The Federal Government used the exhibition to draw attention to the importance of schooling. A year earlier, it had suffered a crushing defeat in what became known as the "Schulvogt" referendum on a universal school system. It took a series of amendments to the Federal constitution before school subsidies, grants and scientific research were included in Switzerland's statute books.
In 1883, many rural regions opposed compulsory schooling being presented in a positive light. Ultimately, the results of army recruits' examinations were published. They showed that recruits from Basel, where the teachers were paid ten times the salary of their Valais counterparts and taught in smaller classes, performed significantly better than their colleagues from the alpine canton. No non-Swiss products were permitted at the National Exhibition, which was intended as a show of purely Swiss achievement. While fostering an as-yet underdeveloped sense of national identity, for Zurich the exhibition was also about commerce. Around 6,000 exhibitors took part.
Genesis of industry associations
Visitors to the first National Exhibition would have liked to have had real figures for the exports of the textile and watchmaking industries, for example, yet in 1883 statistics were conspicuous by their absence.
For some exhibitors, taking part in the National Exhibition also harboured a risk, because a jury gave scores for individual products and also criticised entire industries. The agricultural, silk and crafts industries, for example, came under fire for failing to fulfil modern requirements. The National Exhibition sparked the foundation of many national industry associations, such as the "Verband Schweizer Presse" [the Swiss Press Association] and the "Verein Schweizer Gastwirte" [now "GastroSuisse", the hotel and restaurant association].
The opening of the Gotthard tunnel a year earlier had brought the Ticino closer to the rest of Switzerland, and the southern part of the country featured heavily in the National Exhibition.
The enthusiasm generated by this alpine achievement also inspired new visions. In Zurich, for example, a project was presented that aimed to create navigable waterways right through Switzerland from Lake Geneva to Lake Constance.