Remembering Dickey Chapelle on the anniversary of her death

On November 4, 1965, Dickey Chapelle was killed by shrapnel on a battlefield in Vietnam. She was the first female war correspondent to die in the field, but that designation doesn’t do her justice. Dickey was a tireless photographer, an emphatic patriot, and a plucky role model for young women in the Midwest.

Last year, Milwaukee Public Television aired a really good documentary about Dickey. As you listen to it, scroll through a gallery of her photographs.

Don’t have time to watch the full doc? Here’s a quote from Dickey about her love of country. I guarantee you’ll feel a strong urge to scrounge up that ol’ flag pin hiding somewhere in your dresser.

“I grew up in the heart of the United States, and I believed that I could do anything I really wanted to do. And I still believe it. In the first place, I hope you will never say it [the name of the United States] without its sense of its uniqueness. You have just defined Americanism. Because nowhere else in the world, and I’ve now worked in my 44th country, no where else in the world, can a woman about seventeen — or an old lady in her 40s like I am — no where else in the world can she say, ‘I can do anything I really want to do.'”

Dickey originally wanted to be pilot, and she received a full scholarship to study aeronautic design at MIT after graduating early from her high school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But she flunked out after skipping an exam to cover a stunt-plane exhibition instead. She made pit stops back in Wisconsin and Florida before landing a job as a PR writer for the TWA in New York. That’s where she took the photography class that radically altered the trajectory of her life and career.

We’re rarely able to get an up-close look at the moment when a woman becomes an artist. But Dickey wrote candidly about her earliest exposure to photography in her fascinating autobiography, which illustrates her gift as a storyteller both in words and images. Here’s the section about her introduction to photography:Read More »

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Wisconsin Adventurers

If you haven’t noticed, this blog has a soft spot for historical women from the Midwest. And there just so happens to be a cluster of names that have close ties to my favorite state of all: Wisconsin.

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Unfortunately, WordPress won’t let me directly embed my pretty story map. Click the image for the interactive version or just scroll down for the list.Read More »

A lens of her own: The photography of Harriet Chalmers Adams

Harriet Chalmers Adams is almost always included in round-ups of American female adventurers, and rightfully so. She was an obsessive traveler, and from what I’ve read so far, Jessie Ackermann appears to be the only American woman to have technically covered more ground in the early 20th century. Kathryn Davis, who is probably the foremost scholar on Adams, put together a handy table of her travels:

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From The California Geographer, 49, 2009

In the early 1900s, Adams cultivated a public image as a female adventurer in order to garner interest in the public talks she gave to raise money for her trips. And she certainly wasn’t shy about posing for camera — her husband took several photos of her during their first major journey, to South America in 1904, which were published by the New York Times and elsewhere upon their return and launched her into the public eye. The Library of Congress also has images of her doing grip and grins with figures like Amelia Earhart and male reporters and politicians of her day.

But an unfortunate historical side effect of this is that we usually only see only pictures of Adams, but not pictures by her. And that means we’re missing half the story, because over the years, Adams evolved into an accomplished photographer.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 »

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 »