All-American Swiss come to the fore

"Rickenbacker" guitars as seen at the New York exhibition

An exhibition at the Immigration Museum on Ellis Island, New York, is currently highlighting Swiss who emigrated to the United States in search of a better life.

This content was published on September 11, 2006 - 19:20

"Small Number – Big Impact" portrays the history of Swiss immigration through a selection of 25 personalities – some of whom have made a name for themselves.

It reveals how immigrants can have a rewarding influence on their new homeland.

Visitors can listen to interviews with Swiss about their journey to the US and the not always easy life that followed.

Conceived as part of the Swiss Roots programme reaching out to Americans with Swiss ancestry, the exhibition has been put together by Markus Hodel from the Swiss Migration Museum.

He began the project after visiting the Ellis Island museum where he made valuable contacts.

Hodel admits that the exhibition title "Small Number – Big Impact" would seem rather immodest by Swiss standards.

"Yes. We would not have had the courage [to use that title] but we gladly accepted the American suggestion," he said.


Hotel said the influence of Swiss immigration to the US is greater than generally known and that he wanted to change perceptions.

"We would like to give the average American new ideas about Switzerland. If we can get that message across to some of the visitors, we will have achieved something."

The exhibition is housed on the third floor of the museum, in what were the sparsely furnished sleeping quarters.

Immigrants whose registration had not been completed had to stay there overnight before being allowed to tread on American soil.

Looking down from the gallery, you can see down to the enormous and now empty registration hall. You can imagine the rows of the "tired, poor and huddled masses" to use the words on the Statue of Liberty at the entrance to New York harbour.

Little known

Plenty of people found their way to the exhibition on one Saturday earlier this month. "You don't otherwise hear much about Switzerland," said one visitor who had learned about the special show at the museum entrance.

He said he had no links to Switzerland as his ancestors were originally from Britain. "I didn't know that Steve Ballmer [CEO of Microsoft] had Swiss roots. Neither was I aware that a Swiss was behind the George Washington Bridge."

The visitor was referring to engineer Othmar H. Ammann.

One big attraction was the room which put the spotlight on Adolph Rickenbacher [Rickenbacker in the US] and his influence on music.

He was one of the inventors of the electric guitar, which was to revolutionise the music world. In 1931 Rickenbacher and George Beauchamp founded the first production firm for electric guitars.

Used by members of The Beatles, "Rickenbacker" guitars became known all over the world.

Another Swiss musician with a musical influence in the US is Bern-born Walter Liniger, a blues lecturer and one of the first white men to have played with black people in Mississippi.


A display case devoted to car designer Louis Chevrolet also proved a big attraction. The "Chevy" is still a household name in the US but few know that the man behind the car had Swiss roots.

But there were only a few visitors to the room showing how Albert Gallatin, along with Napoleon, arranged for the purchase of Louisiana.

The room devoted to Swiss influence on culture aroused more interest. Is it perhaps because a living person is under the spotlight, namely Hollywood director Marc Forster? Or is it because you come across actress Renée Zellweger?

Less well known were the Swiss roots of the Guggenheim family, noted as patrons of art.

Salomo Guggenheim and Rachel Weil Meyer, both widowed and of Jewish origin, were not allowed to marry in Switzerland in the middle of the 18th century. As a result they emigrated with their children from Lengnau to the US.

swissinfo, Rita Emch in New York

Key facts

The exhibition "Small Number – Big Impact" was conceived by the Swiss Migration Museum and is part of the Swiss Roots programme reaching out to Americans with Swiss ancestry.
The Migration Museum wants to set up an institution in Switzerland with the theme "Switzerland as a country of migration".
The exhibition on Ellis Island continues to October 31. It will be exhibited in a somewhat wider format in the Swiss National Museum in Zurich from March to September next year.
A book about the Ellis Island exhibition costing SFr68($55.30)is available from the NZZ Verlag in German and English.

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In brief

Ellis Island is located off the southern top of Manhattan in New York. It was the gateway for immigrants who sought refuge or a better life in the US from 1892 to the middle of the last century.

During this time around 12 million people, mainly from Europe, were registered and medically inspected before they were allowed to tread on US soil.

Among them were around 100,000 men, women and children who had to leave Switzerland, often out of economic necessity.

Ellis Island has been a museum for immigration to the US since 1990.

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