Monday, August 1, 2011

Swiss National Day

Every country has its own day for fireworks, it seems: November 5th in the UK, July 4th in the USA, July 14th in France. In Switzerland it’s today, 1st August, and anyone standing on the southern shore of Lac Léman tonight, in France, will look across to see firework displays taking place all down the long sweep of the Swiss shore. Today is the Swiss National Day*, when communities gather all over the country (and beyond, in the so-called “Fifth Switzerland” made up of expatriates) to celebrate their Swissness and the survival of their country despite all the obstacles that geography, language, religion and sometimes-aggressive neighbours have placed in the way of its unity. Here we look at some Swiss items in the Wellcome Library collections, and the links between Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

[*Of course, as a multi-lingual country Switzerland has not one but four names for the celebration, calling it the Bundesfeier (German), Fête nationale (French), Festa nazionale (Italian) or Fiasta naziunala (Romansch).]

The date of the National Day commemorates the first Federal Charter, dated “early August” 1291, although it has become conflated also with the slightly later Oath of the Rütli sworn between the representatives of the three original cantons, an event dramatised by Schiller in his play Wilhelm Tell (and re-enacted at a crucial moment in the country’s history, in 1941, when the 650th anniversary of the confederation was used to reaffirm a commitment to democracy and independence). Needless to say, history does not really provide a neat date and time at which the country was founded. Rather, the origins of Switzerland lie in a gradual coalescence of various communities, mostly of their free will, for mutual protection and self-determination. As the Middle Ages progressed, the original three “forest cantons” of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, clustered in the mountainous area around the Vierwaldstättersee, were joined by other similar areas, by imperial cities such as Zürich, Bern and Basel, by their subject areas, and by other loose confederations of mountain communities such as those that now make up the cantons of Valais and Graubünden, until by the early modern period the country had essentially the shape that it has today.

There have long been strong links between Switzerland and the United Kingdom, with the nineteenth century particularly important for these. The Romantics’ appreciation of Switzerland’s scenery – prior to the Romantic movement it had been more usual to see mountains as a nuisance – forged a trail that tourists followed, with an ever-expanding railway network (and travel agents like Thomas Cook) making it ever easier to get there. The names of hotels in holiday centres such as Interlaken are a testament to the British influence on Switzerland’s tourist industry. Politically, too, Switzerland was appealing to the nineteenth-century Briton. At a time when much of Europe was controlled by empires and other undemocratic régimes, this was a country whose foundation myths, of sturdy independent peasants banding together to resist oppression and decide their policies by democratic means, chimed well with Victorian ideas of ancestral Anglo-Saxon liberties and the evolution of the Mother of Parliaments. (In each case, of course, the foundation myth ignored many less democratic elements such as the unequal weighting that wealth gave certain citizens’ voices, and the complete absence of any voice for women.) The robust Protestantism of many Swiss would have been congenial, too. Here, a Victorian Englishman could have enjoyed foreign travel whilst feeling that the people around him were almost British themselves: sensible, sober people not given to continental vices such as riots, revolutions or too much gesticulation. One of the strangest survivors of this nineteenth-century kinship stands in the London district of Brixton, one of the capital’s poorer neighbourhoods: in the midst of a 1960s housing estate is a pub called “The Hero of Switzerland”, the sign showing the iconic scene in which William Tell aims his crossbow at an apple on his son’s head. The building is modern but stands on a site used for a pub of that name since at least 1901.

As one might expect, many of the Swiss items in the Wellcome Library relate to British travellers. In 1817 Joseph Jackson Lister (1786-1869), wine merchant, microscopist and later to be father to the founder of antiseptic surgery, was one of the British subjects flocking across the Channel to see the European sights that had been off-limits for a generation and were now finally opened to them by the victory over Napoleon. His travels are recorded in a tiny, neat diary, illustrated with pencil sketches and watercolours that track his journey across France to the Alps and then back to Britain down the Rhine (MS.6962).

