top of page

Stories & Secrets

  • Writer's pictureSamantha Aeschbach

HERstories - Women History in Zurich - Volume 2

The Stories of Three Women on Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich

Grossmunster under a rainbow
On a stormy day the clouds parted above the Grossmunster

An Insider's Guide

Dear Cultured and Curious Reader,

We continue our discovery journey through this small collection of stories, HERstories, to read the tales of two women, Lydia and Franziska, and hear from Katharina herself.

Each is a heroine in her own right, entangling threads of love, defiance, and wisdom into the fabric of their time.

Will you join me on this enchanting stroll through time to dive into the lives of Zurich's most captivating daughters?

Lydia Welti-Escher (1858-1891) - passion & Scandals

Statue of Alfred Escer overlooking Bahnhofstrasse and the Alps
Looking through the eyes of Helvetia at Bahnhofstrasse @ Copyright Baugeschichtliches Archiv

Beneath the benevolent gaze of Helvetia, who comfortably sits on top of the main entrance to Zurich's main train station (a.k.a. Zurich HB), and in front of the towering presence of Alfred Escher, Zurich's celebrated industrialist, lies a story not of monumental achievements in steel and steam but of the human heart's eternal search for freedom and love.

This story belongs to Lydia, Alfred Escher's daughter. She is a figure whose life was as intricate as it was tragic, unfolding behind a legacy that defined not just a family, a city, and soon a country but an era—the Belle Epoque.

Lydia Escher was born into a world of privilege and set expectations, her path ostensibly paved with the gold of her illustrious lineage. Her cultural patronage, generous philanthropy, acute intelligence, and tremendous wealth set her apart in 19th-century Switzerland. She was one of the wealthiest Swiss women of her time!

Despite her early losses—the deaths of her mother and sister—Lydia rose to meet the challenges of her position. She managed her father's correspondence, entertained the intellectual elite, including the renowned Swiss poet Gottfried Keller, and navigated the complexities of her social standing with grace.

Yet amidst the opulence of the Belvoir Estate, Lydia's spirit longed restless for a freedom that wealth could not buy and status could not bestow.

Yet, she married Emil Welti, son of a powerful Federal Councillor and a former protégé of her father, and seemed to follow the expected course of a woman of her standing. She tried so hard to be who she was expected to be.

Yet, that rebellious heart of hers found its echo in Karl Stauffer-Bern, a close friend of her husband and a talented artist whose presence in her life became the catalyst for a defiance that would change the course of HERstory.

Portrait of Lydia Escher @ Kunsthaus
Portrait of Lydia Escher @ Kunsthaus

Together, they dared to dream of a life free from the constraints that bound them, fleeing to Rome in a bold assertion of their love—a love deemed forbidden by the society that once adored her. An affair!

The weight of Emil Welti's influence cast long shadows over their Roman hideaway, ensnaring Lydia in a nightmare that bore the label of "systematized madness." She was unwillingly confined to an Italian asylum, her lover was imprisoned under the false accusations of kidnapping and rape, and their love affair twisted into public disgrace.

Undeterred, Lydia sought freedom through a divorce, an independence bought at the price of her social standing, and a staggering sum of 1.2 million francs. Yet, as she sought to rebuild her life, establishing the Gottfried Keller Foundation in Geneva, the specter of her past and the judgment of society loomed large over her as a constant reminder of the price paid for her freedom.

I wish I could tell you that this story had a happy ending—it deserved a happy ending—yet it ended in tragedy. Both Lydia's and Karl's stories come to a premature end, with them deciding to take their own lives.

A life culminated in despair, ending the Escher line and leaving behind a legacy marred by tragedy and unfulfilled dreams.

At the end of HERstory, I invite you to always look beyond the obvious; there's more to discover. In Lydia's case, let us glimpse at the soul that lies beneath the surface. See the woman behind the scandal, a true inspiration who relentlessly pursued her dreams of love and freedom.

Tip 1: Belvoir estate is today a majestic free park with magnificent vistas of Zurich and the lake.

