Woodbridge, William Channing (1794-1845)
Autograph Letter Signed, with initials, WCW, Switzerland, August 20, 1836, to his sister Elizabeth, Mrs. B. T. Reed, Boston

quarto, two pages, including stamp-less address leaf, small hole due to clumsy opening, otherwise in very good, clean and legible condition.

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With Emma Willard, the famed advocate of higher education for women, as his co-author, of Universal Geography, Ancient and Modern (1824), Woodbridge wrote the most notable works of American geography of the Jacksonian era. But Woodbridge suffered from ill health and he wrote this letter at the start of a European sojourn with his family which would last for five years. This period of quiet country life in Europe seemed incongruous for one of the leading geographers of the American republic. Woodbridge had already been to Europe twice before, to travel and to meet notable scientific colleagues like Alexander von Humboldt. This trip was for rest and recreation, Woodbridge stayed at the country farm home of his friend, educational reformer Philipp Emanuel von Fellenberg, who had established an experimental school where Woodbridge indulged his passion for teaching the deaf and blind. It was an insular life, with no travel and occasional contact with a handful of resident Americans, just enough so that he felt quite Americanized in the Swiss mountains, which left Woodbridge with little motivation to improve on his halting French. He had little to do besides learning to mend his own socks, to admire the penny-pinching of his housekeeper (who spoke no English) and to attend church, where the women wore picturesque costumes of suitable dimensions to accord with their view of decency. It is ironic that this quiet clergyman was one of the leading educational reformers of his day and that, for decades after his death in 1845, American school children would still be learning about the wide world from his writings.


          “My dear Elisabeth,

                   … My life in Switzerland is so different from yours, while here, constantly visiting places of interest, you will not readily think of us spending the live-long days around a country farm house – but time passes very pleasantly & rapidly. We are every day better satisfied with the situation as a residence. Mr. W I think, has evidently improved since we came here. We have too frequent intercourse with the Fellenbergs to feel quite alone & though we have been able to go there but once in three weeks we have been at Ithigen, have seen several of the family every week. Mad F’s homely little present of a basket of fruit, rare vegetables, currant shrub, etc make me feel often that I am still in the vicinity of Tremont Place, or Marble head…. Yesterday we were surprised by a visit from Dr. Bache & Lady … Sarah has decided to spend the winter at Geneva. Dr. B & his wife leave Berne to day on their return & S is with me to spend some days so that we feel quite Americanised in the Swiss Mts now that we number four. My ear & my tongue are still both too stupid to enter with much spirit into the conversation around me. And so many that I see talk English so much better than I can hope to speak French for many many months that I am not in the way of acquiring the language so readily as I should do if placed in less agreeable circumstances in this respect. The most valuable acquisition I have made here is the Swiss fashion of mending stockings, not so difficult as ours, but restoring the stitch so entirely as to have no appearance of being mended. But the Swiss housekeepers put us quite in the shade for economy & inspection of family concerns in course of time I hope to learn something in this way, but a housekeeper without a tongue cannot be very famous in her department in any country. I am very glad that we have the prospect of being stationary most of the time that we are from home that I need not often have new ways to learn. We shall probably go to Montreux the last of Oct. just as they are gathering the vintage & remain till May or June.

                I am often reminded of John & how much he wd be amused with some of the odd scenes about me – A woman driving a cart drawn by a cow &c – funerals preceded by a police officer & the coffin gaily dressed in wreaths & branches of flowers – but he has heard this & more than I can tell him from his father & mother. The village church that we attend would be an odd sight to him males & females on opposite sides – The females with the exception of 4 or 5 in the peasants dress with their black caps tight to the head, with ruffles of millinet a quarter of yd deep caught back on the top of the head & shading the side of the face, forming a semi-circle. The hair hangs below this braided in two parts with black ribbons attached touching the shoes – the black petticoats & bodice with steel chains hanging from the shoulders behind with linen shirt (we shd say) & sleeves complete the dress, with a nicely glazed calico apron which is always worn. This is my cook’s dress also – I am expecting a girl (Fanchette) from the Canton de Vaud to day for bonne d’enfant cet femme de chamber so that we shall have two of the Swiss costumes in one family. I am glad that they happen to be of suitable dimensions to accord with our views of decency wh can not be said of all the Cantons…”


          American National Biography, volume 23, pp., 790-791