Lister's journeys took him to the foot of the Gotthard Pass, into territory that was still quite wild and woolly for the average traveller. Later in the nineteenth century an expanding tourist industry had made the mountains more accessible, with mountain railways making it possible for ordinary tourists to reach summits previously thought of as the haunt only of ghosts and dragons. The surgeon Charles Brodie Sewell (1817-1900) visited Switzerland repeatedly from the 1860s to the 1890s and his detailed travel journals give an indication of how domesticated, comparatively, the Alps were becoming: photographs show us the rack-railway climbing to the summit of the Rigi, one of two that were built to this peak. Many other papers in the Library collections document similar holidays, up to the mid-twentieth century. The diary of Dr Forrest Leon Loveland, a general practitioner from Topeka, Kansas, documenting a trip to Europe in 1931, is particularly colourful, with photographs, cuttings and ephemera pasted into a large diary-cum-scrapbook (MS.7974). Shadows are cast on this tourist idyll, however, by one item Loveland includes: next to a painting of Zürich and photographs of the railway up the Pilatus is a monochrome newspaper cutting whose title declares "Germany's 100,000 on fighting edge", next to which a member of the Wehrmacht blows a purposeful bugle. Particularly poignant reminders of the world beyond the Alps come in the papers of the psychoanalysts Siegmund Heinrich Foulkes (originally Fuchs) (1898-1976) and Elizabeth Therese Fanny Foulkes (née Marx) (1918-2004). The couple collected postcards when on holiday, and their papers include blank undated cards from all over the world, Switzerland included. The Swiss cards appear to date from between the wars and it is probable that whichever of the Foulkes collected these (they were not married to each other at that time) would still have been a German citizen, since each was born German but was forced to emigrate to the U.K. by Nazi persecution of Jews.

We have focussed so far chiefly upon foreign visitors to Switzerland, but of course Swiss material is also present in the collection. Our manuscript medical recipe books include Swiss items such as MS.7908, a collection of medical recipes originally put together by a priest in Birmensdorf (canton Zürich) in the early seventeenth century. Perhaps the most striking of our Swiss holdings, however, are among the most recent. The Library's Iconographic Collections include a large number of Swiss public health posters, warning against AIDS and counselling condom use (as ill-luck would have it, AIDS arrived at about the same time that Switzerland underwent a large increase in intravenous drug use, making the problem even more pressing). The posters - available, of course, in various languages including those of immigrant communities such as Turkish, as well as the country's official languages - come in various styles, from the oblique to the downright startling and explicit. Backgrounds to the messages vary from nightclubs in, presumably, the grittier city neighbourhoods, to the chocolate-box Switzerland of Alps and meadows, in which a Heidi-milkmaid brandishes a condom and proclaims "Ohne? Ohne mich." (An idiomatic translation might be "Doing without [a condom]? Do without me."). In one particularly pretty series, the instantly-recognisable skylines of various Swiss cities are shown at night, lit only by the stars and a strange, pink moon that turns out on closer inspection to be a condom.

August 1st has provided us with a reason to dig out some of our Swiss holdings: but, of course, there are many more and they are available all the year round. All these and more can be consulted in the Library (and images of many Swiss-related items can be found on Wellcome Images). You are invited to come and explore, whether it that takes the form of rambling over Alpine meadows or looking at the many inventive uses graphic designers can find for the humble condom.

Aerial illustration of the Vierwaldstättersee (also known in Britain as Lake Lucerne), from the diaries of Dr Forrest Leon Loveland, general practitioner of Topeka, Kansas, documenting a trip he made to Europe with his wife Helen in 1931 (MS.7974).
Postcards collected on Swiss holidays, mostly showing the Berner Oberland, in the papers of S.H. Foulkes (PP/SHF/A/C/7).
Title page, MS.7908: 17th century recipe compilation.
"The Hero of Switzerland" pub, Loughborough Road, London SW9: image copyright Christopher Hilton, made available under Creative Commons via the Geograph website.
A square and fountain in Zürich, drawn by Joseph Jackson Lister in MS.6962.
The Vitznau-Rigi railway, from the 1885 travel diary of Charles Brodie Sewell (MS.4509).
AIDS-Hilfe Schweiz and Swiss Federal Office of Public Health: poster warning of the importance of condom use, 1990s.
AIDS-Hilfe Schweiz and Swiss Federal Office of Public Health: poster warning of the importance of condom use, 1990s.
Swiss Federal Office of Public Health: poster warning of the importance of condom use, 1990s, showing Luzern by night.

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