"Small Number - Big Impact"
Special exhibition at the Swiss National Museum, Zürich
From March 2nd until October 28th 2007




Adolph Rickenbacher (1887-1976)

Adolph Rickenbacher was born on April 1, 1887, in Basel. In October of 1891 the Rickenbacher family emigrated to the U.S., following the lead of many of their relatives. What came later can easily be called the embodiment of the American Dream.

First, however, young Adolph had to get through some hard times. His mother died shortly after their arrival in the New World, and his father lost both his legs in a train accident and took to the bottle. Soon he could no longer take care of his children. But young Rickenbacher persevered, becoming an engineer and marrying a German-American heiress.

He produced housings and aluminum parts for guitar manufacturers in his own workshop, and in 1931 when the guitarist George Beauchamp was developing an electro-magnetic pickup Rickenbacher provided him with technical support as well as financing. The first electric guitar, the Frying Pan, was born. As of 1934, every guitar produced was inscribed “Rickenbacker Electro,” and in 1940 Rickenbacher became sole owner of the company. He had created the ultimate icon of American pop culture.

For further information: www.rickenbacker.com

Atz (*1947) und Jewel Kilcher (*1974)

Atz’s parents emigrated to Alaska in 1940, hoping to realize their vision of a simple life in tune with nature. Atz Kilcher was born in Alaska but lived from 1956 to 1958 in Switzerland, where he learned the local dialect. Atz and his wife raised their children (including Jewel) in Alaska, in a wooden cabin with neither electricity nor running water. Jewel accompanied her father in campfire sing-alongs and played the dives with him while still a girl.

Her grandfather Yule had taught her how to yodel, and at the age of seven she appeared on the TV show “Good Morning Alaska.” As a teenager, sporting the nickname “The Swiss Miss,” she was a member of a rap group. Later she attended the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, started writing songs and moved to San Diego to join her mother. She had a regular gig there at the Innerchange Coffeehouse, where she was discovered and went on to score a sensational hit with her folk-pop début album Pieces of You.

Jewel is one of America’s most successful pop stars, with 25 million records sold and her sixth album, Goodbye Alice in Wonderland, out 2006. Atz continues to perform, sometimes as a guest in Jewel’s shows.

For further information: www.jeweljk.com

Melissa auf der Maur (* 1972)

When Melissa Auf der Maur’s grandparents left Schwyz for Canada in 1929, they had no idea what their granddaughter would one day achieve. All they wanted was to escape their poverty and start a new life. Melissa Auf der Maur is filled with respect for her ancestors’ courageous decision to leave their beloved native land.

While Melissa’s father Nick Auf der Maur enjoyed a successful career as a politician and columnist, Melissa already knew she wanted to be a rock star when she was just eight years old, and went on to tower over her father in terms of celebrity, playing bass guitar in two key American bands of the 1990s, Hole and The Smashing Pumpkins.

Since 2004 she has been pursuing a career on her own under the name Auf der Maur, and it is interesting to note that she uses her Swiss ancestors’ coat of arms as the emblem for her first solo album, thus demonstrating just how seriously she takes her roots. The child of an American and a Canadian who lives in Montreal and the U.S., she thinks of herself as Swiss, Canadian and American all in one.

For further information: www.aufdermaur.com

Oliver Stumm (*1961)

Oliver Stumm has both Swiss and American citizenship. His parents moved to the U.S. after the Second World War. His father Werner established his own specialized scientific field, "aquatic chemistry", and became a professor at Harvard. Stumm was born in Boston in 1961. When he was twelve his family returned to Switzerland. He graduated with a degree in mathematics from the University of Zurich, paying for his studies by working as a DJ and party organizer.

