Taking new paths, pulling together, and learning for the future in times of crisis: this is the attitude that GF has instilled over its more than 200-year existence. Immediately after the Second World War, the GF director at the time, Ernst Müller, instructed his employees to collect documents on how they had coped during the war years in a works archive – to record important findings for the future.
The current pandemic demonstrates how GF has learned from previous crises. When the coronavirus was first reported in China and protective equipment was quickly becoming scarce, GF delivered 40’000 masks to colleagues in China from its warehouse in Schaffhausen (Switzerland) at the beginning of February. This warehouse has been in operation since 2006. At that time, the H5N1 virus, known as “bird flu,” had the world on tenterhooks. GF set up a pandemic headquarters at Corporate level, which involved establishing a stockpile of protective equipment to ensure the company was prepared for future crises. This precautionary measure now helped Chinese employees to cover their shortage. Two months later, when the virus had spread around the world, these same employees showed their solidarity by supplying GF companies in Europe, Americas, and the rest of Asia with a total of 120’000 masks.
With solidarity and team spirit, GF has successfully endured many times of crisis in its long history. Globe presents four such times: the founding of the company during a period of instability at the beginning of the 19th century, the precarious situation after the First World War, the Great Depression of the early 1930s, and the period after the Second World War.
Company founded during a crisis
Revolutions, wars, and the French policy of expansion under Napoleon Bonaparte defined Europe at the turn of the 19th century. Hardly ideal conditions in which to establish a new company. But Johann Conrad Fischer, a 29-year-old coppersmith from Schaffhausen (Switzerland), saw things differently. In 1802, he left behind the protection and security of his guild membership, and took the bold and pioneering step of setting up a smelting plant for cast steel outside the town of Schaffhausen. There he was able to experiment with steel casting technology, far away from the norms of the guilds.
The establishment of an international network and exchange with other researchers and scientists were essential for the further expansion of the company. Once the Continental Blockade – imposed on Great Britain and its colonies by Napoleon in 1806 – was lifted, Johann Conrad Fischer seized the opportunity to travel to England and other countries in order to build up an entrepreneurial network and find new customers for his products and technology. His entrepreneurial spirit and love of travel paid off.
- Johann Conrad Fischer was born in 1773. Once he had finished school, he was apprenticed to his father, a coppersmith. On completing his apprenticeship (here is an example of a journeyman's certificate of the period), he set out on his travels, which took him through the German kingdoms and principalities to Scandinavia and England. In 1974, he returned to Schaffhausen and took over his father's business.
- In 1802, Johann Conrad Fischer bought a former mill in the Mühlental valley, about 1.5 kilometers outside of Schaffhausen, and set up a smelting plant for cast steel – the foundation of GF as we know it today. The site was chosen for a reason: operating outside of the craft guilds meant he could experiment with steel-casting technology.
- Networks in the 19th century: the Russian Tsar Alexander I visited the foundry in Mühlental in January 1814 – accompanied by his sister, Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna, as shown in this illustration from the time. The Tsar’s offer to relocate the company to Russia was turned down by his host, Johann Conrad Fischer.
- Despite the difficult circumstances, Johann Conrad Fischer traveled to England via Paris that same year. He was keen to embark upon the journey, which took about two weeks by carriage and boat. On the one hand, the journey was for research purposes, as the Industrial Revolution had already greatly advanced the economy in England. On the other hand, it was to find new customers immediately after the reopening of the English market following the Continental Blockade. Johann Conrad Fischer recorded his impressions and experiences in a diary (here is a printed edition from 1816).
- Johann Conrad Fischer took other extended trips to France, Germany, and Austria, where he and his sons also opened up plants in the following years (here is an original handwritten record of an 1826 visit to Archduke Johann of Austria).
- Work in the Mühlental steel foundry was hard and physically demanding. Masks and gloves protected the workers from the heat and fumes, as shown here in an illustration from the 1840s.
- Johann Conrad Fischer died in 1854 at the age of 81. According to tradition, he attributed his old age to the fact that metal fumes had strengthened his body throughout his life.
