Nestled amongst the pine trees in Horgen, not 200m from the A3 motorway that snakes parallel to the western coast of Lake Zürich—known to locals as ‘the cold coast’—sits an unremarkable concrete structure: the Feller electrical hardware factory.
Like many buildings with curious histories, one could be forgiven for not giving it a thought, let alone a glance. Its stolid grey bodies look to have been updated in the 70s with a block-like yellow overpass to connect them, and there’s no flag or signpost to indicate that the business’s founder, Adolf Feller, was one of the most prolific correspondents in Zürich.
Feller, an entrepreneur who founded the business in 1909 after living in London and Italy, owned what’s now touted as possibly the largest collection of postcards in the world, at around 54,000.
Not a great deal is known publicly about the man himself. An overall impression is one of movement: his handwriting appears swift and fluid; he travelled; he saw opportunities and he explored them. Feller’s own words on the back of numerous postcards indicate he was a writer who favoured brevity and a shared meal with a friend. But, as many a writer will know, the truth is in the ‘show’ not the ‘tell’, and one could therefore ask what delightfully igniting—and indeed magnetic—qualities the man must have had that would inspire others to inundate him with their words. Over 35,000 postcards of his vast collection come from others in over 140 countries around the world.
The collection proves a fascinating window into the lives of those living in the early 20th century, offering pictorial documentation of fashions, cultures, and the shifting faces of cities and public transport. For Switzerland, these images document changes in landscape, and many have informed the planning and management of the country’s land and resources.
The postcards also serve as a marvellous example of communication in the early 20th century—pre internet and pre social media—that was prolific.
Yet connectivity seems to have been a broader life theme for Feller, not simply in terms of his postcards. Sometimes we humans are compelled to create a context for ourselves so our passions can thrive, and one wonders if Feller’s business endeavours—exploring the relatively new world of lighting and electrical solutions—were his way of doing just that.
Existing images from the early days (around the time Feller’s electrical supply business became a manufacturer in 1932) show evidence of a company that catered to human connectivity: sockets and plugs and early rotary lighting switches, ornate wall lamps and other elegant home lighting fixtures. After all, what correspondent—indeed, what human—does not value a little extra light after sundown, when we’ve done a day’s work and may take a quiet moment to pen a few words on a postcard to an old friend?
These days, the pen is often replaced with the keyboard but, at heart, not much has changed in a century.
Feller’s daughter, Elisabeth, was one of her father’s most devoted correspondents. She wrote thousands of postcards to him, and continued to build the collection after his death in 1931. Elisabeth went on to run the company (acquired by Schneider Electric in 1992) until shortly before her own passing in 1973. By that time, she had quadrupled the company’s turnover and become a forward-thinking leader herself, having introduced sickness and retirement benefits for the factory’s employees. That was in the 1940s, during the Second World War. But that’s a story for another time.
The Feller postcards are housed in Zürich’s ETH University digital archive (via Bildarchiv Online or the ETH archive). Many of them are in the public domain.
You can take a look at a few samples—from Zürich and Switzerland—in the Gallery.