How Swiss women used to spend their hard-earned leisure time

Catching some mountain sun in Davos in 1937 Akg-images

Leisure time as we know it today was not always a given, particularly for Swiss women, up until the first half of the 20th century.

This content was published on October 4, 2020 – 12:00

In 1877, the federal Factory Law introduced the 11-hour working day. Once the factory shift was over, men had free time, known as rest time. Working women, however, came home from the factory to take care of the household, the laundry, the children and the cooking. Women had to fight hard to secure a small window of leisure time.

The appeal of the department stores that opened in Switzerland at the end of the 19th century was that duty became pleasure: women could leave their neighbourhoods to go shopping, escaping social constraints for a brief moment.

Josef Weber, the son of a rich merchant, opened J. Webers Bazaar, the first big department store in Switzerland, on the Papierwerd Island in Zurich in 1892. Magazine zum Globus
The food hall at Globus in Zurich in about 1912. Shoppers could look at everything, the prices were fixed, and there was no pressure to buy. This new mode of shopping was tinged with a hint of glamour. Magazine zum Globus

From hygiene to sport for pleasure

The first public baths, built at the beginning of the 19th century in response to growing awareness about hygiene, offered women their first free spaces. It was not until 1837 that a bathing ban for women was dropped in Zurich and a “ladies’ bath house” was built. 

The Belvoir Women’s Baths in Zurich in an undated photograph. The women are sitting on the barrier between the non-swimmers’ and swimmers’ pools. In the years before 1900, wooden baths with strict gender separation were constructed across Switzerland. Baugeschichtliches Archiv
In the 1920s, swimming was viewed as a sport especially suited to women. Swimming was believed to promote finely toned muscles and was considered appropriately feminine. From 1925, girls were taught swimming, as boys had been for the past 100 years. Schweizerisches Sozialarchiv
Gradually, lake bathing replaced the old wooden baths. In the 1930s, women were also permitted to enjoy the sun on lake shores. Keystone / Walter Studer

Cinemas, dancing and cafés

It was often artists, intellectuals and adventurous women who paved the way for more rights and freedom. They had studied in Paris, London or New York, and on their return to Switzerland, they wanted to contribute to the social debates and cultural life. They were keen to build their own social lives independently.

Two examples are the sculptor Anna Indermayr, the first female director of a cinema in Switzerland, and the self-taught dancer Trudi Schoop, who opened her own dance school in 1921 at the age of 18.

In 1935, Anna Indermaur opened Nord-Süd, the first studio cinema in Switzerland, next door to Café Select. “It was a cultural act that shook the patriarchal Zurich film business to its foundations,” the Neue Zürcher Zeitung wrote in Indermaur’s 1980 obituary. Theo Frey / Fotostiftung Schweiz
Life was made difficult for Anna Indermaur: female competition was intolerable to the owners of renowned cinemas. Film distributors sided with the cinema-owners and boycotted Nord-Süd. Indermaur had to acquire many of the films she wanted to show on the black market. After an endless legal wrangle fought by her brother, the cinema was finally accepted into the Lichtspiel Verband, the official association of film exhibitors. Baugeschichtliches Archiv / Forter E.
Cinema visits were deemed morally risky for mothers. They were advised to go for walks in the fresh air or go shopping instead. Women loved the cinema because it offered intimacy but was also a public place, it fuelled the imagination and it offered an opportunity for secret kisses. Akg-images / Weegee
Café Select profited from its proximity to the cinema. It soon became the favourite café for the women’s arts and culture scene in Zurich. Fotostiftung Schweiz / Anita Niesz

In the 1920s, people wanted to liberate not just their creative spirits from constraints, but also their bodies. Sexual taboos and strict conventions disappeared. This was especially revolutionary for women: they no longer depended on a partner to take them out and include them in social gatherings. They took control of their own social lives.

Trudi Schoop’s creations and pantomimes are sometimes viewed by the public as comedy acts, which is why she was known as the female Charlie Chaplin. She founded her second dance school in 1931 to realise her own take on modern expressive dance.

Trudi Schoop struggled against the prevailing moral ideas at the time. After five years she was forced to give up her dance hall in a Zurich church. She emigrated to the United States where she became a pioneer of dance therapy.

Trudi Schoop in the role of Fridolin in an undated photograph. She was a fervent advocate of free movement in dance and was also a dance therapist. Robert Walser Stiftung / Carl Seelig
A dancer in 1927. Martin Imboden / Fotostiftung Schweiz
Young women dance the Charleston in about 1926. Getty images

As people moved to the cities, industries that offered ways of spending newly available free time began to emerge – a development that gained pace after the 48-hour week was introduced in 1919. The circus, opera houses, theatres and, from the mid-1920s, the radio offered diversion and entertainment.

At the same time, a range of youth and women’s organisations came into being to guard against the feared disintegration of morals. They offered controlled and, in their view, “meaningful” leisure activities designed to influence the youth according to their political or religious orientation.

Girls in the local St. Gallen branch of the Wandervögel, a Swiss association for alcohol-free youth walks, in 1921. This youth movement sought freedom in nature via games in the woods, dancing in the meadows, and walking in the mountains. Schweizerisches Sozialarchiv
In 1930, Dori Wettstein (1904-1982) founded the Zurich Women’s Rowing Club, breaking into an exclusively male domain. The club started taking part in competitions as soon as it was possible. In the 1930s, the female rowing enthusiasts competed in a discipline called “style rowing” created specifically for them (and they always came first because of a lack of competition.) Schweizerisches Sozialarchiv

Print media played a key role in leisure time. Illustrated magazines with sprawling photo spreads brought the big wide world into the home. In the first half of the 20th century, numerous women’s newspapers came into being, covering education, the household, care, crafts and industry. From 1940, entertainment and fashion magazines entered the market.

“Wahre Geschichten”, the German edition of the most popular American magazine, “True Story,” in about 1930. Hans Staub / Fotostiftung Schweiz Winterthur

Sources: ‘Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz’, and historians from the ‘Frauenstadtrundgang’ (women’s city tours) in ZürichBasel, Winterthur, Luzern