The silk industry of Gersau

In the canton of Schwyz, the textile industry was the pioneer of industrialisation. However, for us, the focus was on the processing of silk and not cotton. This means silk thread and silk floss made from raw silk waste and from the silk of damaged cocoons. Gersau has been able assert itself in the past. The following text is largely derived from the reports of the Historical Association of the Canton of Schwyz, 100/2008, pp. 208-211, written by Dr. Erwin Horat. 

  • THE BEGINNINGS OF WORKING SCHAPPE SILK IN SCHWYZ

    Augustin Reding (1687-1772) founded a manufacture in Schwyz in 1728 dedicated to the production of floss silk thread. This makes him the "forefather" of the Schappe silk production in Schwyz. The first entry in the “Schwyzer Ratsprotokoll”, which deals with Augustin Reding's company, dates back to 1729 and notes that customs must be paid on silk: “At the Landtrath (a meeting of local officials)convened on 23rd August 1729, Bailiff Augustin Reding and Judge Frantz Xaveri Wüerner, were asked whether a suitable [...] duty was payable for their silk; It was established that Bailiff Reding would remove these silks from the grain house as it was intended to store grain and to clean it within 14 days; As regards the duty, it was decided that an appropriate duty should be paid to the country on silk goods exported from the country, but if a judgment is pending, it is to be suspended”. 
    On 7th May 1730, the then government of the Republic of Gersau granted the landlord Sebastian Melchior Rigert the permission to rinse and wash silk on the shores of the lake. On behalf of Joseph Augustin, Rigert was acting as the real founder of the Gersau silk industry. Reding had been denied permission from the Schwyz authorities. As a result, the floss silk industry developed rapidly in Gersau. 

  • GERSAU BECOMES CENTRAL 

    In 1730, Melchior Rigert councillor of Gersau, approved the construction of Ferdinand von Augustin Reding’s silk manufacture in Gersau. Why Augustin Reding undertook this step in Gersau and not in Schwyz is unclear. Lore suggests that Schwyz's council rejected the request, because silk manufacture was a "stinking" business. However, in the Schwyzer Ratsprotokoll there is no mention of such a rejection taking place. Possibly the favourable position on Lake Lucerne played the decisive role. The raw material, which came from Italy, was transported by lake from Flüelen. And for the further processing of the raw silk the lake offered the easiest transport connections. 
    Whatever the reason for the construction of the silk manufacture in Gersau, the decision influenced Gersau's long-term economic development. Subsequently, up to seven Gersau men worked as silk distributors for outside producers such as Augustin Reding (Schwyz) or Heinrich Imbach (Lucerne). This way they got to know the silk industry thoroughly and thus acquired the knowledge, which allowed them to make the step becoming independent silk producers. 

  • THE GERSAU SILK MASTERS

    Johann Anton Küttel (1725-1808) was the first Gersau man to take the step towards becoming a producer. He founded the company "Johann Anton Küttel & Co." in 1760, which soon flourished. Johann Anton Küttel was able to count on the support of his step-brother and future successor, Beat Küttel. 
    The landowner Andreas Camenzind (1706-1772) was the initiator for the second manufacture, the company “Andreas Camenzind & Sohn” (1771). After his early death, the son Joseph Maria Anton Camenzind (1749-1829) continued the business and brought it success in a short time; he was the richest silk master. At his death he left a fortune of 442 786 Guilders, while in his lifetime he had already paid his children over 300 000 Guilders. 
    Johann Melchior Camenzind (1730-1776) founded the company “Johann Melchior Camenzind & Sohn” in 1773. He had acquired the necessary knowledge as a partner of Johann Anton Küttel, who he took over from in 1773. This enterprise also flourished under the direction of his son Johann Caspar Camenzind (1754-1831) and was the largest manufacture in central Switzerland at the end of the 18th century. 
    The Gersau silk masters provided work and income over a large geographic area. This included Gersau, the old Schwyz Land, the Einsiedeln region, the Engelberg valley and villages in the cantons of Uri and Zug. Their number in the late 18th century was about 9000 to 10 000 people. 
    The producer was at the head of a silk manufacture. He was responsible for the purchase of the raw material, commissioned the manufacturer for the processing of the silk and was responsible for the sale of the produce. He took the business risks. In order to have a successful business he was dependent on good trade relations. He can be described as an entrepreneur. Manufacturers followed in second place. They brought the raw material to homestead workers, fetched the processed products from them and were responsible for paying them. Their profit came from the difference between the amount paid by the silk owner and the wages paid to the home workers. Lastly, those employed in the homestead industry worked the silk, either by combing or spinning, in addition to working in agriculture.