In the late 1980s Stumm was a pioneer in the Swiss House and Techno scene. In 1992, when this became too commercial for his taste, he moved to New York. He remained a figure of mythic proportions in Switzerland, while in the U.S. he is now a respected proponent of the artistic underground. Under the nom de plume H2O he scored in the club scene with the number "Nobody's Business", selling many thousands of copies. Together with another Swiss, Domie Clausen, he founded the label A Touch of Class, which is in fact a record company, a production studio, a booking agency and a music publisher all rolled into one. The duo had their greatest hit with “Comfortably Numb” by Scissor Sisters, a discovery of theirs that went on to world-wide success.

Stumm shuttles between the Old and New Worlds, flying back and forth like a modern nomad to perform in Europe and America.

For further information: www.atouchofclassusa.com

Walter Liniger (*1949)

On his first trips there, in 1969 and 1976, Walter Liniger was put off by America. At the same time, however, he was fascinated by the place, and in 1982 he took a leave of absence of three years from his job as a high school teacher in Kehrsatz in the canton of Bern and spent it in the U.S. He never went back.

It took him a while to settle down, but in 1984 he began work on a blues archive at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. A fellowship from the state of Mississippi allowed Liniger to “apprentice” with the legendary blues musician James “Son” Thomas. In the mid-1980s Liniger became the first white person ever to perform the blues with a black person in Mississippi. The two men went on tour together, led workshops in schools and recorded the album Gateway to the Delta, for which they won the W.C. Handy Award, the greatest prize in the blues business.

Since 1993 Liniger has been a professor at the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Southern Studies in Columbia. His courses provide students with historical and social insights into African-American culture and U.S. society’s relationship to it – as well as teaching them how to play the harmonica.

For further information: www.bluesprof.com


Adolph F. Bandelier (1840-1914)

Adolph F. Bandelier was born in Bern in 1840. When Adolph was seven his father emigrated, sending for the family in 1848 and settling them in Highland, Illinois. Adolph's education there was thorough, if not conventionally academic.

Adolph Bandelier’s climatological and meteorological observations in the late 1860s brought him into contact with members of the scientific community. The decisive turn in his life, however, came when he met the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, a specialist in native American cultures. Initially Bandelier performed his studies at night, by day working to earn his keep. But when this started to wear on his health he decided at age 40 to devote himself entirely to science.

Bandelier was an outstanding researcher and a true pioneer in the field of American ethnology as well as in the study of native American cultures. Although Fanny Bandelier, his second wife, was his constant companion on field work and an indispensable colleague, especially when he had grown old and virtually blind, she remained in his shadow.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Albert Einstein was born in 1879 in Ulm, Germany. He traveled first to Milan before going to Switzerland, where he studied and, in 1901, acquired Swiss citizenship. In 1905 Einstein submitted his dissertation; that same year he produced the three key works that won him his first renown in the scientific world. He was made a full professor in 1908 and went on to teach at universities in Zurich, Prague and Berlin. 

Einstein traveled widely and gave lectures across the world. One trip, however, to the United States in 1932, turned out to be open-ended: when the National Socialists took power in Germany in January 1933 Einstein did not return to Europe, acquiring American citizenship in 1940.

Einstein was one of the 20th century’s most important physicists. His contributions to theoretical physics fundamentally altered our knowledge of the physical world. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921 in recognition of his work on photoelectrics. Outside the scientific world he used his fame in the cause of world peace and understanding.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926–2004)

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross grew up in Meilen. An encounter with the International Voluntary Service for Peace aroused her desire to see the world, as well as to change it, and in spite of her father’s opposition she apprenticed as a laboratory assistant, completed her school-leaving exams and went on to study medicine. In 1958 she emigrated to the U.S. with her American husband, Emanuel Ross.

While specializing as a psychiatrist she began to notice just how great a taboo on death there was in the hospital, a place where death is in fact ubiquitous. With this in mind, Kübler-Ross developed her three-part “death seminars” in 1965, leading to her becoming a celebrity when the work was written up in Life magazine in 1969. That same year her first book appeared, On Death and Dying. She also studied near-death experiences and the afterlife, as well as making a significant contribution to the hospice movement.