Tip 2: Her homonym square, just next to the Kunsthaus

Dosenbach store on Rennweg flyer
Dosenbach store on Rennweg @ Copyright Baugeschichtliches Archiv

Franziska Dosenbach (1832-1917) - Passion for shoes

Just slightly off Bahnhofstrasse, at the beginning of Rennweg, where you already met Anna Ziegler's heroic saga and the Snipes store now stands, we meet our next lady of the day.

Let's journey back to a time when the bustling streets of Zurich were on the cusp of a commercial revolution, when Banhofstrasse was yet to be completed, and a woman saw an opportunity and took it! 

This is the tale of Franziska Dosenbach, affectionately known as "Finken-Franzi," whose audacious spirit and sharp acumen inscribed her name onto the list of the city's entrepreneurial legends.

In the quaint town of Bremgarten, Franziska began her business venture in the humble confines of a saddlery. 

With a mind as sharp as her bold spirit, she was no stranger to enterprise, having already ventured into fashionable plaited straw items, where she had employed several homemakers. Yet, her destiny was to be shaped not by leather or straw but by an innovation that caught her eye and imagination at a Zurich fair: mass-produced shoes from Germany.

Armed with nothing but her determination and a vision for the future, Franziska embarked on a journey that would redefine her family's fortunes and transform the shoe industry in Switzerland

Despite the echo of skepticism from a guild-bound society that clung to bespoke craftsmanship, Franziska's belief in the potential of factory-made shoes was unshakeable.

Following her husband's death in 1877 and 13 children in tow, she steered her enterprise with an even firmer hand, her resolve undeterred. She strode on! Literally!

Franziska's success was built on a foundation of innovation, quality, and affordability. With the power of her conviction and the excellence of her products, she broke down the barriers of distrust.

Snipes Store ex-Dosenbach @ Rennweg
Snipes Store ex-Dosenbach @ Rennweg

Her dedication to her craft extended to her staff, whom she always trained meticulously. She ensured that every customer not only bought a pair of shoes but also left in comfort and style.

Keys in hand and under her guidance, the Rennweg branch (the first one in Zurich) established in 1878 flourished, a testament to her foresight, long before Bahnhofstrasse's full potential as a commercial epicenter was even realized.

Yet, despite her monumental success in the male-dominated business world, Franziska harbored a high degree of skepticism towards women's suffrage and pursuit in academia, a paradox that adds layers of complexity to HERstory. 

Franziska Dosenbach's story is a mosaic of courage, innovation, and dichotomy. Her legacy endures—not just in the physical traces of her enterprise but in the name of the 200 Dosenbach shoe stores that still dot Switzerland. 

Curiosity: She attended the famous Daughters' Institute of Lisette Ruepp, one of the

first pupils of Heinrich Pestalozzi (famous Swiss pedagogue).

Curiosity: Finken means slippers in English. 

Curiosity: The Dosenbach, Snipes, and Ochsner stores belong to a German company named Deichmann.

Tip: Discover the loveliness of Bremgarten, a devastatingly charming medieval small town just a 40-minute trip from Zurich. This heritage site of national significance is undoubtedly worth a visit! Well, even Napoleon's army under General Masséna made it into its headquarters in 1799!

Katharina von Zimmern (1478–1547) - Passion for peace- my story

Entrance to the Fraumunster's Cloister
Entrance to the Fraumünster's Cloister

As I find myself standing within the serene confines of the cloister at the Fraumünster convent, I ponder about my life and weigh the consequences of my decisions.

I am Katharina von Zimmern, the last in a long line of abbesses who have presided over this sacred and powerful institution. 

My story, deeply entangled with the fabric of Zurich's illustrious history, marks the end of an era—a final chapter in the legacy of female power and devotion that has graced these walls for nearly seven centuries.

I was born to German nobility, and my path led me to the spiritual and administrative helm of the Fraumünster at the young age of eighteen. 

It was 1496, a time when the convent's influence extended far beyond its spiritual domain, directly under the emperor's gaze. In this role, I found myself wielding a power rare for a woman between the Late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance or at any other moment in time.

