Orelli, Susanna (1845–1939)

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Orelli, Susanna (1845–1939)

Swiss social reformer, founder-leader of the Frauenverein für Mässigkeit und Volkswohl (Women's Union for Temperance and Social Advancement), who emphasized the creation of alternatives to taverns and restaurants that served alcoholic beverages. Name variations: Susanna Orelli-Rinderknecht. Born Susanna Rinderknecht on December 27, 1845, in Oberstrass, Canton Zurich, Switzerland; died in Zurich on January 12, 1939; had four sisters; married Johannes Orelli; no children.

Consumption of massive amounts of alcohol was a destructive fact of life in pre-industrial Western societies. Immoderate drinking seemed to many, particularly men, the only way to cope with society's demands. Overindulging with

beer, wine, and distilled spirits not only enabled them to drown their sorrows, but also was regarded as a mark of their masculinity. Murder and mayhem, including spousal and child abuse, was often the result.

Born Susanna Rinderknecht in 1845, she grew up in a peasant family in the Swiss town of Oberstrass. There, she witnessed several incidents caused by drunkenness. On one occasion, her parents woke her in the middle of the night, when it appeared that a raging fire might leap from their burning barn to their home. Soon the cause became clear: an alcoholic, recently released from an asylum, had set the barn on fire. As well, the son of Susanna's neighbor, a young man who had become increasingly addicted to alcohol, shot himself fatally while in a state of drunken depression. Her dependable, hardworking stepbrother, whom she loved dearly, counted among his farm duties the occasional delivery of a load of barley scraps to the local brewery. While there, he would be given a large mug of beer. One day, inebriated, he fell off his coach seat while on the way home and was killed.

Then illness struck her sister. After becoming infected with typhus, Caroline Rinderknecht became mentally disturbed because of side effects in her brain. While visiting her sister at the Burghölzli mental institution, Susanna witnessed the effects of chronic alcoholism on some of the patients. Caroline recovered, and Susanna vowed to dedicate her life to helping people in need. Her impulses extended to risking her own safety; she once nursed back to health a neighbor's family who had become gravely ill during a cholera epidemic.

Ironically, it was the liberalization of Swiss economic life that exacerbated the already significant problem of alcohol. In 1874, a revision of the Swiss constitution removed the restraints on trade and commerce that had been enforced by the guilds since the Middle Ages. Like mushrooms, new breweries and taverns appeared everywhere, so that by 1882 in Zurich alone there was one tavern for every 130 of the city's citizens, children included. During this period, Swiss national alcohol consumption statistics were alarming. Since most families were accustomed to drinking alcoholic beverages at every meal, even children became accustomed to imbibing intoxicants from their earliest years. In Swiss hospitals, the medieval tradition of providing a daily wine ration to patients in order to protect them from plagues remained a time-honored custom that few questioned.

By the 1880s, rampant public drunkenness had become a major problem in Zurich. With countless taverns, many Zurich men spent most of their free hours drinking to excess. Streets were filled with drunken men, some of whom acted aggressively not only toward each other but toward women as well. Even so, Zurich citizens voted down an 1893 referendum to create a nightly closing time for the public dispensing of drink. Both Susanna and Caroline were determined to help change this situation, and they spent hours as volunteers at the Burghölzli institution, where its progressive director, Professor Auguste Forel, tried to make the public aware of the sufferings brought on by the problem.

Susanna's efforts would be somewhat reduced in the early 1880s when she met and fell in love with Johannes Orelli, a widowed mathematics professor. Despite their age difference—she was 36, he almost 60—the couple married on Christmas Day, 1881, in Zurich's Predigerkirche. Their union ended suddenly four years later, when Johannes died of a stroke. Following the death of their parents, Susanna Orelli asked Caroline to move in with her. Financially secure and living in a large house in the Zeltweg district of Zurich, the sisters would become increasingly involved over the next few years in the pressing social issue of alcoholism.

Through a chance meeting with the noted Swiss poet Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Orelli reestablished her relationship with Forel and became an active member of the Verein des Blauen Kreuzes (Union of the Blue Cross), as well as the Alkoholgegnerbund (Alliance of Opponents of Alcohol). She also formed friendships and alliances with like-minded individuals, including the physician who had succeeded Auguste Forel as Burghölzli director, Professor Eugen Bleuler, and his wife, Dr. Hedwig Bleuler-Waser , an activist who founded and became leader of another reform group, the Bund abstinenter Frauen (Union of Abstinent Women).

Although she was one of the most active members of the Alkoholgegnerbund, Orelli soon came to feel that its program, which attempted to change deep-rooted habits through lectures and pamphlets, was fated to achieve only modest results. A more realistic alternative to alcohol consumption than mere moralizing would have to be offered to the citizens of Zurich. Orelli disagreed strongly with those in the reform community who longed for an outright ban on the sale of alcohol. She believed that only more attractive alternatives to public places that featured alcohol (including inns, restaurants, and taverns) would be able to turn the tide. A model for such reforms already existed in the Swiss cities of Basel and Bern, where non-alcoholic restaurants were flourishing. From this point on, Orelli advocated the founding of alcohol-free restaurants in Zurich. She was convinced that the people of Zurich would see the advantages of patronizing restaurants that enabled them to eat better and more cheaply.

