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Brits Abroad, Brits at Home

Since Jeremie Magnin joined the project in February, five guestbooks from two different hotels have been photographed and analysed, and at least five more hotels still possessing their guestbooks have been identified. Trips to photograph these as well as previously identified guestbooks will soon be organized. Meanwhile, the search for other guestbooks still continues and is being extended to cover all of Switzerland.

On May 9th 2018, Patrick Vincent and Jeremie Magnin participated in a one-day symposium at the Institute of English Studies of the University of London, entitled “Brits Abroad, Brits at Home”. Hosted by Alan McNee, the symposium brought together researchers interested in British travellers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Project partner and thesis co-supervisor Kevin James gave a fine talk on the origin of guestbook culture entitled “‘Heterogeneous Hotch-Potches of Maudlin Sentiment and Racked Rhyme’: The Hotel Visitors’ Book and Victorian Travel Writing”.

Patrick Vincent & Jérémie Magnin presented a paper based on recent guestbook findings entitled “’The High Alps without Guides’: Guidebooks, Guestbooks, and the Origins of Guideless Travel”. Despite the Matterhorn tragedy in 1865, British tourism in the Swiss Alps increased markedly in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, giving rise to new variations on mountain travel, including winter ascents, ascents by women, and ascents without guides. This last trend, promoted in particular by Arthur Girdlestone in The High Alps Without Guides (1870), proved controversial both in Switzerland and back home. Reading the popular Baedeker and Ball guides alongside six manuscript guestbooks from the central Valais region, they examined how commercial guidebooks and hotel guestbooks operated dialogically to facilitate guideless travel and to enable less well-off tourists, including students, to explore the High Alps on the cheap. Girdlestone’s own experiences in the Alps help better understand the protocols binding tourist, hotel owner, and guide, the motives justifying guideless mountaineering, and some of the problems generated by this more democratic form of travel.

New SNF-funded doctoral project on Swiss guestbooks

Thanks to a Swiss National Science Foundation grant, we are delighted to be able to pursue our research on Swiss guestbooks in the next four years. Jérémie Magnin will be working with Patrick Vincent and Kevin James on a doctoral project entitled « Spatial Practices and the Performance of Identity in Nineteenth-Century Swiss Guestbooks. »

Guestbooks offer an unexplored window onto the social, cultural and spatial practices of Swiss tourism. Our primary aim in the four appointed years is to produce an in-depth study of nineteenth-century guestbook culture both to shed insight into the practice of guestbook reading and writing, and to better understand the historical development of the Swiss hospitality industry and of tourism more generally.

We wish to continue locating sources and building a corpus of texts so as to obtain a large representative sample from different decades, regions, and types of accommodation and tourist activity. This will allow us to establish a descriptive taxonomy of the guestbook’s bibliographic features, including its legally-shaped visitor records, but also elements that draw on sentimental culture, including marginalia, sketches and doodles, epigrams, bons mots, and verse. Using both quantitative and qualitative methods, we then wish to examine how visitors used these guestbook inscriptions to engage in distinct spatial practices and to self-fashion themselves according to various gendered, class, national, and regional identities.

Taking advantage of similar projects being carried out on guestbooks from other nations, we will then place our findings within a comparative framework in order to understand what might be the distinctive characteristics of Swiss guestbook culture. This research will in turn help to us to answer a number of important questions concerning the development of Swiss hotels, touristic practices, and mountain sports.

The Guestbook as Historical Source

New publication: Kevin J. James and Patrick Vincent, « The Guestbook as Historical Source, » Journal of Tourism History, forthcoming summer 2016.

The hotel guest book, often overlooked as a source for the study of
travel, can offer rich insight into literary practices and travel culture
in the nineteenth century. Much valuable work has extracted
nominal and geographic details for guests from these books; a
more extended research programme treating the sources as a
form of travel writing can highlight their utility in exploring the
representation of self and landscape, as well as providing a critical
framework for exploring the legal regimes within which systems
of inscription and reading operated. A research programme
exploring British and Swiss books must find ways of rigorously,
systematically, and comparatively engaging with books, aligning
questions that interrogate the textual and material properties of
manuscript and printed materials. Far from being a collection of
names, a record of last resort for historians seeking a substitute
for more systematic sources, or a form of ephemera, the visitors’
books are tools to reconstruct tourist markets, and also records of
commercial evolution, intercultural encounter, discursive practice,
cultural evaluation, literary, and book history.

Victorians in the Alps: A Case Study of Zermatt’s Hotel Guest Books and Registers

 New publication:

Katarzyna Michalkiewicz and Patrick Vincent, « Victorians in the Alps: A Case Study of Zermatt’s Hotel Guest Books and Registers, » in  Britain and the Narration of Travel in the Nineteenth Century: Texts, Images, Objects, ed. Kate Hill (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2016) 75-90.


