Background - 10.09.2021 - 00:00 

Elisabeth Rannacher – the first woman graduate of the HSG

Elisabeth Rannacher-Nüscheler was the first woman to be awarded a diploma by the St.Gallen Commercial Academy (today: HSG). Subsequently, she worked in her father’s St.Gallen embroidery firm Rannacher & Co and at the age of 35 married the Zurich glass painter Richard Arthur Nüscheler.

10 September 2021. Elisabeth “Elsa” Rannacher was born in St.Gallen on 11 March 1884. Her mother was a local woman and her father a German merchant and industrialist who set up a company for the production and sale of embroideries (lace and curtains). Elsa was the eldest of eight siblings, among them her younger sister Gabriele, who also studied – not at the HSG like Elsa, but pharmacy in Basel. The father appeared to have been a proponent of women enrolling at universities in that he encouraged his daughters to do so – at a time when women were still exceptions at European universities.

Elisabeth Rannacher - first graduate of the HSG
Elisabeth Rannacher on the far right as a young woman, probably with parents and siblings (Photo: Rebekka Nüscheler)

Studying at the HSG

After completing the preliminary course with the admission examination at the HSG, Elisabeth Rannacher started her studies aged 19 (with the matriculation number 60). At the beginning of her studies, she was one of two enrolled women students. All the other 22 students were men. A short time before Elsa’s graduation, the number of women students increased somewhat; by then, seven women students were enrolled. During her studies, Elsa attended courses in a total of eleven different subjects, among them several languages (French, English, Spanish and Italian), but also economic ones such as Commercial Arithmetic, History of the Economy, Accounting and Economics.

Elisabeth Rannacher - first graduate of the HSG
Legitimation Card (University Archive HSG 320/060)

Elsa’s certificate reveals that she was an excellent student. In the “Diligence” column, she was awarded a 1 in all subjects, which was the best mark at the time, and she also excelled with several 1s in the “Performance” column. And so Elisabeth Rannacher obtained her language diploma as early as March 1905, which makes her the HSG’s first ever woman graduate. In the summer of the same year, she was followed by Henriette Zoller from Bucharest with a commercial diploma, and a little later, in November, by Alice Scheitlin from St.Gallen.

Professional activity

Unfortunately, the years between Elisabeth Rannacher’s graduation in 1905 and her wedding in 1919 are only poorly documented. After graduation, Elisabeth Rannacher remained in St.Gallen for a few years and worked for Rannnacher & Co, her father’s embroidery company. Here, both her language skills and her commercial knowledge are likely to have been of use.

On 9 October 1919, aged 35, she married the well-known Zurich glass painter Richard Arthur Nüscheler, who created prestigious church windows, as well as wall and altar paintings, all over Switzerland. Their wedding took place in St.Gallen’s Abbey Church. She had got to know him when he was on an engagement trip with his first wife, Marguerite de Vevey, a school friend of Elsa’s. On 30 September 1913, Elsa wrote in her diary: “Marguerite visited us with her fiancé. He is a very nice gentleman, about 35 years old. I had to show him my painted prayer book, and he called me his colleague, and we were soon good friends.” Four years after her wedding, Marguerite fell severely ill, and Elsa supported her friend actively in raising the two small children. Richard and Elsa remained in contact, and so it ensued that they later got married.

Married life in Boswil

As a family, they lived in Boswil in the Canton of Aargau, in the former vicarage, and Richard used the unused church as an atelier. On 21 July 1920, Elsa’s first child Rudolf Richard Odilo was born. Two years later, on 12 November 1922, Gabriele Elisabeth Anna Maria completed the by then six-strong family.

Elisabeth Rannacher - first graduate of the HSG
(from left to right) Elisabeth Nüscheler-Rannacher (probably pregnant at this time), Georges (from first marriage), Rudolf Richard Odilo (born 21 July 1920), Richard Arthur Nüscheler, Elisabeth Anna Maria (from first marriage, born 1915) (Photo: Rebekka Nüscheler)

Elsa worked in the garden and did the housework, learnt to sew and embroider with the help of a fashion magazine and looked after the children. In addition, she helped Richard with his work: she painted lettering and was responsible for his accounts and correspondence. One of the things she did in her spare time was writing poetry. Her stepdaughter wrote about Elisabeth Rannacher’s various talents: “Mummy was not only intelligent but developed an enormous versatility and liveliness – her hands never rested.” Precisely this diligence, this intelligence and this perseverance were also reflected in her above-average marks as the HSG’s first graduate – a remarkable achievement in everyday student life, which was then male-dominated.

Elisabeth Rannacher-Nüscheler died in Lucerne on 21 March 1959.

Text: Pia Regli, University Archive

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