    In the second half of the eighteenth century, the three Gersauer silk manufactures were highly successful, as can be seen in their respective dwellings and in the large properties bequeathed. Georg Küttel, co-owner of Johann Küttel & Co., founded the “Hof” (court) in 1782, Johann Melchior Camenzind, owner of the company Johann Melchior Camenzind & Co., founded the Mayor’s County Hall in 1776, and Josef Maria Camenzind, co-owner of Andreas Camenzind & Sohn built the Minerva villa. Debate in the late eighteenth century reveals the pros and cons of the house industry. The advocates highlighted the improved living conditions; Thanks to higher incomes, these were being improved. In the case of Gersau, a 1797 report stated: “... a considerable fortune had been gathered and beautiful houses built without the old frugal way of life being detrimentally effected; And there is no doubt about these new sources of food which have been given to fellow-citizens, since the number of people has increased by a third.” Other voices critically opposed homestead production. Moral and ethical motives came to the fore. Those working in homesteads would become more used to luxuries and their original way of life would become alien to them. They did not correspond to the idealistic image of the “pure, unfettered” human being that many travellers hoped to discover in the “Alpine Idyll” in the 18th century. It further irritated as shepherds hoped to emulate this situation. Christoph Meiners, who twice visited the Swiss Confederation in the 1780s, said the following: “This caffeine drinking and veal eating has spread from the dwellings and workshops of the factory workers to the Alpine huts in the highest mountains, where instead of goat and cheese-milk, which used to be shepherds’ only food, they are being replaced by the most delicious coffee and the most select veal, and even pastries.” 
     

  • CHANGE

    In the second half of the eighteenth century, the three Gersauer silk manufactures were highly successful, as can be seen in their respective dwellings and in the large properties bequeathed. Georg Küttel, co-owner of Johann Küttel & Co., founded the “Hof" (court) in 1782, Johann Melchior Camenzind, owner of the company Johann Melchior Camenzind & Co., founded the Mayor’s County Hall in 1776, and Josef Maria Camenzind, co-owner of Andreas Camenzind & Sohn built the Minerva villa. The emerging mechanization of silk production in the 1830s also affected the Gersau companies. With just one single company surviving, founded by Josef Maria Anton Camenzind in 1771, due to its small growth, it was named the “Small Council”. He was just as successful in politics as in business, and was repeatedly elected by citizens as national representative and also sat in the senate of the Helvetian government. 

     

     

  • THE STEP TOWARDS MECHANIZATION

    In 1846/47 the first large silk factory was created in Eggi, following on from those created in 1859/60 in Bläui. By 1861 the third factory, the “Seefabrik” (Lake Factory) was built. Large factory buildings were the result of the rapidly evolving mechanization of silk processing. The basis for the mechanization was water. All three factories were built on the lake shore. The water from Rigiberg was needed to drive the machines and the raw material was delivered and the silk products were distributed via the lake. 

  • CRISIS

    In the early 1870s business was very bad because of the Franco-German war, bringing internal difficulties. In 1875 bankruptcy was filed. This blow hit Gersau hard because the village lived from the silk industry. The company resumed in 1880, but had to be abandoned again in 1884. The serious crisis that triggered bankruptcy is easiest to understand using population figures. In 1870 there were 2270 people, by 1880 the population had declined to 1775; in 1900, after the reactivation of silk processing, it rose to 1887. For many years, the three once proud factories stood still. From 1890, various banks took over the factories and tried to resume operations, with moderate success. 

  • FRESH BEGINNING 

    In 1892, Hermann Camenzind (1854-1916) and Caspar Josef Camenzind (1851-1911) acquired the three silk factories and their equipment, took them out of bankruptcy and dared to start afresh processing silks in Gersau. They did not go blindly into this venture, but as the owners of the floss silk works in Altdorf (since 1887) possessing the necessary commercial and technical knowledge. Despite considerable difficulties they got things back on track. In 1898, for example, steam engine operations were replaced by electrical energy. In 1904 Hermann Camenzind left the company, which was then renamed "Camenzind & Co.". After the death of Caspar Josef Camenzind, his sons Joseph and Werner and later his sons, Walter and Otto Camenzind (1902-1965) took over the leadership of the spinning mill. The factory in Eggi burned down in 1926, and was not rebuilt. The third generation and their successors led the company through the difficult years of the two world wars and into the phase of upturn after 1945. In 1965 the fourth generation took over the enterprise with Walter Camenzind, Richard Camenzind and Theo Beeler. 

