In October 2019, we presented our project at the REVE workshop in Ravenna, a group of Romantic-period scholars interested in the material culture of the Romantic period. Because few guest books from the first half of the nineteenth century have survived, one has to rely instead on the many published and unpublished travelogues, letters, journals, and articles in which they are mentioned, and entries often transcribed, in order to be able to reconstitute Romantic-period visitor book culture. In Robert Southey’s unpublished 1817 journal, for example, held at the Keswick Museum, we have found 16 references to guest books. Looking at these and at several other sources, we wish to briefly point out some of the ways in which these were used in the Romantic period, and how they might still be useful to scholars today.
From very early on in the nineteenth century, visitor books in Switzerland served the legally-enforced function of registering clients, allowing the state to police the movements of foreigners. But these same books were also an early and useful form of information technology, enabling tourists among other things to keep track of other tourists. Time and time again, Southey looks up the names of friends and acquaintances who had already accomplished or were in the process of accomplishing a tour on the Continent. In Sion on 24 June, for example, he writes: ‘Our passport was required, and the book was brought to inscribe our names. I found in it the names of Lady Fleming, of Eustace, and of the Awdrys.’ Visitor books could also be a discreet way to identify fellow tourists at one’s table d’hôte or to identify their national origins. At the Ile St. Pierre in 1817, the utilitarian-minded Louis Simond writes that, ‘Looking over this book, we ascertained that the proportion of travellers from different countries stands thus: fifty-three Swiss and Germans, four Prussians, two Dutch, one Italian, five French, three Americans, and twenty-eight English.’
Much like today’s TripAdvisor, they also commented on their own or on other establishments, the risk being that the inn keeper may have penned the review, or that opinions diverged. Southey thus notes that ‘The Savage at Meyringhen had been marked as a house of extortion in one of the Books which we had seen, and as an excellent house in another. We found good fare, and charges which previous extortion made us think reasonable.’
Visitor books were not only useful: they were also source of literary entertainment. Dorothy Wordsworth notes in her journal in Chamonix, that
‘The Album of the Union Inn could hardly be read through in a whole week of bad weather. The names of many of our Friends and acquaintances were discovered; and quotations from my Brother’s poems—“Matthew” and “Yarrow Visited” with “Sad Stuff!” affixed to the latter, by way of comment, in another handwriting. Some spirited pencil sketches in the same book.’
The sketches and so-called album verse, more often doggerel, together with the caustic comments that often glossed these, delighted tourists, so much so that the visitor book led to its own literary sub-genre, poems supposedly written in visitor books (Wordsworth has one, Byron two). Travelers not only enjoyed leaving their own comments: they also liked to transcribe others’ comments, epigrams, and bon mots in their journals. Simond is again insightful here: he writes that ‘We copied a few of them as well as the critical remarks of less friendly travelers, some of them amusing enough, but it would scarcely be fair to swell this book with quotations of young ladies and gentlemen’s poetry.’
One of the most interesting features of Romantic guest book culture is the way in which they created an intertextual network linking people and places. John Roby, for instance, writes in 1838 that he is ‘very fond of these memorials. They are a link, a pleasant connection, a bond of hidden mystic sympathy with those who have gone before.’ To give just one example: On 7 July 1817, Southey wrote his name in visitor book of Elizabeth Grossmann, the celebrated ‘belle batelière’ of Brientz. In his own tour account, Simond writes that, ‘Turning over the last page we observed the name of Mr. Southey, who it seems passed a day or two ago, and recorded in the book his admiration of the belle batelière, who is he says like the Formarina.’ And a year later, Charles Lyell again noticed and copied down Southey’s inscription: ‘RS recognizes in Elizabeth a striking resemblance to la Formorina of Rafael,’ he wrote, before disputing the resemblance.
Guest books were best known as the hunting ground for celebrity autographs and comments. In Bern, for instance, Southey notes that ‘Kosiuzko’s name was in the book of visitors.’ Because of the public interest they generated, travelers used them to help fashion their identity, notably through self-disclosure. Byron’s entering of his age as 100 in a Geneva hotel, for example, or Shelley’s identification as an atheist at Montanvers not only contributed to these two poets’ mythical status, but also inspired hundreds of similar entries. As a result, many names and comments were forged, and the most interesting often pilfered, including Shelley’s page from Hotel de Londres, which was bound in a copy of the Revolt of Islam, and only recently rediscovered. As Daniel Wilson writes in 1824, ‘It is much to be regretted that the unpardonable licence of a few persons, I am afraid chiefly Englishmen, is rapidly tending to put an end to this innocent and gratifying custom,’ i.e. ‘the keeping of a stranger’s book.’
