Healthy Living in the Alps: The Origins of Winter Tourism in Switzerland, 1860-1914

May 21, 2009

It may seem odd to find a study of Swiss Alpine tourism in a book series on British popular culture. Yet, as anyone who has spent much time in Switzerland can attest, tourism patterns there have a decidedly anglocentric emphasis. Many Swiss villages, for example, offer afternoon tea and have Anglican churches, locally-produced English newspapers, English libraries and British consular offices. In fact, as Susan Barton's Healthy Living in the Alps demonstrates, British visitors were often behind the development of many of Switzerland's most popular resorts.

Barton outlines the expansion of Swiss winter tourism from 1860 to 1914 in five specific resorts: Davos, St Moritz, Arosa, Leysin and Grindelwald. Most of them appealed, often simultaneously, to two types of visitors: sufferers of lung ailments, who were seeking the health benefits of high-altitude climates, and their seeming opposites, already healthy sports enthusiasts.

The resorts of Davos, Arosa and Leysin, for example, began as health centres for invalids, especially those suffering from tuberculosis. Initially, these tuberculosis treatments were simple "milk cures" requiring patients to drink milk several times a day, straight from cows that had grazed on Alpine herbs and grasses. Some patients were even subjected to a "cowshed treatment", where they soothed their infected lungs in the warm vapours of animal breath and bovine urine off-gases such as ammonia.

Later, the new 19th-century field of medical climatology argued that tuberculosis bacilli were unable to thrive in the thin, dry, pollution-free air and unobstructed sunshine of high altitudes. Consequently, a handful of doctors built sanatoria and offered heliotherapy cures, which involved lying on south-facing balconies to soak up the bright winter sun for several hours every day. Frequently, doctors running sanatoria or the patients themselves first introduced the tobogganing, curling, skating and skiing that would come to dominate winter activities in the Alps. Mild forms of these sports were included with long walks as part of the physical exercise in treatments. But it did not take long before health stations for invalids evolved into winter resorts for healthy, athletic thrill-seekers. Barely more than a dozen years had passed, for example, before more visitors were coming to Davos for sports than for cures.

Not all the resorts in Barton's study followed the same trajectory. St Moritz had been a summer health resort, thanks to its mineral spa, long before cultivating winter sports; and although some tubercular patients probably did go to St Moritz for a winter cure, the village prohibited sanatoria and noticeably consumptive visitors. Grindelwald was a tourist destination for almost two centuries before the other villages became resorts, and its history was unrelated to tuberculosis treatments.

There are more comprehensive histories of the development of Swiss tourism - Paul P. Bernard's Rush to the Alps: The Evolution of Vacationing in Switzerland (1978), for example, provides a more thorough exploration of the ideological, economic and technological changes that led to an appreciation of Alpine settings. But Barton provides a lot of detail on the main players involved in the development of the five resorts that are the focus of this book.

The study's biggest contribution, however, is its final chapter, "Who were the first winter sportsmen and women?" Here Barton traces the special role of British tourists in the spread of winter sports in Switzerland. After culling lists of hotel guests and their home towns published in Swiss newspapers at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, she cross-referenced visitors with UK census data, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and other resources to compile biographical profiles of many British patients and tourists. She found that many of them came from a "public school and ancient university" background (Trinity Hall and Trinity College, Cambridge were particularly well represented). Their culture of "muscular morality" left a marked imprint on sporting activities in the Alps.

Healthy Living in the Alps: The Origins of Winter Tourism in Switzerland, 1860-1914

By Susan Barton. Manchester University Press 224pp, £55.00. ISBN 9780719078439. Published 4 November 2008.

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