  • THE FIFTH GENERATION

    The Seefabrik (Lake Factory) was shut down in 1996 and the entire plant was merged with the so-called “middle factory” in Bläui. The necessary production area was created by extension buildings in the years 1939, 1946, 1954, 1989, 1996 and 2001. In 1994, the limited partnership was transferred to a stock company named Camenzind + Co. AG. Today, spinning is carried forth by the fifth generation of Nicole Camenzind, Daniel Amstutz and Mathias Camenzind. 

THE BEGINNINGS OF WORKING SCHAPPE SILK IN SCHWYZ

Augustin Reding (1687-1772) founded a manufacture in Schwyz in 1728 dedicated to the production of floss silk thread. This makes him the "forefather" of the Schappe silk production in Schwyz. The first entry in the “Schwyzer Ratsprotokoll”, which deals with Augustin Reding's company, dates back to 1729 and notes that customs must be paid on silk: “At the Landtrath (a meeting of local officials)convened on 23rd August 1729, Bailiff Augustin Reding and Judge Frantz Xaveri Wüerner, were asked whether a suitable [...] duty was payable for their silk; It was established that Bailiff Reding would remove these silks from the grain house as it was intended to store grain and to clean it within 14 days; As regards the duty, it was decided that an appropriate duty should be paid to the country on silk goods exported from the country, but if a judgment is pending, it is to be suspended”. 
On 7th May 1730, the then government of the Republic of Gersau granted the landlord Sebastian Melchior Rigert the permission to rinse and wash silk on the shores of the lake. On behalf of Joseph Augustin, Rigert was acting as the real founder of the Gersau silk industry. Reding had been denied permission from the Schwyz authorities. As a result, the floss silk industry developed rapidly in Gersau. 

GERSAU BECOMES CENTRAL 

In 1730, Melchior Rigert councillor of Gersau, approved the construction of Ferdinand von Augustin Reding’s silk manufacture in Gersau. Why Augustin Reding undertook this step in Gersau and not in Schwyz is unclear. Lore suggests that Schwyz's council rejected the request, because silk manufacture was a "stinking" business. However, in the Schwyzer Ratsprotokoll there is no mention of such a rejection taking place. Possibly the favourable position on Lake Lucerne played the decisive role. The raw material, which came from Italy, was transported by lake from Flüelen. And for the further processing of the raw silk the lake offered the easiest transport connections. 
Whatever the reason for the construction of the silk manufacture in Gersau, the decision influenced Gersau's long-term economic development. Subsequently, up to seven Gersau men worked as silk distributors for outside producers such as Augustin Reding (Schwyz) or Heinrich Imbach (Lucerne). This way they got to know the silk industry thoroughly and thus acquired the knowledge, which allowed them to make the step becoming independent silk producers. 

THE GERSAU SILK MASTERS

Johann Anton Küttel (1725-1808) was the first Gersau man to take the step towards becoming a producer. He founded the company "Johann Anton Küttel & Co." in 1760, which soon flourished. Johann Anton Küttel was able to count on the support of his step-brother and future successor, Beat Küttel. 
The landowner Andreas Camenzind (1706-1772) was the initiator for the second manufacture, the company “Andreas Camenzind & Sohn” (1771). After his early death, the son Joseph Maria Anton Camenzind (1749-1829) continued the business and brought it success in a short time; he was the richest silk master. At his death he left a fortune of 442 786 Guilders, while in his lifetime he had already paid his children over 300 000 Guilders. 
Johann Melchior Camenzind (1730-1776) founded the company “Johann Melchior Camenzind & Sohn” in 1773. He had acquired the necessary knowledge as a partner of Johann Anton Küttel, who he took over from in 1773. This enterprise also flourished under the direction of his son Johann Caspar Camenzind (1754-1831) and was the largest manufacture in central Switzerland at the end of the 18th century. 
The Gersau silk masters provided work and income over a large geographic area. This included Gersau, the old Schwyz Land, the Einsiedeln region, the Engelberg valley and villages in the cantons of Uri and Zug. Their number in the late 18th century was about 9000 to 10 000 people. 
The producer was at the head of a silk manufacture. He was responsible for the purchase of the raw material, commissioned the manufacturer for the processing of the silk and was responsible for the sale of the produce. He took the business risks. In order to have a successful business he was dependent on good trade relations. He can be described as an entrepreneur. Manufacturers followed in second place. They brought the raw material to homestead workers, fetched the processed products from them and were responsible for paying them. Their profit came from the difference between the amount paid by the silk owner and the wages paid to the home workers. Lastly, those employed in the homestead industry worked the silk, either by combing or spinning, in addition to working in agriculture.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the three Gersauer silk manufactures were highly successful, as can be seen in their respective dwellings and in the large properties bequeathed. Georg Küttel, co-owner of Johann Küttel & Co., founded the “Hof” (court) in 1782, Johann Melchior Camenzind, owner of the company Johann Melchior Camenzind & Co., founded the Mayor’s County Hall in 1776, and Josef Maria Camenzind, co-owner of Andreas Camenzind & Sohn built the Minerva villa. Debate in the late eighteenth century reveals the pros and cons of the house industry. The advocates highlighted the improved living conditions; Thanks to higher incomes, these were being improved. In the case of Gersau, a 1797 report stated: “... a considerable fortune had been gathered and beautiful houses built without the old frugal way of life being detrimentally effected; And there is no doubt about these new sources of food which have been given to fellow-citizens, since the number of people has increased by a third.” Other voices critically opposed homestead production. Moral and ethical motives came to the fore. Those working in homesteads would become more used to luxuries and their original way of life would become alien to them. They did not correspond to the idealistic image of the “pure, unfettered” human being that many travellers hoped to discover in the “Alpine Idyll” in the 18th century. It further irritated as shepherds hoped to emulate this situation. Christoph Meiners, who twice visited the Swiss Confederation in the 1780s, said the following: “This caffeine drinking and veal eating has spread from the dwellings and workshops of the factory workers to the Alpine huts in the highest mountains, where instead of goat and cheese-milk, which used to be shepherds’ only food, they are being replaced by the most delicious coffee and the most select veal, and even pastries.” 
 

