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 »

Women’s passport history featured in Atlas Obscura

You might remember a post from awhile back about my hunt for the first American woman to get a passport. (The answer: we don’t know, but she was probably listed as “and wife” on her husband’s passport.)

Well, over the past couple of months, that post evolved into a piece for Atlas Obscura, which went live yesterday. Here’s the lead:

The 1920s Women Who Fought For the Right to Travel Under Their Own Names

The current U.S. passport includes 13 inspirational quotes from notable Americans. Only one belongs to a woman, the African-American scholar, educator, and activist Anna J. Cooper. On pages 26-27 are words she wrote in 1892: “The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class—it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity.”

If equality is a journey, then it should come as no surprise that passports have helped American women to cross some of society’s most entrenched cultural borders for more than a century.

Read the rest here.

Starting February 1: #100travelHERS

My first version of this post was rather flippant. It read, simply:

“I’m within striking distance of my goal to identity 100 female American travelers, active roughly between 1850 and 1950. To celebrate, I’m launching a hashtag! Starting February 1, I’ll post a picture and some tidbits about one woman each day for the next 100 days. Follow along at @writeroughshod or at #100travelHERS! Let the Twittering begin.”

It didn’t feel quite right, but I hit publish anyway and closed the blog. Then I visited the mud pit that is my Facebook feed and watched, yet again, as so many of my acquaintances hurled clumps of political filth at each other. And for a moment, I lost faith in my project. In fact, I felt embarrassed by it. How dare I post pictures of women (most of them white), who traveled the world a century ago, when so many living, breathing women (many of them not white) are now unable to cross certain borders because they happen to have been born in a country America has decided to fear?

At one point last night, I thought it might be best to scrap the project entirely, to wait for a more “appropriate” time. But then I remembered a quote from Maya Angelou: “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

I reopened the blog and scrolled through “The List.” I re-read their quotes and stared at their photos. I realized that I’ve been so swept up in prepping Tweets for my #100travelHERS blitz that I’d started to neglect the original mission of this project: to pay attention to these women, to really pay attention, and to listen to the lessons about life, religion, politics, and art that they learned the hard way.

“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world,” Mary Anne Radmacher once said. I know I am not the same woman I was before moving to Austria a year ago. I am more aware. I am more empathetic. I am tougher and less afraid than I used to be. I am also more appreciative of my home country — and conscious of how precious it is to have a home. I sense that most of the women on this blog would say similar things about themselves after their own respective journeys.

As we are today, most of us can’t change the things about the world we don’t like. But we can change ourselves into stronger, smarter, more capable versions of ourselves. And those brave women will probably be able to achieve a lot.

What I’ve learned most from this blog project is that travel isn’t just for the rich, young, and liberal. It’s for Christians and libertarians. It’s for the middle aged and the retired. It’s for schoolteachers and politicians. It’s for business owners. It’s for women. It’s for you.

At heart, Americans are pioneers, pilgrims, and seekers. We are the descendants of people who migrated, either voluntarily or by force, and built new lives in new places by blending traces of the old with the reality of the new.  Travel is displacement by choice, a ritualized expression of the American tradition of movement and cultural blending. It’s our collective heritage. It’s fundamentally patriotic.

And it’s important, especially now. Because you’ll never really understand what a border is until you cross one.

So yeah, I’m going to keep going. And I hope you’ll come with me.

Jessie Ackermann: the globe-trottin’, god-fearin’ witness to the Australian women’s movement

“There is nothing in life that can compare with the delights of thinking. To grasp an idea and travel with it through a long process of evolution; to live with it, cherish it, compelling unfoldment that reveals hidden treasures, to run along with it, although the chase ends in mental chaos where one lands in the solitudes and waste places of thought, is joy unbounded. The journey often leads over some hitherto untrodden way which reveals food for the brain, enlargement for the soul, and inspiration for the battle of life.”

Few American women have blazed as many trails as Jessie Ackermann, who visited more than fifty countries and is believed to have circumnavigated the world eight times between 1889 and the late 1920s, when she returned to the United States and hung up her traveling bags for good.Read More »

A bad girl abroad: The first American travel novel

It’s not every day that one leans back in one’s chair after finishing an academic article printed 15 years ago in the scintillating Henry James Review and says “Holy shit.” But today is indeed such a day, dear readers. Because hot damn, I found some history.

Sarah Wadsworth is an English professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin, and waaaay back in 2001 she wrote an article tracing the roots of Henry James’s interest in American women getting into trouble in Europe. Among his many accolades, James gets the credit for “inventing” the literary trope of the American ingenue abroad.

But get this: The first “travel novel” featuring an American woman as its protagonist is actually Mary Murdoch Mason’s Mae Madden: A Story, about a young woman’s love triangle in Rome. Wadsworth argues that Mae Madden was probably the inspiration for James’s Daisy Miller, which more or less put him on the map. Daisy Miller is about “an impossibly well-dressed American girl” and her romantic entanglements in Rome, and the plots of the two books track pretty closely. Mae Madden was first published in 1875 and again in 1876. Daisy Miller appeared in 1878.

Mason’s novel is significant because she broke with the popular trend of writing about one’s real travels in painstaking detail. “The concern that ‘there is nothing new to tell’ was evidently a common one in the 1870s, when the popularity of American women’s travel writing was at its peak,” wrote Wadsworth. So instead of just publishing a diary about her time in Italy like her peers did, Mason turned her experiences into a fictional story!

I cannot emphasize enough how big of a shift this was for American travel writing.Read More »