Kübler-Ross’s research into death and dying laid the cornerstone for our contemporary understanding of what the dying go through. No one has done more than she to challenge the taboo on dying.

Henry Detwiller (1795–1887)

Henry Detwiller was born in Langenbruck in 1795. He studied first with private tutors before taking up medicine at the University of Freiburg in Germany. In the spring of 1817, lured by the call of the wild, he took a position as ship’s doctor on the John of Baltimore and set sail for the U.S. Having originally intended to continue on to India, he wound up staying in the U.S.

He settled in Hellertown, Pennsylvania, where he successfully practiced traditional medicine until he came into contact with the ideas of the German physician C.F.S. Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy. On July 23, 1828, Detwiller issued his first prescription based on the homeopathic precept “similia similibus curantur”, like cures like, and thus became the first to introduce homeopathy to the U.S.

In 1835 Detwiller founded the first American academy of homeopathy, in Allentown, and in 1848 he co-founded the Hahnemann Medical College. He was also an enthusiastic natural scientist throughout his life, assembling a valuable collection of rare botanical and zoological specimens.

Othmar H. Ammann (1879-1965)

Othmar H. Ammann was born on March 26, 1879. He studied civil engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. Ammann emigrated to the U.S. in 1904, seeking the ideal professional challenge presented by the enormous construction projects underway there.

New York in those days was growing in leaps and bounds, and the ferries across the Hudson River were no longer capable of keeping up with the increasing volume of traffic made possible by the advent of motorized transport. The solution was bridges. Ammann worked for Gustav Lindenthal, who had been charged with bridge projects over the Hudson. Differences of opinion caused a rift, however, and the two engineers went their separate ways in 1923. Ammann continued to work independently, wooing politicians to support his plan for a connection between New York and New Jersey. In 1925 Ammann was appointed Chief Engineer of the Port Authority of New York.

Under his direction, such contemporary landmarks as the George Washington Bridge and the Bayonne Bridge were built. Ammann also consulted on the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. But the jewel in his crown was the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.


Albert Gallatin (1761-1849)

Albert Gallatin was born in 1761 into a family of Genevan aristocrats. He could have had a career in those circles with comparative ease; instead, Gallatin fled Geneva’s sclerotic political system, driven by a youthful taste for adventure, the promise of quick wealth and his yearning to be free, and in 1780 left his hometown for America, “the freest country in the universe” as he put it.

Gallatin made a moderate showing as a teacher, real estate speculator and farmer before turning to politics, for which he had early on demonstrated a talent. He was elected to the Pennsylvania senate in 1793, only to step down after a year because he had not been a U.S. citizen for long enough. In 1801 Gallatin was named Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury. His term of office featured a determined reduction of the state deficit as well as diplomatic activity. He played a decisive role in the negotiations between the U.S. and England, for instance, that led in 1814 to the Treaty of Ghent and the end of the war.

After leaving office Gallatin continued to work for the public good, founding New York University, the National Bank of the City of New York and the American Ethnological Society.

Anton Andreas Dietsch (1807-1845)

Anton Andreas Dietsch was born on October 13, 1807, in Mülhausen (Alsace, France), a town that had until a few years before enjoyed a contractual relationship with the Swiss Confederation. He trained as a brush maker and took to the road as a journeyman; we pick up his traces next in Aarau in 1835, where he engaged in debates on social issues and, in 1841, began to publish a series of critical works. His aim was an egalitarian community based on common property, untainted by greed and envy, and he soon saw that he would never be able to make this dream a reality in Switzerland.

In December of 1843, therefore, he published his plans for a colony in the U.S., to be known as New Helvetia. The response to his manifesto was great and in 1844 Dietsch left Aarau with a group of 42 emigrants.

