As one of the bestselling children’s books of all times, and through various successful movie and cartoon adaptations, “Heidi” tells the tale of an idyllic, ahistorical rural life filled with beautiful mountains, goats, and harmony. But as this small museum details, the rustic story actually masks the societal issues caused by rapid 19th-century urbanization and industrialization.
During the 1850s and 1860s, Zurich faced a radical change. Rapid industrialization turned the city upside down. Whole city quarters (mostly slums) turned into factory plants, and there was a mass migration of poor farmers seeking jobs as factory workers. As author Johanna Spyri described it, the city itself turned into a giant, noisy construction site. It was exactly this context that inspired Spyri, and many other representatives of Romantic literature, to gloss over the social problems of the time with stories of a peaceful rural life.
Spyri was born in 1827 in Hirzel, a village about 20 miles south of Zurich. The building in which the museum is located formerly served as the village’s public school house, which also Spyri attended. She started her writing career when she relocated to the center of Zurich after her marriage in 1852. When Heidi: Her Years of Wandering and Learning was first published in 1879, Spyri became famous in only a few weeks. The book was translated into more than 50 languages and became a successful global bestseller.
The museum gives astonishing insights into the historical and social context of Spyri’s work, her family life, the reception of her books, and the myths that arose around her person. She was sometimes celebrated as a feminist icon, which is questionable since she opposed women’s access to university studies, and had a rather conservative mindset, as her numerous books about girls’ education and domestic life prove. She even opposed the studies of her niece, Emilie Kempin-Spyri, who later became the first female doctor of law