We nuns were far from the celibate, ascetic figures of popular imagination; we were engaged in the world far beyond our convent walls, negotiating with leaders and managing our interests with entrepreneurial zeal. But the Fraumunster's story will have to wait. 

The Religious Reformation that swept through Europe at the beginning of the 16th century brought a tempest of questions, challenging the foundations of the Church's power and faith. Amidst this crucible of change, I made a decision that would forever alter the course of Zurich's history. 

In 1524, I relinquished the convent's rights, immeasurable assets, and lands to the city with a heavy yet resolute heart, a gesture of peace that embraced the coming tidal wave of the Reformation. I loved our abbey so much! I had invested a great deal in new decorations and architectural renovations, cleverly blending faith and worldly facets of life. Alas...

Fraumunster at sunset
Fraumunster at sunset

In doing so, I sided with the winds of change, allowing Huldrych Zwingli to preach within the walls of my cherished Church. I fervently hoped my actions would avert the bloodshed that so often accompanies the clash of faiths.

Of course, I could have asked my parishioners and faithful to go to war for the Church, our faith, and me. I did not, to the dismay of my family, who remained Catholic and ostracised me.

The Bishop of Constance and the Old Faith Confederates also exhorted and pressured me to go against the Reformation. I did not, as I had my reasons.

"I decided without coercion because, as things turned out, it was time."

In my personal life, too, I dared to defy all norms. As recent historical findings divulged, I can now reveal to you my darling secret. Yes, it is true what was rumored for so long. I had given birth to a child during my tenure as Abbess—a revelation that challenges the perceptions of the lives led by us nuns in the Middle Ages.

I must admit with a touch of pride that I had also negotiated quite a decent pension from the city and the freedom to reshape my life as I most pleased, and I did so rather unconventionally.

At 47, I married Eberhard von Reischach, a noble mercenary leader, and gave birth to our two children. These were acts of love that transcended the expected boundaries of my role as (former) Abbess.

My husband died on the same religious battlefield as Huldrich Zwingli. I avoided an entire civil war; I could not prevent my husband's death. I outlived him by 16 years.

I was also admitted to the Stubengesellschaft der Constaffel (guild) as Katharina von Reischach, along with Anna Reinhard, Zwingli's widow. A story you already encountered earlier. 

These choices, while controversial, underscored the complexities of our human longings and the capacity for change.

Now, as I wander through the cloisters of the Fraumünster, I am reminded of the legacy I am about to leave behind—a legacy of governance, faith, and courage in the face of transformation. 

The copper sculpture in our courtyard, unveiled centuries after my time, symbolizes femininity, change, and the enduring spirit of all the women who have shaped this monastery's rich history.

Copper Sculpture in the Fraumunster's Courtyard
Copper Sculpture in the Fraumunster's Courtyard

My story, and that of the Fraumünster, is a testament to the power of vision, courage, and the capacity to embrace change, illuminating the way for future generations. 

In this moment of reflection, I am Katharina von Zimmern, and this is my farewell to the Fraumünster—a sanctuary of faith, defiance, and love that has stood the test of time.

Curiosity: I had chosen a husband, although a knight and diplomat, who was a mortal enemy of Zurich. But this is another story.

Tip: Several celebrations will take place starting in August 2024 to mark the 500th anniversary of Katharina von Zimmern's act. 

Tip: you can walk through Katharina von Zimmern's quarters at the Landesmuseum (Swiss National Museum). 

Last reflections

So, to you, my dear reader, I ask the question: Where do you see yourself in these portrayals?

What chapters are you writing in the ongoing story of our shared humanity? I invite you to share your reflections and join me in honoring the legacies of these remarkable women.

Should their stories inspire you to delve deeper into Zurich's rich history, I welcome you to explore these tales firsthand in this walking tour.


signature Samantha Aeschbach


Bonus: Sources for the curious

Related Tours

This article is part of a blog series about Mighty Women of Zurich. Please also check out the next articles!

Did you find the blog article you just read interesting and useful? Do you know of someone who could benefit from this information? Why not share it?

39 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page