After a miserable crossing the company arrived in the U.S. in August; by autumn they had begun settling the piece of land in Missouri that was to become New Helvetia. But the reality of the project was remote from Dietsch’s utopian vision, and the colony had already failed by the following spring. Dietsch died with it.

Karl Bürkli (1823–1901)

Karl Bürkli was born in 1823 into a middle-class family in Zurich. Instead of going to college, or Gymnasium, as expected, however, he dropped out and apprenticed as a dyer. His subsequent travels took him to Paris, where he became acquainted with the socialist principles of Charles Fourier, ideas that were to have a decisive effect on his life.

Back in Zurich, Bürkli founded a food cooperative with Jakob Treichler in 1851. In 1855 he emigrated to Texas with 30 sympathizers, intending to follow the teachings of Fourier there. But the attempt to found a colony based on the precepts of liberty, equality and social justice failed, and Bürkli returned to Switzerland in 1858, deep in debt.

At first he took up his work with the food cooperative again before opening an inn in Zurich’s old town and establishing a meeting place for oppositional forces. He also served several terms in the cantonal government, devoting himself principally to instruments of direct democracy such as the referendum and the initiative. Until his death in 1901 Bürkli continued to be politically active. He was one of the main figures in the Zurich workers’ movement.

Madeleine May Kunin (*1933)

Madeleine May Kunin was born in Zurich in 1933 as second child of Ferdinand May and Renee Bloch May. Her father having died in 1936 and the family being pressed for money and also in fear of a possible german invasion, they emigrated to the U.S. in 1940. Kunin grew up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. She studied history, journalism and English literature.

Before embarking on her remarkable political career she taught at Trinity College in Burlington, Vermont. In 1971 she was elected to the House of Representatives (D) and in 1985 she became the first female Governor of Vermont. She served under President Bill Clinton as Deputy Secretary of Education and was U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland from 1996 to 1999. As a public servant she was mainly involved in educational and environmental issues as well as an advocate of sexual equality.

Madeleine May Kunin withdrew from active political life after her diplomatic service in Switzerland. She has since returned to the academic world, teaching as a guest professor of political science at various universities. She remains true to her main causes, offering a seminar entitled “Women, Politics and Leadership”.

For further information: www.ed.gov/offices/ODS/kunin.html

Yule Kilcher (1913-1998)

Yule Kilcher was born in 1913. At the age of 16 he heeded the call of the wild, hiking through North Africa and sojourning in Sweden and the Carpathian Mountains. He traveled to Alaska for the first time in 1936, and decided to stay put there in 1939. He wanted to lead a simple existence in Alaska, in harmony with nature and as self-sufficiently as possible.

Kilcher had eight children with his wife Ruth. The 600 acres of land at their disposal made it possible for them to subsist almost entirely upon their own production. It was a life of relative isolation, packed together in a log cabin without electricity or running water. But Kilcher also fought for his ideals in the political arena: in the mid-1950s he helped draft a constitution for Alaska and from 1963 to 1967 he sat in the State Senate, where his special interest was environmental issues.

Yule documented his family’s development and their daily experiment in living, and the Kilchers were often to be found in Switzerland showing their films and slides. There was also American interest in the family: after all, stories like the Kilchers’ are a central part of the (white) national American identity.


Robert A. Lutz (*1932)

Robert A. Lutz was born in Zurich in 1932. While he was still a child his family moved to the U.S., where Lutz became an American citizen in 1949.

By his own account Lutz was able to identify the make and year of every automobile when he was just three years old. To his father's chagrin, however, he was less of a quick study at school, and when “Bob” turned 22 his father told him he would only pay for another year of school if he enlisted in the Marines. And thus it was that Lutz became a fighter pilot. Suddenly he was doing better at school, and managed to graduate from Berkeley with highest honors in economics.

Lutz has been working in the automotive industry since 1963: he began at GM and was stationed for several years in Europe before going on to BMW, Ford and the former Chrysler Corporation, where he was vice chairman and then president. Before returning to GM in 2001 Lutz served as CEO of Exide Technologies. He was initially chairman of GM North America before becoming vice chairman of Global Product Development there in 2005.