The invasion of tourists of all kinds (scientists, artists, alpinists, etc.) in the second half of the nineteenth century was the main incentive for the birth and rapid development of the Swiss hotel industry, which changed the conditions of travelling in the Alps, but also served as a model for tourism in other countries. Nineteenth-century registers and guest books of Swiss hotels and mountain huts are an excellent, and still largely untapped source of information for research concerning the development of tourism in Switzerland and the Alps. They are currently scattered among hotels, museums, archives of Swiss Alpine Club and private collections, which considerably impedes their potential usefulness for research. Our project aims to digitalize the nineteenth century registers of significant Swiss hotels in order to create an on-line archive available for researchers. The first samples, presented here, enable us to follow the history of tourism in Zermatt, the prominent mountain resort in Switzerland made famous by Edward Whymper’s tragic climbing expedition in 1865. British visitors inspired the hotel pioneer Alexander Seiler and the local community council to build the first grand hotels (Mont Rose, Mont Cervin and Zermatterhof). Their guest books date back to that period, which coincides with the so-called Golden Age of climbing. Not only do they give us precise indications regarding the national origin and itineraries of visitors. They also record first reactions to the landscape, document the race for first ascents, often explained too easily, as part of an incipient nationalism, and show how middle-class tourists sometimes sought to self-fashion themselves as adventurers. Guest books are thus a invaluable source of information on Victorian-period social practices of mountain tourism.

Report on our Swiss Guestbooks Research Day

Thirteen researchers and experts on the history of travel from various Swiss institutions and from farther afield participated in our first research colloquium on Swiss guestbooks at the University of Neuchâtel on 4 September. These included our guest speaker, Kevin James from the University of Guelph, Canada ; Evelyne Lüthi-Graf, director of the Swiss Hotel Archives ; Daniela Vaj, research director at the Digital Humanities Lab of the University of Lausanne ; Rafael Matos-Wasem, professor of geography at the HES-SO in Sierre ; Jon Mathieu, Ursula Batz, and Andreas Bürgi from the University of Lucerne ; and Laurent Tissot, Mattia della Corte, Sarah Pflug, Anne-Claire Michoux, Benjamin Zumwald and Patrick Vincent from the University of Neuchâtel.

Thanks in particular to Kevin James, the colloquium was extremely productive. Kevin gave a much-appreciated lecture entitled «The Guest Book as Historical Source » that not only set the parameters for the day’s discussion, but also inspired participants to pursue their research of guest books. Drawing on a rich archive, Kevin’s talk focused on the textual rather than numerical applications of guestbook scholarship, building on the contributions of historical geography to contextualize these artifacts as an historical record using the tools of book history and of literary analysis. Questions he sought to answer include what it meant to be a guest inscribing in and reading a guestbook, how these books produced and shaped nineteenth-century culture, how contemporaries handled the books as vital cultural objects, and what differences existed if any in the performance of guestbook writing across time and space.

A number of important insights and questions relevant to the Swiss guestbook project emerged from Kevin’s presentation and from the ensuing discussion. Above all, it confirmed the fact that guest books were not a uniquely British practice, and that Switzerland was very often associated by British writers with visitor book culture. Unlike in Britain, however, where travelers were not obliged to register their names until 1914, the Swiss cantons introduced registration laws in the early nineteenth century (6 February 1843 in Vaud, for example) that regimented travelers’ acts of inscription. Whereas guest books emerged out of the 18th century as a relatively free space of inscription, registers were introduced in the 19th century because of new legal regimes of surveillance. This difference may help explain the lower density of guest books versus registers in Switzerland, and the fact that those we have found are often in peripheral areas rather than in the main cities.

In the afternoon, Andreas Bürgi presented a livre d’or from 1877 to 1878 that he discovered during his research on Lucerne’s Gletschergarten. Among other things, these revealed an important gap (1/4) between the number of people who visited the museum per year, and the number who entered their names, a reminder that guestbooks may not always be reliable statistical tools. Mattia della Corte then gave a synthetic review of his work in the last six months, using the example of Jemima Morrell’s 1863 itinerary, along which only one out of twelve tourist establishments have survived, to show the difficulty of the task. Focusing on French-speaking Switzerland, Mattia contacted sixty-five hotels and inns that survived from the nineteenth century : thirty-two of these have no records, and among the fifteen that do, most of these are recent. Mattia usefully established a typology of guestbooks based on his findings : 1. Registers filled by the hotels ; 2. Registers combined with livres d’or ; 3. Livres d’or in which the client only signs his name ; and 4. Livres d’or in which the guest is invited to also write comments.

Among other points discussed was the practicability and usefulness of digitization, especially with transcription and coding. Participants agreed that the research project needed to be developed and gradually carried over to all the linguistic regions of Switzerland. If a number of challenges lie ahead, notably in terms of funding, we emerged from the colloquium energized and eager to forge ahead with the project.