First World War: war economy and supply crisis
The First World War convulsed Europe between 1914 and 1918. The population suffered particularly during the last years of the war due to a food and supply crisis. Prices for staples such as milk and bread increased immeasurably. Workers at GF were among those living in precarious conditions. Even back then, the management of the company knew it was only possible to overcome a crisis when everyone pulled together. The company therefore bought agricultural businesses – including the Klostergut Paradies estate in Schlatt near Schaffhausen (Switzerland) – to ensure supplies for its employees and their families. The company’s own housing colonies near the plants in Germany and Switzerland provided the workforce with an affordable roof over their heads. In 1918, GF also acquired the Wissifluh vacation home and recreation facility on Lake Lucerne in central Switzerland to provide employees with affordable vacations.
After the war ended in 1918, a virus pandemic, known as “Spanish flu,” raged through many countries around the world and also claimed victims from the GF workforce. Up to 900 employees, out of a total workforce of 3’500 at the time, were absent from work every day at GF’s Swiss plants. Medical and treatment expenses were paid by the company’s own health insurance fund. This had been introduced at GF in the 1860s, long before health insurance became compulsory in Switzerland.
- Confronted with a housing shortage during the First World War, in the summer of 1916 GF bought the Logierhaus in Schaffhausen, which was used as a residential facility for unmarried workers.
- Food was scarce during the First World War. Hot soup and hearty meat dishes were served up daily from the large kitchen in the Logierhaus – for up to 260 hungry employees.
- In 1918, GF acquired the Klostergut Paradies near Schaffhausen to ensure that its employees would be provided for by the farm on the estate.
- The company-owned vacation home Wissifluh in the Swiss mountains offered employees a well-deserved break. It was named after the alp on which it was situated in the canton of Lucerne.
- This recreation facility on Lake Lucerne made possible for GF’s Swiss employees something that was considered a pure luxury for many people at the turn of the 20th century: vacations!
- Thanks to GF, they could go on vacation with their families in the Swiss mountains.
- Resources were scarce during the First World War. GF offered sewing courses for the wives of workers so that they could patch up existing clothing and make alterations – and the company organized childcare so the women could attend.
- As more and more men were drafted into the war, women did much of the work at the GF plant in Singen (Germany), near the Swiss border.
- GF also ran a residential facility for its workers in Singen. Wounded soldiers from various countries were housed here during the war years.
The Great Depression of the 1930s: product innovation and expansion
After the First World War, many countries benefited from an economic upturn at the beginning of the 1920s. GF expanded and acquired companies in Germany and Switzerland, including some in the mechanical engineering sector. There was now a total of seven GF sites in Switzerland, Germany, and France.
However, this growth came to a sudden end in 1929. The economic upturn resulted in an oversubscription of shares in the US, and this speculative bubble burst on 24 October 1929. The New York stock market crashed. For an export-focused company like GF, the consequences of the Great Depression at the beginning of the 1930s were devastating, and orders were failing to materialize. GF’s immediate reaction was to strengthen customer relationships and to appoint traveling representatives to discuss the needs of customers in person, and restructure production accordingly. In 1933, GF launched a range of cooking pots made of enameled cast iron, based on feedback from a traveling sales representative. They became a bestseller. GF produced these indestructible cast iron pots in Switzerland from 1933 until 1968.
During the crisis, many countries put protectionist measures in place to shield and strengthen their domestic economies. This had an impact on GF production sites in Switzerland and Germany: exports to England and its colonies – at the time, GF’s largest export market – became virtually impossible. To ensure that it did not lose this valuable sales territory, GF made a decision that management at the time described as “audacious”: at the lowest point of the Great Depression in 1933, GF invested a huge sum of money and opened its own malleable cast iron plant in Bedford (England), the Britannia Iron and Steel Works Limited.
- Rethinking the business during the economic crisis: GF started producing cookware for the Swiss domestic market in 1933. Pots and pans made from enameled cast iron were promoted with advertisements like this one: people who bought GF products were securing jobs in Switzerland.
- GF developed its own models for the production of the cookware and applied for a patent. This photo shows employees at the Schaffhausen plant filling molds with molten iron.
- Using a sanding drum, the pots were ground down in preparation for the next steps.
- Employees then enameled the cookware by hand.
- The final polish after drying was also done by hand.
- Before any cookware could be sold, employees needed to check its density and weight.
- The cast iron lid of a GF pot was as heavy as ten standard pot lids made of light metal.