Johann August Sutter (1803-1880)

Johann August Sutter was born in 1803 in the Southern German town of Kandern. His father was Swiss. He completed an apprenticeship as a printer in Basel, worked for a clothier in Aarburg, then moved to Burgdorf, where he was employed by a salt merchant before opening his own haberdashery.

In 1834, his company bankrupt, Sutter emigrated to the U.S. – without his wife and five children (he was not to send for them until 16 years later). A series of detours saw him arrive in 1838 in California, then still a province of Mexico. He founded New Helvetia, complete with Sutter’s Fort, on land given him by the Governor. But the colony struggled to survive: Sutter was deep in debt, and the war that broke out between the U.S. and Mexico in 1846 ended with California becoming a part of the U.S. in 1848.

The Gold Rush began at virtually the same moment and the population of California exploded. Instead of profiting from the development, however, Sutter lost everything, and when his house burned down in 1865 there was nothing to keep him in the U.S. any longer. Intending to return to Switzerland, he got stuck in Washington, where he died in 1880, an impoverished failure.

Louis Chevrolet (1878-1941)

Louis Chevrolet was born in 1878 in La Chaux-de-Fonds. His family emigrated to France in 1887. Numbering nine in all and hard up, the Chevrolets were dependent on the children as breadwinners, and Louis and his siblings were forced to leave school at the age of 11 to go out and work. Chevrolet found employment in 1889 in a mechanic’s workshop, where he first learned to appreciate motors. It was during that period that he also discovered a passion for competition, participating successfully in bicycle races.

He emigrated in 1900, first to Canada and then, in 1901, to the U.S. He soon found work as a mechanic and attracted attention as a talented race car driver. The breakthrough came in 1905, and within four years he was a star.

Chevrolet was also an automotive pioneer. He began with construction work for Buick before hiring on as a builder with the Chevrolet Motor Car Company, in which he had only a minority stake. Nor did he see eye to eye with the company’s owner, and in 1913 the two men fell out, leaving Chevrolet without the rights to his own name. He continued building, but was never to enjoy financial success. His death in 1941 did not get much notice.

Niklaus Gerber (1836-1903)

Niklaus Gerber was born in 1836 in the canton of Bern. The precise location of his birthplace is unknown, nor are there any details of his childhood or youth. It does seem certain, however, that he apprenticed as a cheesemaker.

There is no record of when he emigrated to the United States; we first pick up his traces in 1857 in Boonville, New York, after which he proceeded slowly, founding cheesemaking facilities along the way, to Green County, Wisconsin, arriving there in 1868. Gerber had heard that the local dairy industry was booming, and besides, containing as it did the colony of New Glarus, Green County was considered "Swiss territory".

Gerber introduced industrial cheesemaking in factories. The cheese that had been produced previously had been meant only for the farmers’ private use. It took a while to persuade the locals of the advantages of the new methods. When he had done so, Gerber went on to found six to eight cheese factories. But he was not able to make his pioneering work pay. He lost money in speculation, and, although he left Green County temporarily, he returned later.

Steven (Steve) Anthony Ballmer (*1956)

Steven (Steve) Anthony Ballmer was born in Detroit in 1956. His father was a Swiss immigrant who worked at the time as a manager at Ford.

While studying math and economics at Harvard Ballmer met Bill Gates. The two became roommates. After a first job at Procter & Gamble he went on to start an MBA at Stanford, but dropped out when Gates invited him to work at Microsoft. In 1980 Microsoft was just starting out and Ballmer was only the company’s 24th employee – as well as its first manager. When Microsoft went public in 1981 he got 8% of the shares.

Over the years Ballmer was at the head of various divisions at Microsoft, including Operating Systems Development, Operations, and Sales and Support, before becoming President in 1998. Since January 13, 2000, he is Microsoft’s Chief Executive Officer, Gates’s successor in that position.


