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.

Project news, end of M. Della Corte’s first mandate & study day

Five months of full-time detective work have enabled us to trace the guestbooks of 49 hotels (including 25 in French-speaking Switzerland), 40 mountain huts, 3 hospices, 2 restaurants, and 1 private residence.

We are close to finishing contacting all hotels dating before 1950 in the Cantons of Geneva,  Vaud, Neuchâtel, and Valais. Based on this often tedious legwork, one thing has become clear: very few hotels have kept their guestbooks. In most cases the owners no longer know their whereabouts. Either they have been destroyed, or former owners kept the documents, making the search very difficult for us.

At the end of August, our scientific collaborator, Mattia Della Corte, will finish his mandate sponsored by the Faculty of Letters of the University of Neuchâtel. We hope to be able to obtain funds for a second mandate, which will allow us to begin the second phase of the project (digitalization and development of an electronic archive).
Moreover, the Swiss Guestbook Project will organize a study day on guestbooks at the University of Neuchâtel on Friday 4 September 2015, to which all interested researchers and members of the public are invited. Professors Kevin James of the University of Guelph, Canada and Roger Eaton of the University of Amsterdam will be our guest speakers.  More information on the study day will be posted soon.

The SGP is progressing slowly but surely !

It has now been three months since the Swiss Guestbook Project was initiated. During this time, we have been able to develop two databases: the first one is a list of historic establishments in Switzerland and some neighboring countries (see entry of 30 March), and the second one is a list of all the guestbooks/visitors books/registers that we have been able to locate so far.

To create this second database, we have mostly prospected in communal and cantonal archives in the French part of Switzerland (Cantons of Neuchâtel, Vaud, Geneva and Valais). So far, we have found the guestbooks of 34 hotels and 2 restaurants, as well as 130 mountain hut registers (thanks to the Alpine Museum in Bern) as well some documents linked to our project, including the Gazette des Étrangers de Lausanne-Ouchy which listed foreigners staying in hotels of that city.

Sans titreGazette des Étrangers de Lausanne-Ouchy, year XXXIII,  week n°33, 13 august 1927 (photo courtesy of Archives de la ville de Lausanne)

We also have started to develop collaborations, including with Mrs. Evelyne Lüthi-Graf of Swiss Hotel Archives, and we wish to pursue others, including with the Alpine Museum in Bern. All the people or institutions linked to the SGP can be found in the Research Group page or in the Links. We take this opportunity to thank them all for their help.

The three simultaneous next steps of the project will be :

1) to contact old but still active hotels in Switzerland in order to present them our project and ask them if they have visitors books, starting with the Suisse Romande.

2) to continue to extend the project to other research groups in Switzerland and develop collaborations with institutions

3) to raise funds from private and public organizations, including the National Fund Switzerland or/and the Loterie Romande

27 guestbooks identified so far

Since late March 2015, we have been able to locate almost 30 extant hotel and inn guestbooks in Switzerland. We first prospected in the Canton of Neuchâtel area, where we  only found one guestbook: the livre d’or de l’Hôtel de la Fleur de Lys in La Chaux-de-Fonds, which is on deposit at the history museum of the city. In Neuchâtel, we also came across the Carnet de l’officier de la garde in the communal archives, in which we discovered lists of foreigners staying in hotels and inns of the city between 1769-1770. We have not been able yet to track down prospective guestbooks for the Grand Hôtel Bellevue, in which Miss Jemima Morrell stayed in 1863.

Previous research conducted by Kataryna Michaelkiewicz helped us track down several guestbooks in canton Valais, from which we obtained digitized samples, including from the Mont Cervin Hotel, the Hotel Nest und Bietschorn and the Hotel Riffelberg.

We also began searching through online archive catalogs to identify guestbooks on the whole Swiss territory. One of our best online « discoveries » is the livres des passants of the Grand-Saint-Bernard hospice, which regroups no less than 36 guestbooks, covering a period of more than one and a half century (1812-1970) and whose scans are available online. Here is the link :


Charles Dickens’s entry on 3 September 1846, Livre des passants, Hospice du Grand-Saint-Bernard (photo courtesy of the Congrégation du Saint-Bernard)

The next step in our research will take us to other areas of French-speaking Switzerland. We will focus our attention on Lausanne and Geneva, where we hope to identify more guestbooks, as well as continuing to search for hotel guestbooks along Jemima Morrell’s route. At the same time, we are working on developing collaborations with institutions related to the history of Swiss tourism, and we are reaching out to other research groups in Switzerland. We are happy to announce that Professor Rafael Matos-Wasem of the HES-SO Wallis, an expert on the history of tourism, has joined us, and that we will be hosting  Professor Kevin James of the University of Guelph, Canada, an authority on guestbook history, next fall.

More than 1,500 establishments listed between 1816 and 1869 !

One of the SGP’s first goals was to establish a list of historic hotels, pensions and other accommodations for tourists. This preliminary research was done with the help of nineteenth-century guide books and some travelogues, including the celebrated Swiss Journal of Miss Jemima Morrell. We mainly used five guide books :

  • The 1816 edition of Henry Coxe’s The Traveller’s Guide in Switzerland
  • The 1817 edition of Ebel’s Manuel du voyageur en Suisse
  • The 1841 edition of Adolphe Joanne’s Itinéraire descriptif et historique de la Suisse
  • The 1867 edition of Murray’s Handbook to Switzerland
  • And the 1869 edition of Baedeker’s Switzerland, handbook for travellers

Based on these, we were able to build our first database, in which we included no less than 1524 hotels and pensions!  Although the primary objective was to list only Swiss establishments, we have also listed those neighbouring countries’ hotels  also mentioned in the Swiss guide books. In total, we have indexed 1356 establishments for Switzerland, 69 for Italy, 65 for France, 25 for Austria and 8 for Germany.

For example, here are the names of the establishments we have found for city of Lucerne:
Schweizerhof, Luzerner Hof, Englischer Hof, Schwan, Hôtel du Rigi, Waage, Hôtel du Lac, Hôtel des Alpes, The Adler, Rössli, Hôtel de la Poste, Mohren, Hirsch, Krone, Kreuz, WilderMann, Worley (pens.), Kaufmann (pens.), Morell (pens.), Beaurivage (pens.), Faller (pens.), Dommann (pens.), Suter (pens.), Suter (pens.), Tivoli (pens.), Seeburg (pens.), Pitzger (pens.), Döpfner (pens.), Bellevue (pens.), New Schweizerhaus (pens.), Sonnenberg (pens.), Blättler (pens.).

This research has also enabled us to identify major tourist flows from the late 18th to late 19th centuries, which we will then use in the next step of the project, which will be to focus on certain itineraries, sites and tourist establishments in order to hopefully discover surviving guestbooks.