naked.

READ MORE: The 12 strange laws in Switzerland you need to know