The Guggenheim family

The Guggenheim family story begins in 1847 in the town of Lengnau, where Simon Guggenheim, a widower, asked for the widow Rachel Weil Meyer’s hand in marriage. But the Jewish couple, subject to the discriminatory Swiss legislation in force at the time, found it was forbidden to marry. So, hearing that the U.S. imposed no such restrictions on Jews, Simon and Rachel left Switzerland for America in 1848 with their 12 children in tow.

Meyer Guggenheim followed in his father's footsteps at first, working as a peddler before taking advantage of his outstanding entrepreneurial gifts to move up into the middle class. From this position he was able to amass a fortune when the family began investing in silver and lead mines. By the end of the First World War the Guggenheims controlled three quarters of the world’s production of copper, silver and lead and were one of the five wealthiest families in the U.S.

From that point on the Guggenheims were to earn renown principally for the way they spent their money. Solomon Guggenheim, who began to assemble his world-renowned art collection in 1927, was particularly good at getting publicity for this activity. In 1959 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opened its doors.

For further information: www.guggenheim.org

Gottardo Piazzoni 1872-1945

Gottardo Piazzoni, successful West Coast artist of the 1920ies and 1930ies, was born in Intragna in the Italien-speaking part of Switzerland. He attended the Locarno gymnasium before emigrating with his parents to California in 1887. After working for some time on his father’s dairy farm in Carmel Valley Gottardo decided to become a painter. The California School of Design offered him a scholarship and awarded him a gold medal for artistic achievements. From 1895 Piazzoni studied in Paris, first at the Académie Julian, then at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he spent three years under the tutorship of Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Back in San Francisco, Piazzoni opened his own studio in 1901. As a painter, graphist and sculptor he belonged to the contemporary avantgarde, signing as a co-founder of the San Francisco Society of Artists, organizing international exhibitions and teaching from 1919 to 1935 at the California School of Fine Arts, today’s San Francisco Art Institute.

The main bulk of Piazzoni‘s work consists of symbolistic landscapes – quiet and contemplative views of nature caught in a spare formal language consisting of subtle shades of yellow, grey and brown and lightened up by atmospheric luminary effects. Today, Piazzoni is considered a leading member of the «tonalists» whose views on art have profoundly influenced contemporary American painting. Piazzonis career reached a peak with the monumental mural paintings commissioned by the Main Public Library in 1929 and exhibited since last year at the de Young Museum in San Francisco

Gottardi Piazzoni died in 1945 at his farm in Carmel Valley (Monterey County, CA).

For detailed information on the life and work of Gottardo Piazzoni please consult the «Zeitschrift für schweizerische Archäologie und Kunstgeschichte», edited by the Swiss National Museum (vol. 57/2,2000).

Leben und Werk von Gottardo Piazzoni  (in German only)

Marc Forster (*1969)

Born in Ulm, Germany, Marc Forster grew up in a well-to-do family in Davos, Switzerland. His was a carefree life. He knew he wanted to be a director when he was still a child. But what seemed like a difficult ambition became virtually impossible when the family lost all its money. Nevertheless, Forster was able to persuade sponsors to send him to film school in New York in 1990.

Degree in hand, he found the going tough at first. He shared a one-bedroom basement apartment with a colleague and often went for days with nothing to eat, money was so tight. Now and then he would get an offer to make a film, but he had resolved to starve rather than ruin his reputation with just any production. The breakthrough came in 2000 with Everything Put Together. The authors of Monster’s Ball saw the film and decided to commission Forster to bring their material to the screen.

Monster’s Ball was a major hit, garnering female lead Halle Berry an Oscar. Marc Forster is now a big shot in Hollywood: his film Finding Neverland was nominated for seven Oscars, and stars like Dustin Hoffman beg to be cast in his productions. Marc Forsters Stranger than Fiction  was released in January 2007 and is currently still playing in Swiss movie theatres.

