Travel Tips from 1890

Mary Elizabeth McGrath Blake was totally over your packaged vacation to Europe. In, um, 1890.

Best remembered as a poet, Boston-based Blake also wrote three travel books, two of which were about international journeys. All three open with striking commentaries about the “travel trend” in 1880s America, but the introduction to A Summer Holiday in Europe is arguably the most powerful.

Blake drops some serious real talk here. Her advice boils down to this:

  • Get over yourself while on the road. No really, you don’t turn into a queen the second you show up somewhere new. So be nice to the locals.
  • Stop pretending your limited income is why you’re not traveling.
  • Pack light — no seriously, pack really, really light.
  • Bring a flask.
  • Sleep. For the love of god, sleep. Otherwise, you’ll forget everything you see and your whole trip will go to waste.
  • Remember, it’s all worth it, because without travel, you’ll never know Who You Are.

Read the whole thing for yourself, because really, no one can say it better than Blake:

The real traveller, like the true poet, should be born, not made.

He should possess within himself certain qualities which would be beyond the power of circumstances to alter, and which would form, so to speak, his spiritual outfit.

He should be by nature adaptable, and by grace sympathetic.

He should have the power of disentangling himself from the home environment, and of looking upon the differences in custom which belong to other people without that unalterable belief in the superiority of his own which renders one deaf and blind to every advantage.

He should possess an eye which has been trained beforehand to some understanding of the beauty and majesty of the natural world, so that he can make comparison of effect, and read the message of sea and sky, valley and mountain-top.

He should possess an intelligence somewhat trained by study into a knowledge of the past, so that there shall be a historic background against which the foreground of the visible present may stand in relief.

And he should have at least as much good health as is ensured by good digestion and a clear conscience.

It is because these qualities are so frequently omitted that travel has become the heavy and wearisome pastime it so often is, instead of the inspiration and delight it always should be.

Fashion has set its seal upon the habit of wandering: it has become a conventional procedure, with set periods upon which to proceed over set routes, to the accompaniment of set surroundings. Guide-books, instead of inclinations, map the way; expenses are calculated according to the judgment or fancy of others. There is no longer the ardour or desire which makes difficulty vanish; and although the facilities for journeying have increased a thousand-fold, they have added in no such degree to the ease and content of the individual.

He has grown so accustomed to be cared for and tenderly dealt with, that every molehill of possible inconvenience becomes a mountain of difficulty to fret or fume over. Unprepared, through lack of preliminary training, to make comparison or draw deduction, he resents as a personal affront each enforced violation of his habitual rule of conduct, and makes a grievance of every custom which differs from his own. So that in spite of steam and electricity, of couriers and cooks, of the miracles of art and of science, he returns to his fireside as narrow in mind and as poor in imagination as when he left it.

But to the happy mortal who is dowered with this divine gift of insight, what an age is this in which to enrich existence! There is scarce a spot of the known world which is not open to his enamoured glance; there is no time too short to afford him some precious passing glimpse of beauty, nor too long to be filled with delight to the eye and joy to the understanding.

Even moderate circumstance, short of absolute poverty, need not interfere with his desire, if only common sense is allowed to hold the helm of affairs. The cost is made to suit the necessities of so many different incomes, the positive requirements are so small, and the efforts to grade supply so that it may meet every demand so strenuous, that there are few indeed who need deprive themselves wholly of the pleasure of a holiday outing. The will and the way go together.

In the material preparation, whether the pilgrim be one of sentiment or convention, there are certain rules which so simplify routine that they should be considered as axioms. Leaving out of consideration those who are a law unto themselves, who travel with a retinue, and whose bank accounts are so plethoric that a pound is the same thing as a penny, there remains the rank and file of the army of tourists with whom expense is a question, and luggage as much impediment as it was to the Roman cohorts. The Modern has learned the lesson of its inconvenience as well as the Ancient.

Especially in Europe, where the dense fog of ignorance has not yet been dissipated by the sweetness and light of the American check system, it is absolutely matter of necessity to travel in light marching order between places at which no long stay is to be made. In these days of the ever-present shop for every need and fancy under the sun, little more is necessary to be carried about with one than a couple of changes of inner, and one of outer clothing, in case of accident. Any liberal hand-bag will contain these items, especially with the addition of a strap for a rug and warm wrap. Both of these can be lifted into the compartment of the railway train, or the van of the diligence in which their owner is traveling, so that there shall be neither enforced delay nor worry at breaks in the journey.

A small satchel suspended from the shoulders or the waist, to hold guide-book, tickets, and purse, will be found a great comfort. Without being clumsy, this could be so enlarged as to hold a simple lunch and a flask of any tonic which one has been accustomed to use in emergencies. With such an outfit, the traveller can be independent of hurried scrambles for stale refreshment at crowded railway stations, and defy any ordinary accident by which he might otherwise be made uncomfortable. It is not an Irish bull, but a simple fact, to say that this statement is doubly true when he happens to be a woman.

As for rules of health and conduct, they are few but imperative: light and easily fitting clothing, simple food taken regularly, a fair amount of sleep, and an understanding that occasional rest must relieve the waste of perpetual motion.

Considering the total change which takes place, from the quiet habits which are supposed to be necessary for well-being at home, it is a wonder that more injury does not result in the excitement of journeying. To hurry from a night of broken sleep in railway coach or steamboat to a day of sight-seeing, in which tired eyes grow painfully sensitive from the constant reception of new impressions, and the tired mind becomes languid and irresponsive under the flood of novel experiences, and to continue this indefinitely, is the usual formula. So the zest which should be added to imagination is lost, and the exaltation which might make life rich, degenerate from pure physical weakness into barren curiosity which endures instead of enjoying. One returns with a chaos of vague remembrances jostling each other in barbaric disorder, instead of a gallery of fair memories in which the soul might sit at ease for ever after.

The ordinary voyager with this little leaven of common sense will at least know comfort, and the tempered pleasure he has a right to expect. His will never be the royal progress of the true Prince, alert of fancy, quick of eye, responsive of spirit, to whom all things offer tribute. But the broadening which unconsciously comes to thought, the breaking down of prejudice, the building up of character, and the sense of re-creation, will remain with him as solace and recompense.

Something of the great lesson which is the beginning of a liberal education — the consciousness that “there are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamed of in his philosophy” has penetrated his understanding, and can never wholly depart. Henceforth he must recognise himself as cousin-german at least, if not brother, to the great family of humanity.

To the real traveller — the royal traveller — one can only say God speed. For him the radiant world waits; and at every turn some new sense of delight comes to make life splendid. Day by day he becomes conscious of heights and depths in his being which were unknown before, until he seems to be for the first time becoming acquainted with himself.

In being introduced to this newer and happier self, he revels in the sense of largeness and freedom which the double identity confers upon him. Here are the dreams which have been companions of a lifetime, presenting themselves like the faces of beloved friends for recognition; here is the strong mental exaltation that lingers about the shrines of earth’s victories, to make the soul rich with tender emotion as it follows in the path of the immortal brotherhood of spirits. Preferences which had before lain dormant, sensations of which he had never been conscious, draw him this way and that with subtle strength; and he is like one escaping from some denser atmosphere into the purer air and far-reaching enchantment of a diviner world.

That every one who has done her the honour of being for a short time her travelling companion may belong to this blissful company, is the sincere wish of


From A Summer Holiday in Europe, 1890. I changed the text formatting to be a little easier on modern eyes.

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