CHANGE

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the three Gersauer silk manufactures were highly successful, as can be seen in their respective dwellings and in the large properties bequeathed. Georg Küttel, co-owner of Johann Küttel & Co., founded the “Hof" (court) in 1782, Johann Melchior Camenzind, owner of the company Johann Melchior Camenzind & Co., founded the Mayor’s County Hall in 1776, and Josef Maria Camenzind, co-owner of Andreas Camenzind & Sohn built the Minerva villa. The emerging mechanization of silk production in the 1830s also affected the Gersau companies. With just one single company surviving, founded by Josef Maria Anton Camenzind in 1771, due to its small growth, it was named the “Small Council”. He was just as successful in politics as in business, and was repeatedly elected by citizens as national representative and also sat in the senate of the Helvetian government. 

 

 

THE STEP TOWARDS MECHANIZATION

In 1846/47 the first large silk factory was created in Eggi, following on from those created in 1859/60 in Bläui. By 1861 the third factory, the “Seefabrik” (Lake Factory) was built. Large factory buildings were the result of the rapidly evolving mechanization of silk processing. The basis for the mechanization was water. All three factories were built on the lake shore. The water from Rigiberg was needed to drive the machines and the raw material was delivered and the silk products were distributed via the lake. 

CRISIS

In the early 1870s business was very bad because of the Franco-German war, bringing internal difficulties. In 1875 bankruptcy was filed. This blow hit Gersau hard because the village lived from the silk industry. The company resumed in 1880, but had to be abandoned again in 1884. The serious crisis that triggered bankruptcy is easiest to understand using population figures. In 1870 there were 2270 people, by 1880 the population had declined to 1775; in 1900, after the reactivation of silk processing, it rose to 1887. For many years, the three once proud factories stood still. From 1890, various banks took over the factories and tried to resume operations, with moderate success. 

FRESH BEGINNING 

In 1892, Hermann Camenzind (1854-1916) and Caspar Josef Camenzind (1851-1911) acquired the three silk factories and their equipment, took them out of bankruptcy and dared to start afresh processing silks in Gersau. They did not go blindly into this venture, but as the owners of the floss silk works in Altdorf (since 1887) possessing the necessary commercial and technical knowledge. Despite considerable difficulties they got things back on track. In 1898, for example, steam engine operations were replaced by electrical energy. In 1904 Hermann Camenzind left the company, which was then renamed "Camenzind & Co.". After the death of Caspar Josef Camenzind, his sons Joseph and Werner and later his sons, Walter and Otto Camenzind (1902-1965) took over the leadership of the spinning mill. The factory in Eggi burned down in 1926, and was not rebuilt. The third generation and their successors led the company through the difficult years of the two world wars and into the phase of upturn after 1945. In 1965 the fourth generation took over the enterprise with Walter Camenzind, Richard Camenzind and Theo Beeler. 

THE FIFTH GENERATION

The Seefabrik (Lake Factory) was shut down in 1996 and the entire plant was merged with the so-called “middle factory” in Bläui. The necessary production area was created by extension buildings in the years 1939, 1946, 1954, 1989, 1996 and 2001. In 1994, the limited partnership was transferred to a stock company named Camenzind + Co. AG. Today, spinning is carried forth by the fifth generation of Nicole Camenzind, Daniel Amstutz and Mathias Camenzind.