Mari Sandoz (1896–1966)

In 1884 Jules Sandoz, originally from Switzerland, immigrated to the U.S. and settled in northwest Nebraska. His eldest daughter, Mari, was born in 1896. Although Mari's schooling was no better than that of her siblings, she gave herself an autodidact's education against the will of her father. In 1913 she received a teaching certificate, and later, at university in Lincoln, she took up writing.

Her first work, Old Jules, was a piece of historic fiction, thanks to which her own father became a symbol for the conquest of the west. She was soon recognized as one of a small circle of experts in the field. Mari Sandoz had a keen eye for the social inequities around her. She championed the cause of the poor and oppressed, held outspokenly feminist and ecological views and was a fiery advocate of the native people.

By the time of her death she was a famous writer with an oeuvre that comprised some 30 volumes of novels, biographies, essays and short stories. One of her books, Cheyenne Autumn, was even made into a film.

Renée Zellweger (*1969)

Renée Zellweger was born in Katy, Texas, in 1969 to a Swiss father and a Norwegian mother. She studied literature at the University of Texas, took acting lessons and performed with regional theater groups. After graduating in 1991 she appeared in commercials and supporting roles. Her first lead part, in the independent film Love and a .45 (1994), was a critical success.

Soon afterward she moved to Los Angeles to give her career a further boost. When director Cameron Crowe cast her in his film Jerry Maguire she had her Hollywood breakthrough, although for the moment she continued to appear in smaller productions.

In 2001 she had a runaway success with Bridget Jones’s Diary, and the streak continued with her next two films, Chicago and Cold Mountain. She was nominated for an Oscar for her role in each of the three films and won an Academy Award for her supporting role in Cold Mountain, for which she also won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress.

Robert Frank (*1924)

Robert Frank was born in Zurich in 1924. The son of Jewish parents, Frank did not receive Swiss citizenship until 1945. After the war Frank was eager to leave Switzerland, which had become too small and stifling for his taste. He moved first to Paris before arriving at Ellis Island in 1947. His relationship to the U.S. was long one of ambivalence: he spent many years shuttling between Europe and America and might well be called a "Citizen of the World".

In 1957, thanks to a Guggenheim fellowship, he was able to travel across the United States to create a documentary work. The Americans, a broad-based portrait of the population, a work of art and a sociological study of the highest order, brought him overnight renown.

Frank is one of the 20th century’s most important photographers. His Swiss origins – childhood and youth spent in a period characterized by political menace and claustrophobia, although balanced by family and a normal everyday life – are the fertile ground from which his oeuvre has grown. And yet this does not make his work any less a “contribution to America”, a piece of American visual culture and 20th-century history.


„Carissima Madre“

For nearly forty years, the historian Giorgio Cheda hunted and located hundreds of letters written by emigrants from the canton Ticino, containing vivid descriptions of rough crossings and first impressions of California. His unique collection, the only one of its kind in Switzerland, appeared in print in 1981 and has remained a classic ever since. Besides shedding light on living and working conditions abroad the letters bear witness to the emigrants’ deeply felt concern over friends and families “back home.” These emotional ties in many cases survived the separation brought about by time and distance. Most settlers regularly sent money to their families, and quite a few finally returned to their native country – a characteristic trait of Ticino emigration up to 1900. This repatriation brought capital and knowhow back to the Ticino valleys. The money was invested in local firms, infrastructure for tourism was encouraged. On the whole, the repatriates greatly advanced the modernization of the canton.

Gold rush in California (from 1848)

In 1848 gold was found in California. In the canton of Ticino this triggered the first of two important emigration waves to the U.S. Between 1850 and 1859 some 2000 persons let themselves be lured by the promise of golden riches – most of them young men. Their departure left a severe population gap. Some communities of the Maggia valley, among them Someo, Maggia and Moghegno, lost most of their young men of marriageable age in the first half of the 1850ies. Left behind in the villages were women, children and old people. Most emigrants initially planned on working in the goldmines for a few years and then returning home with their profits. But many of these stayed on in their new homeland, turning to viniculture or cattle-raising.