The newest issue of the magazine Forum PCP (Protection of Cultural Property) deals with the complex theme of tourism and the protection of cultural property. Jeremie Magnin contributed an article about his research and the Swiss guestbook project (pp. 54-59). In it, Jeremie examines Zermatt visitors’ books from the 1850s and 1860s to show how British guests identified themselves abroad, how this influenced their material and textual practices, and what their inscriptions had to say about the relation between individuals and national ideology. British travellers’ entries could be as short as signing their names, writing a few sentences or, in the case of mountaineers, regularly taking more than one page to write about their climbs. Many of the latter after 1857, when the Alpine Club was founded, include the initials “AC.” These two cryptic letters stood for a specific set of values and behaviour that the British mountaineers were particularly proud of, as they believed that it distinguished them from other guests. Our analysis of Zermatt visitors’ books demonstrates how these cultural objects were used to construct national identity, notably by helping promote the Alpine Club as a model for British values. If the mountaineers seem to form an elite of independent individuals, their visitors’ book entries also suggest a culture of cooperation, and an awareness that they relied heavily on other climbers, local guides and landlords for their successful ascents.
Forum PCP is available for download at the following link: Forum PCP No 33/2019 – Tourism and Protection of Cultural Property
Guest books, it seems, are trendier than ever! Kevin James is quoted in a New York Times article on the reinvention of the guest book in modern hotels, including one that is haunted…
Jérémie Magnin’s hunt for guest books has yielded a large number of new finds, but he has also taken advantage of the summer months to photograph manuscripts. In July, Jérémie went to Zermatt to see the 1865 Monte Rosa book, still owned by the Seiler family. He and Patrick Vincent also spent a day looking at books from the Simplon and Great St.Bernard Hospices in the archives of the Congregation of St-Bernard in Martigny, and two days at the Musée Alpin and the Association des Amis du Vieux Chamonix.
On a side trip to Montanvers, they saw what was left of the Temple de la Nature, built in 1795 to replace Blair’s Hut, and where many famous tourists, including Shelley, signed their name in the guest book. Two hotels were built beside it, the first in 1840, the second in 1890. The latter is still a hotel and has been beautifully restored. Even more impressive was seeing what was left of the Mer de glace. A different kind of inscription marks the glacier’s level in 1990, only thirty years ago.
They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.
Lewis Carroll, “The Hunting of the Snark”
Like all archival research, finding guestbooks at times feels like hunting the Snark. Prospective locations first need to be identified and their owners tracked down before the much-anticipated field visit can be organized. It takes hundreds of e-mails and phone calls, as well as a fair amount of luck. The result is not always, if ever what was expected. Once the books have been brought out and the camera set up, however, the thrill of discovery takes over.
Since our last post, Jérémie Magnin has managed to identify and photograph an impressive number of new books. In June, he and Patrick Vincent drove to the Bernese Oberland to visit two hotel archives. The first one belongs to the Berggasthaus on the outskirts of Trachsellauenen. This small hotel is tucked away high above the end of the Lauterbrunnen valley and has guestbooks going back to 1860. The second is the hotel at the top of the Niesen, a much-visited mountain south of the Thuner See. The hotel belongs to the same company that owns the Niesenbahn, the funicular that has been running from the town of Mülenen to the top of the Niesen since 1910. The archives are kept in the building by the station in Mülenen and the guestbooks start in 1872.
In October, Jérémie added more books to the collection of the Swiss Guestbook Project, visiting the archives of the hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel, one of Switzerland’s oldest and most prestigious hotels, and going on a two-day trip to the Valais. In Basel, the guestbook dates back to 1844 and is a unique signature book, comprised of many guests of royal origin. In the Valais, time was spent in Finhaut, where a few guestbooks are kept at the communal archives. Among them are three registers from the 1890s, from the hotels Mont-Blanc, Beau-Séjour and Grand Hotel that all opened in Finhaut in the last decade of the nineteenth century. He also visited the Hotel du Glacier in Champex-Lac, where a register exists from 1896. Finally, Jérémie went to the Centre régional d’études des populations alpines (CREPA), an institution for regional cultural archives and studies in Sembrancher, where he was able to photograph a register from the Hotel Carron in Fionnay starting in 1896 and the guestbooks from the Hotel du Mauvoisin (formerly named Hotel du Glacier du Giétroz) which go back to 1868.
These books have given us more material to work on, including images, as well as new insights into guestbook culture in Switzerland. But we still need to find more of them, in different regions and accommodation types. So the hunt continues…
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.
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.
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.
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.