Why Swiss guestbooks?

"In the building you find bread and wine, a few trifles for sale, and a book. -- for they keep a book everywhere in Switzerland--if you are not called upon to write your name by the police, you are invited to do it by the keeper of the exhibition, show-place, or curiosity shop."

Robert Southey, journal of a tour upon the Continent, 1817

What is a guest book?

Also known as the visitor book, Fremdenbuch, livre d’or, livre des étrangers, etc., guest books are a physical artifact, but also a cultural practice that includes writing and reading others visitors’ names and comments ; annotating or extracting these ; and sometimes even outdoing previous entries with a snide comment, poem or bon mot. The information imparted by guestbooks can be frivolous or serious, banal or useful : either way, it belonged to what historian Kevin James has described as « an experimental space of self-exposure » with its well-established dramaturgy, making guest books less « spontaneous » than a private diary or letter but more so than a published travel account.

Guest book writing and reading was and continues to be performed in the lobbies of all sorts of touristic establishments, from the small inn to the grand hotel, the museum to the monastery, the mountain hut to the stately home, different types of establishments encouraging different types of guestbooks and inscriptions. A democratic mode, guest books seem to have reached their peak with the rise of middle-class travel in the mid-Victorian period and thus can be linked to the rise of the modern self. Part of nineteenth-century sentimental culture, they enabled tourists among other things to imitate Romantic forms of travel. One may think, for example, of Byron famously stating his age as « one hundred » in the guest book of De Jean’s hotel in Sécheron in May 1816. Kevin James calls guest books  « sites for Byronic self-representation ».

Guest books are critical to articulating the social, cultural, and legal identity of hotels. They also reveal much information about the numbers and identities of tourists who passed through, allowing us to develop more precise statistical data. Most importantly perhaps, they serve as windows onto touristic practices and on the relations of class, gender and nationality both among foreigners and indigenous populations. Acts of inscription, redaction, and reading reveal how visitors engaged with one another and with their hosts, and how they inscribed themselves both individually and collectively into foreign spaces. The sense of grandeur that nineteenth-century tourists experienced in the Alps, for example, and that modern tourism paradoxically helped to destroy, can be relived in the pages of hotel registers and guest books.

Guestbook, Hotel Nest und Bietschhorn, Lötschental, Aug. 1877

Guestbook of the Hotel Nest und Bietschorn, Ried am Blatten, Wallis, August 1877 (photo courtesy of the Nest und Bietschorn Hotel, Ried)

Studies of guest books can be quantitative, evaluative, or both. They are part of our tangible and intangible cultural heritage, and may interest a number of culturally-oriented disciplines, from history and geography to anthropology and literature. The lowbrow and often frivolous content of guest books has contributed to their reputation as ephemera and thus also to their low survival rate. There are many stories of hotel owners throwing away their guestbooks in the dumpster. Innkeepers often censored critical comments, and famous entries were also frequently plundered by autograph hunters, the best-known example being the page from a guestbook in Chamonix in which Percy Bysshe Shelley refers to himself as a democrat and an atheist. This was sewn into a copy of Shelley’s poems owned by the Marquess of Crewe and only recently rediscovered.[1]

Guestbook of the Zermatt parish, 1836

Guestbook of the Zermatt parish, the village’s first tourist accommodation, 1836-1851 (photo courtesy of the Matterhorn Museum, Zermatt)

Why Switzerland?

Switzerland’s history and geographical location at the crossroads of Northern and Southern Europe make it uniquely well suited to this project. Switzerland served first as a necessary passage to Italy, then, from the eighteenth century onward, as a destination in its own right, first attracting aristocrats, then increasingly a socially more diverse group of people. The Alps became far more accessible to travelers in the first decades of the nineteenth century due to the end of the Napoleonic wars but also, and principally, to the radical development of Europe’s travel infrastructure.[2] This included a regular cross-Channel steamer service to the Continent first provided in 1820,  the completion of a railway line from the Channel ports to Basel that shortened a journey to Switzerland from approximately sixteen days in the 1820s to five days in 1852, and Thomas Cook’s first organized tour of the Alps in 1863, famously related by a female participant, Jemima Morrell.[3] The birth and rapid development of the Swiss tourist industry changed the conditions of travel in the Alps and served as a model for tourism in other countries.