„I Ranceri“

In the 19th century the Ticino still practised hereditary division: If a farmer had four sons, his land would be divided in four parts. The resulting lots, hardly worth the name of “farm”, were too small to support a family. Emigration was one solution for this situation. In California , huge tracts of arable land were available at  modest prices. Many emigrants from the Ticino profited from the occasion and bought estates with enough land for a few hundred cattle, fruit plants or the cultivation of grain. Tilling and raising cattle was hard work on both sides of the ocean, but Calfornia offered much better prospects.

The “Italian Swiss Wine Colony” in California

This wine-growing estate was founded in 1881 by Andrea Sharbaro from Genova, seven of his compatriots and an unknown Swiss emigrant - hence the denomination “Italian Swiss”. The estate occupied some 6000 hectars (15'000 acres) of first-class soil in the Russian River Valley and provided work for Italian and Swiss emigrants. Among the latter there were numerous expatriates from the canton of Ticino who contributed their knowhow acquired in their native vineyards. The colony prospered, producing with their “Tipo Chianti” and “California Sauternes Dry” two of California ’s most coveted brands. Once prohibition was over, the estate took up production again. It was sold to the Beringer Blass Wines Estates in 1988 and still exists today.


Emigration agencies

Emigration turned into a flourishing business for a number of specialised agencies. In 19th century Switzerland there were nine such agencies, six of them were seated in Basel. Senior agents were responsible for transporting the emigrants from Basel to the port of embarkation, in most cases Le Havre or Bremen. Junior agents each dealt with a certain region of the country, staying in close contact with the authorities.  Many communities encouraged emigration of their impoverished citizens by taking over transport costs. In the long run this helped them to minimise welfare expenditure. Agencies as well as shipping companies also looked for clients willing to emigrate by means of advertisements in the daily papers.

Reasons for emigrating

In the middle of the 19th century huge parts of the population left the valleys and mountains along the river Linth. In the years between 1847 and 1854 alone, one out of twelve inhabitants emigrated. This was due to general poverty: The potato pest of these years deprived the population of its principle food, hundreds of people dying during the ensuing famine. Working conditions in the textile factories were inhuman, the salaries extremely low. Child labor was frequent, as well as night shifts. There existed hardly any legal protection for the employees. Married women had to take care of their children and their household before and after their working hours at the factory. These abominable living conditions had their effect on life expectancy: it was extremely low.

New Glarus, Wisconsin

In 1844 a number of citizens met at the “Schwarzer Bären” tavern in Glarus to decide upon the founding of a colony in the United States, to be called “New Glarus”. The emigration society founded in the same year set itself the goal to lead its members safely across the Atlantic and to their new settlement. Two scouts, Fridolin Streiff and Niklaus Dürst, were sent to the USA to look for possible locations. As soon as 1845 the first group of emigrants arrived. It settled in the state of Wisconsin on fertile land amidst rolling hills – the Green County,  looking with its small towns, farms, forests and meadows very much like a district of the Swiss pre-alpine region. Today New Glarus still boasts the byname “Little Switzerland”.

Samuel Fässler

Like numerous other cantons Glarus gave financial support to the emigration of poor families or dropouts, thus minimizing future welfare costs. One typical example for this is 18-year-old Samuel Fässler. He was born an illegitimate child and grew up in poverty. As he had not been registered at birth, no community felt responsible for him. Because of minor delinquencies he spent seven years at the correctional institution St. Jakob in St. Gall. After his release the Glarus authorities, apprehending further criminal activities, decided upon his deportation to the USA, with Fässler consenting. On March 19, 1851 Fässler, then 18 years old, arrived in New York. No further trace was found of him.

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