- High quality comes at a price: GF cooking pots cost 9 to 26 Swiss francs depending on their size and model – a prodigious price in those days.
- Expansion despite the crisis: GF opened its own malleable cast iron plant in Bedford (England) in 1933 – Britannia Iron and Steel Works Limited. A risk that paid off.
- Local production in Bedford meant that GF could continue to operate in the significant sales market of Britain and its colonies. Here is a 1940 picture of the workforce.
Find out more
GF manufactured enameled cast iron pots from 1933 to 1968. Franziska Eggimann, Managing Director Iron Library and Corporate Archivist GF, explains how this came about.
Second World War: solidarity from Switzerland
The German and English GF sites were heavily impacted by the Second World War. In the years following 1945, the GF workforce demonstrated solidarity and team spirit: many Swiss employees donated clothes, shoes, food, and toys to colleagues and their families in Germany and England. These care packages were transported across borders in collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross. GF organized summer camps in the Swiss mountains for the children of employees from Switzerland and abroad. The company paid annual costs of some 100’000 Swiss francs so that several hundred children from GF’s European locations could stay at the camps for several months.
It was not just food that was rationed internationally during and after the war. The supply of raw materials, which GF urgently needed for production, was also a cause for concern. GF took the lead in scrap collection campaigns in Switzerland with the aim of returning scrap iron to the production cycle. This scrap iron benefited not just GF plants, but also smaller foundries that were even worse hit by the supply shortage. Since energy sources were also in short supply during the post-war period, GF acquired peat fields to supply fuel for the smelting furnaces.
GF had already started gearing up for the post-war period during the Second World War. The steel foundry in Schaffhausen (Switzerland), which had been operating at low capacity during the war years, was greatly expanded and modernized so that it could resume production as quickly as possible once the war was over. Investing during the war took courage and confidence, but it paid off.
- Internal solidarity: employees at the GF plant in Schaffhausen donated food, clothes, and toys to their colleagues in nearby Germany. Delivery across the border had to be authorized by the Swiss authorities and organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross. This is an express letter from 1946 granting authorization.
- Thanks to the GF summer camps, 160 children from Switzerland and abroad were able to spend several weeks in the Appenzell region, the Grison Alps, and central Switzerland during the summer of 1949. Their letters and poems describe the fun they had at the camps. Little Margrit, for example, raved about the cocoa, butter, and jam that they had at breakfast.
- In this letter, a group of campers thanked GF for their wonderful vacation.
- Daughters of GF employees from Germany enjoying the mountain idyll in 1947.
- Fun and games took center stage after years of war.
- After the war, raw materials such as coal were scarce across the whole of Europe, including Switzerland. GF therefore invested in several peat fields to secure fuel for the smelting furnaces. However, this was not an easy undertaking: individual sods had to be cut off in the field using a spade, and then laid out to dry and piled in stacks of six to eight.
- Heavy-duty locomotives powered by crude oil transported the stacks of peat from the field directly to the GF plant in Schaffhausen – each train was loaded with some 3’200 kilograms of peat per trip.
- GF took the lead in scrap collection campaigns in Switzerland, with the aim of returning scrap iron to the production cycle.
- Looking to the future: GF took advantage of wartime stagnation and modernized the steel foundry in Schaffhausen in 1942 to prepare for the economic recovery at the end of the war.
The best person to ask about the more than 200-year history of GF is Franziska Eggimann, Managing Director Iron Library and Corporate Archivist GF. She carefully selected the information on the crises and their impact on the company. Since 2013, the historian has been an expert on GF company history. Her role involves organizing and expanding the collection, conducting research into the history of technology, and providing guided tours through the archive and library. She also organizes exhibitions and events on company and technological history.
Franziska Eggimann works in “paradise.” The Klostergut Paradies estate near Schaffhausen (Switzerland) was acquired by GF in 1918 and has been home to the Iron Library Foundation since 1952 – an organization dedicated to the memory of GF. More than 1’000 meters of documents, including annual reports, speech manuscripts, and patents, as well as around 130’000 images and photographs from more than 200 years of company history, are all stored here. Employees, external academics, and anyone else who is interested can access the more than 45’000 documents in the library and delve into the history of GF and the history of technology and industry.