From her home, Orelli worked as the key member of an "Initiative Committee for the Creation of a New Tavern." When it appeared that formidable financial and organizational hurdles stood in the way, Orelli suggested a more realistic approach. As an interim step, she and her fellow reformers opened a modest coffeehouse, the Kafeestube zum kleinen Martahof. On Zurich's Stadelhoferstrasse, the café was located in an old painter's atelier that had been renovated by Orelli and her friends. Here, Zurich citizens could drink coffee and cocoa, as well as eat simple yet nourishing meals at budget prices. The café's success did not dampen Orelli's wish to open a larger, full-scale non-alcoholic restaurant. To raise funds, she and her group organized a bazaar held on June 19–20, 1894. Their efforts raised the impressive sum of 17,000 Swiss Francs.

Encouraged, Orelli's group—which consisted of 15 public-spirited and well-connected women—constituted itself officially as the city's Frauenverein für Mässigkeit und Volkswohl (Women's Union for Temperance and Social Advancement). Despite its aims, the organization avoided use of the terms "abstinence" and "alcohol-free" in its public pronouncements. Only many years later, in 1910, when her efforts had long been deemed successful by Zurich burghers, did the organization change its name to the more candid Zürcher Frauenverein für alkoholfreie Wirtschaften (Zurich Women's Union for Non-Alcoholic Restaurants). For several years, Orelli's group successfully managed their café-restaurant on the Martahof. But this site, which could accommodate no more than 55 customers at a time, was clearly too small for the Frauenverein's goals.

On April 1, 1898, their group inaugurated a non-alcoholic establishment in the Karl der Grosse (Charlemagne) building. Despite some disparagement from the press, this restaurant, universally called "der Karli" by the locals, was a success from the first day. With a seating capacity of 250, Karl der Grosse was designed to appeal to Zurich's middle class. And come they did: the large assembly room, with impressive rococo paintings, was filled night after night as diners enjoyed good food washed down with mineral water and fruit juice. The venture was a huge success; after only a few years, the organization was able to end its leasing arrangement, purchasing the building outright.

Orelli's group then opened a spa hotel on the unspoiled Zürichberg, which when completed would enable hikers to spend a few hours or even a night, providing them with a spectacular view of the city below. Modestly priced rooms, as well as nourishing meals with fruit juices (or hot chocolate in the winter months), also brought droves of Zurich citizens. Inaugurated in the chilly month of November 1900, the Frauenverein spa hotel (Kurhaus) on the mountain was another resounding success. Although some of the local newspapers poked fun at the fruit juices served there as "insipid beverages," the spa's full cash register was impressive.

Orelli ran a tight ship at the Frauenverein hotel. The waitresses were professional and lived, carefully supervised, on the premises. Tips were discouraged and only young women from "better families" were employed. Orelli successfully attracted members of the nascent industrial working class to her establishments. Even though her religious beliefs clashed with the Marxism of the workers, she threw out a welcome mat to a social strata that often suffered the most from the ravages of alcohol abuse. In 1910, the workers' Volkshaus was inaugurated on Zurich's Helvetiaplatz in festivities that eschewed the consumption of alcohol. Beyond the borders of Zurich, Orelli became active in efforts to build alcohol-free community centers (Gemeindestuben and Gemeindehäuser) throughout Switzerland. In 1918, at age 73, she accepted the first presidential post of the Zürcher Frauenverein. Despite her advancing years, she remained a shrewd negotiator on behalf of her organization. By the time of her retirement from the administration of the Frauenverein in 1921, Orelli could point with pride to the 13 successful restaurants that the organization ran in that year in the city of Zurich.

In the final decades of her long life, Susanna Orelli was regarded by most Swiss as a national institution. In 1919, the medical faculty of the University of Zurich awarded her—a woman whose formal education had been modest indeed—an honorary doctorate "in recognition of her great accomplishments in the field of public health and welfare." Despite the encroaching ailments of old age, including weakening eyesight, she remained intellectually active. Susanna Orelli died in Zurich on January 12, 1939. She has been honored by Switzerland in many ways, including a street named in her honor on the Zürichberg, as well as a fountain named for her at the intersection of Orelliweg and Schattengasse. On December 1, 1945, a Swiss postage stamp, with a surcharge for charitable purposes and bearing her portrait, was issued in her honor. In 1994, Zurich celebrated her centenary. Remarkably, a number of the non-alcoholic restaurants established so long ago by Susanna Orelli and her fellow crusaders are still in existence in Zurich, including the Rütli on the Zähringerstrasse, the venerable Karl der Grosse (still affectionately called "der Karli"), the Seidenhof and Olivenbaum, and the Kurhaus Zürichberg overlooking the city.


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——. "Zürcher Strassennamen erläutert und dargestellt: Eine Ausstellung im Haus zum Rech am Neumarkt 4," in Neue Zürcher Zeitung. December 9, 1999, p. 47.

Schnyder, Moia. Zwei Pionierinnen der Volksgesundheit: Susanna Orelli-Rinderknecht, 1845–1939—Else Züblin-Spiller, 1881–1948. Wetzikon: AG Buchdruckerei Wetzikon, 1973.

Siegel, Monique R. Weibliches Unternehmertum: Zürcherinnen schreiben Wirtschaftsgeschichte. Zurich: Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 1994.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia