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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Just the facts, ma’am: Resources on Harriet Bell Merrill

We don’t know much about limnologist and Amazon traveler Harriet Bell Merrill, but what we do know is very much at risk of an impending Error 404 error.

yerbe-mate
Amazonian yerbe mate cups Merrill donated to the Milwaukee Public Museum

Merrill was one of the first limnologists in the country, and possibly the first female limnologist to be hired by an American university (the University of Wisconsin). She was an expert in tiny, algae-eating lake crustaceans known as Cladocera, and she went above and beyond the call of duty by traveling twice to South America to conduct fieldwork (1902-1903 and 1907-1909). Unfortunately, she died as her career was peaking, and for the next 75 years, she was almost entirely forgotten by her field. But in the 1990s, her grandniece brought her out of total obscurity by publishing a biography, and the University of Illinois stepped up to preserve her papers.

Why do we care? Well, Merrill kept remarkably detailed journals and wrote A LOT of letters to her friends, not only about her scientific work, but also vivid descriptions of Brazil and about the cultures she encountered during her fieldwork. She brought back South American items for Wisconsin museums, and some of her travel stories were published in a local newspaper. Her solo journeys were all the more unique because she was in ill-health for the better part of her adult life.

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