Admired by a select few in the eighteenth century, the Alps were transformed into one of the most popular destinations in the emerging phenomenon of mass tourism, becoming a distinctly middle-class, ‘Cockney’ affair.  As the pioneer historian of alpinism Claire Eliane Engel writes, it was a period when ‘the great peaks were brought down to the level of humanity.’[4] The enthusiasm for mountaineering flourished in Victorian society among climbers eager to conquer summits as well as among holidaymakers looking for Continental adventure. The Alps were carried back to London via travelogues, illustrated albums, panoramas, dioramas, relief-models and other popular shows.

relief model by Gaudin

Relief model of Western Switzerland by Léonard Gaudin (ca. 1820s)

Alongside travel books and magazine articles, hotel guest books became an important medium to highlight and preserve a record of these travelers’  ‘achievements,’ and were therefore a tool for Victorian middle-class self-fashioning. They also were a place to record comments on the hotel service, the reliability of the guide, or the quality of the food. Leaving one’s autograph, a brief commentary, even a poem or sketch in a hotel register thus became part of the habitus of Victorian alpine travel, a daily practice of inscription performed by every self-respecting tourist from holidaymakers to alpinists. Guest books were the nineteenth-century equivalent of online travel blogs, the direct ancestor of Tripadvisor.com!

Poem, Hotel Riffelberg, Zermatt

Anonymous poem, guestbook of the Hotel Riffleberg, Zermatt (photo courtesy of Seiler Hotels, Zermatt)

Switzerland’s political and commercial stability, legal requirements in all the cantons regarding mandatory visitor registration, and the fact that a number of hotels have been owned and operated by the same family for the past 200 years, have contributed to the high survival rate of historic guest books, which contain information about people from all over the world. Many of these valuable artifacts remain buried away in hotel basements and local archives, however, and need to be made available electronically so that researchers and mountain enthusiasts alike can use and enjoy them.

Guest books have taken several forms from the eighteenth century onward. We have found at least three types of documents, including registers divided into columns organized by name, surname, nationality, point of departure and destination, and, on occasion, comments; Livres des étrangers, registers filled in by innkeepers and based on passports; and finally, in the smaller hotels, inns, huts, museums, etc. blank-paged books that were usually less structured and contained more numerous, detailed and longer visitors’ comments as well as images and poems. By the early twentieth century, guestbooks and registers mainly served the compulsory registration mandated by the state.

Alpinists, Hotel Riffleberg, Zermatt

Sketch of Welsh, English and French alpinists, guestbook from the Hotel Riffelberg, Zermatt, July 1864 (photo courtesy of the Matterhorn Museum, Zermatt)

While we have found inscriptions in many languages and from many countries, the overwhelming majority of these are in English, reflecting the dominance of British tourism in nineteenth-century Switzerland. Indeed, Kevin James has shown how the guestbook was often perceived in the nineteenth and early twentieth century as « a British social institution ». It was associated in particular with common law culture and the liberating character of travel in Britain, where registration under one’s own name was not required until the twentieth century. In that sense, guestbooks seem to belong to an elective culture of travel, versus registers which are more prescriptive. [5]

Beyond the need to preserve these amazing artifacts, the Swiss Guestbook project is motivated by many specific questions, including the extent to which British travelers imported guest book practices from their home country, and the degree to which Swiss guest books were more regimented than in the British isles. Was « inn verse » a genre that originated in and is particular to British and Irish travel culture, or were local forms of such verse already in place ? Can the study of Swiss guest books allow us to identify national characteristics intrinsic to inns and hotels in Switzerland, and can it help us compare the perception of travel in different countries ? By bringing some answers to these and many other questions, this project aims to contribute to the cultural history of Switzerland and of the Alps, and to help us better understand the phenomenon of modern tourism more generally.

[1] Gavin de Beer, ‘Shelley at Chamonix: An ‘Atheist’ in the Alps,’ Speaking of Switzerland (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1952), 162-178.

[2] Laurent Tissot, ‘How did the British conquer Switzerland? Guidebooks, railways, travel agencies: 1850–1914,’ Journal of Transport History 16, no. 1 (1995), 21–54.

[3] Jemima Morrell, Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journal: the First Conducted Tour of Switzerland, (London: Putnam), 1962.

[4] Claire Eliane Engel, Mountaineering in the Alps: An Historical Survey (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1971), 99.

[5] Kevin James, ‘ “[A] British Social Institution”: The Visitors’ Book and Hotel Culture in Victorian Britain and Ireland,’ Journeys: The International Journal of Travel Writing 13, no. 1 (2012): 42-69.