Miss Leslie’s Tips for Crossing the Sea

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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 »

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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 »

Over There: Yes, Female WWI Reporters Did Exist

Today is the anniversary of the armistice that brought WWI to an end in 1918. In honor of it, let’s meet eight women who worked as war correspondents in Europe between 1914 and 1918.

Despite several fantastic resources now available about female WWI reporters, a variation of this sentiment still occasionally pops up on the Interwebs: “During the First World War women war correspondents were simply nonexistent; the U.S. military accredited only one, then sent her off to Siberia, far from the main fighting fronts.” (That little gem appeared in National Geographic.)

But the accuracy of that statement is simply nonexistent. Women were most definitely reporting from the front lines, permission slips be damned. So let’s begin.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 »

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.

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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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