From “Vampire Hunter” to #wanderlust: The evolution of female travel tropes since 1910

When you start to research early 20th-century female travelers, there’s an uncomfortable phrase that appears regularly: “first white woman to go here or there.” I don’t mean to single out Harriet Chalmers Adams for this, but here’s an example from an interview she did with the New York Times in 1912:

I have circumnavigated the South American continent, covering more than 40,000 miles, and penetrated savage wildernesses where no white woman had ever been.

For us to successfully make the case that HCA (and many of her contemporaries) warrants a larger place in our historical canon, she needs to represent something more historically substantive. So does she?Read More »

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Miss Leslie’s Tips for Crossing the Sea

800px-Eliza_Leslie

You know that friend who’s always trying to run your life, down to the smallest of details? In the mid 1800s, Eliza Leslie was that friend. For everybody. 

Born in Philadelphia in 1787, Leslie spent six years of her childhood in London. After her family returned to the States, she attended on of the first formal cooking schools in America, run by Elizabeth Goodfellow, sometime in the mid 1820s. Leslie then began to write best-selling cookbooks and domestic how-to books, many of which remained in print well after her death in 1858.

One of Leslie’s biggest contributions was her book of translated French recipes, Domestic French Cookerywhich first appeared in the early 1830s. It’s believed that Leslie learned French while living in London, and the recipes she translated opened a window into modern European life and culture for American housewives.

In 1840, Leslie published the first edition of her massive domestic guide, called Miss Leslie’s Lady’s New Receipt-Book, with more than 400 pages of tips for running a proper mid-19th century home. Though almost all the tips (“receipts”) are related to cooking, hygiene, and home organization, there’s one passage that stands out: “crossing the sea.” Leslie was five years old when her family sailed for London, and though it’s possible she was recalling her voyage back to the States as an eleven-year-old, it’s more likely that Leslie collected advice from other women while writing this section of the book. It’s detailed to the point of banal, but it’s worth a read for one significant reason: it’s clearly written with a solo female traveler in mind.

That fact struck me midway through, at the line “No dress intended to be worn on a voyage should fasten behind, as it is not always that a lady can procure the assistance of another person to do this for her.” If you read the entire passage with this perspective in mind, it’s really a remarkable piece, chock full of practical advice for alleviating seasickness, boredom, and fashion emergencies on the road. It was designed for women embarking on the Grand Tour — or for women who dreamed of embarking on the Grand Tour — but there are no suggestions about packing for one’s husband or other tips that would imply a man or a female friend would/should also be in tow.

Instead, it’s bonnet-to-bonnet advice and encouragement for other intrepid young American women. Here’s the whole thing: Read More »

We’re up to 50!

I hit an arbitrary milestone today: 50 women on my list of American women travelers from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

War reporters, scientists, artists, homemakers — it’s a diverse list that challenges some of our stereotypes about what women were up to in decades before and right after they obtained the right to vote. And it’s far from complete. My goal is 100 women, but I can’t get there alone. Know a name I don’t? Tell me all about her.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to start breaking down the comprehensive list into smaller, more thematic ones, like “WWI war correspondents,” or “schoolteachers abroad,” etc. And my posts will start to delve a little deeper into various topics that this list brought to light, such as the “royal road” through Europe that lots of American women followed in the 1880s and common ways in which “lady travel books” were marketed around 1900 (popular ad copy adjectives included “wide-awake traveler” and “breezy narrative”). I could also spend a lot of time on packing advice and media coverage of the controversial clothing choices of women in the 1910s.

Anyway. After a lot of time poking around the Internet in pursuit of historical women, I think we’re finally cookin’ with gas here on WR. Thanks for being an early reader!

early-travelers

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:Read More »

“We ought to live confidently”

There are few issues as thorny as a woman’s decision to prioritize career or family — and it’s far from a new challenge. In 1919, newly divorced Rose Wilder Lane wrote her first novel on the subject, and a century later, it offers a striking look at how far we’ve come in terms of female empowerment and opportunity — and how far we still have to go.

Rose Wilder Lane

Rose Wilder Lane was the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the pioneer woman who wrote a “little” series of books about life on the American frontier. Rose had already written about a dozen books when Laura’s first came out in 1932, and it’s well established that Rose helped her mom whip her manuscripts into shape.

Rose, too, capitalized on American nostalgia for settler life and published several Depression-era novels set in the Ozarks. But Rose was more interested in wrestling with the social issues of the day, and her work was deeply influenced by her travels with the Red Cross in post-WWI Europe. Her time in Albania in particular helped influence her political ideology, which eventually morphed into libertarianism. Along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Patterson, Rose is considered one of the “founding mothers” of that movement.

A couple of years before Rose first went to Europe, she wrote a book about a young woman struggling to come to terms with her own ambition — and learning to overcome the men and women who stood in her way.Read More »