The Exotic Becomes Commonplace

ONE OF THE BEAUTIFUL IRONIES of modern American history was that the children of refugees from the Old World had the wealth, the leisure, and the technical means to return for a holiday to the scenes of their parents’ poverty and oppression. There were few more vivid symbols of American democracy, or of the special relation of Americans to the world, than this reverse Odyssey of American tourists in the mid-twentieth century. The man whose ancestor had fled penniless and in desperation from Sicily or Ireland or Germany returned in air-conditioned comfort to rediscover the “romance” of the Old World.

UNTIL THE 1920’S, American travelers abroad were almost exclusively the rich and the privileged. In 1895, for example, about two thirds of the hundred thousand Americans and Canadians who sailed to Europe were traveling first class; and the servants accompanying these rich travelers accounted for some passengers in the other classes. The Black Ball Line had opened the first scheduled transatlantic passenger service in 1818 with regular sailings between New York and Liverpool, followed by the Red Star Line, the Swallow Tail Line, the Dramatic Line (ships named Shakespeare, Sheridan, Garrick, and Siddons), and the French Line, which sailed to Le Havre. While an increasing number of Americans traveled to Europe even before the Civil War, a trip abroad remained a major undertaking, requiring both the time and the money that few Americans could afford. Ninety Days’ Worth of Europe were described by the popular writer Edward Everett Hale as “a happy little dash.” Not until the early years of the twentieth century did second-class accommodations become more comfortable and less expensive. Before World War I, the Americans who could afford it found a trip to Europe full of delights. The gala sailing from New York was celebrated by bon voyage boxes, flowers, and champagne. First-class life on shipboard, embellished by clothing from numerous “steamer trunks” and “wardrobe trunks” (both Americanisms dating from about 1890), was a round of parties beside swimming pools, in ladies’ parlors, grand ballrooms, and picturesque cafés. The North German Lloyd advertised their new second-class facilities as “comfort without luxury.” Passports were still not required.

American travelers to the European continent who believed (in the words of one of them) that the Old World “ought to look old” were not disappointed. And they were sometimes titillated by what they saw. “I placed my hands before my face for very shame,” Mark Twain reported of his first sight of the cancan in Paris, “but I looked through my fingers.” This was much the same reaction that Abigail Adams, in Paris about a century before, had described on seeing her first ballet. “I felt my delicacy wounded,” she wrote to her sister back home in Massachusetts, “and I was ashamed to be seen to look at them. Girls, clothed in the thinnest silk and gauze, with their petticoats short, springing two feet from the floor, poising themselves in the air, with their feet flying, and as perfectly showing their garters and drawers as though no petticoats had been worn, was a sight altogether new to me.” But, she confessed, “repeatedly seeing these dances has worn off that disgust which I at first felt, and…. I see them now with pleasure.”

But even late in the nineteenth century, all Americans were not so open to new impressions. In 1907 William Jennings Bryan reassured his countrymen that they would return from a trip abroad “more widely informed, but more intensely American.” What he saw had simply confirmed his faith that “in all that goes to make a nation great materially, commercially, politically and morally, our country has no peer.” But since few of Bryan’s constituents could yet afford to confirm their patriotism by going abroad, the impact of foreign travel on American life as a whole was still indirect. It had come through the lectures and writings of literary men like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving, and Henry James, through the painting and sculpture of Horatio Greenough and Hiram Powers, and others.

The daughters of American families of wealth and distinction who traveled abroad were apt to succumb to the charm of European titles. In 1874 the beautiful Jennie Jerome of New York married Lord Randolph Churchill (their son was Winston Churchill); President Grant’s granddaughter married a Russian prince, Michael Cantacuzene; and Vice-President Levi P. Morton’s daughter married the Duc de Valencay et de Sagan. An article in McCall’s in 1903 enumerated fifty-seven such recent marriages of American women “dowered with loveliness and dollars.” A muckraking historian complained that as a result of five hundred of these social-climbing marriages, the United States had lost some $200 million into the pockets of scheming Europeans.

But the traveling rich also brought treasure home with them. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, several ambitious American women of wealth sent back to the United States millions of dollars’ worth of painting and sculpture. Mrs. Potter Palmer, who had one of the largest fortunes (as well as, reputedly, one of the smallest waists) in Chicago, used the fortune which her husband had made in the Marshall Field Department Store and in the Palmer House Hotel to buy works of art. In Paris her mentor was the remarkable Mary Cassatt, wealthy daughter of a Pennsylvania banking family who, as a girl, had traveled the continent with her family and finally emigrated to Paris in 1874. After studying the Old Masters, Mary Cassatt became the friend and disciple of Degas, who considered her one of the great painters of the day. It was Mary Cassatt’s taste and her personal acquaintance with the French impressionists (on one occasion she arranged the purchase of four Renoirs for $5,000) that enabled Mrs. Palmer to build the collection which, after her death, enriched the Art Institute of Chicago. Mrs. Isabella Stewart Gardner, the eccentric Boston socialite daughter of a wealthy New York importer, spent her fortune buying a wide assortment of works by the European painters from Bellini to Zorn. With the advice of the young Bernard Berenson, who was just building his reputation as a judge of Italian painting, she put together a spectacular collection, then built Fenway Court “as a museum for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City became the chief beneficiary of the energetic and discriminating collecting of J. P. Morgan, who traveled abroad frequently and was always scouting for artworks to bring home. He paid $200,000 for a Cellini cup, and $484,000 for a Raphael altarpiece. A contrast to Morgan’s discrimination was the magpie collection of William Randolph Hearst; he squandered his fortune on a miscellany whose only use was extravagantly to document (for example, in René Clair’s The Ghost Goes West) European prejudices about Americans of wealth.

IN THE 1920’S, foreign travel by Americans began to be democratized. Before World War I, as William Allen White observed, “any Emporian’s trip to Europe was a matter of townwide concern.” But the rising American standard of living, and improvements in the less expensive steamship facilities, allowed an increasing number of Americans to go abroad. In 1929, more than a half-million Americans traveled overseas.

The next great increase was to come with the rise of the airplane which reduced the time and the cost of transoceanic travel beyond earlier imaginings. The dramatic catalyst, of course, was Charles A. Lindbergh’s solo flight from New York to Paris on May 20, 1927, which brought him the most enthusiastic popular welcome ever given to an American citizen on arrival abroad. Lindbergh’s warm reception by the French was doubly remarkable since he had not gone there to spend money.

Only a dozen years later, on June 28, 1939, Pan American Airways opened its first commercial flight to Europe. The “Dixie Clipper,” a four-engine Boeing flying boat, which carried twenty-two passengers drawn from a waiting list of five hundred, stopped for refueling in the Azores, landed in Lisbon where the passengers spent the night, and went on to its destination, Marseilles. After the interruption of World War II, and facilitated by wartime improvements in aircraft design, tourist air travel became routine. By 1950, when Americans going abroad numbered 676,000, the air passengers outnumbered those who traveled by sea; in 1955, when the total going overseas exceeded one million, twice as many went by air. And by 1970, when the Americans going abroad each year numbered nearly five million, the travelers by sea accounted for only 3 percent. The issuing of passports became a bureaucratic problem of major proportions: in 1950 there were three hundred thousand passports issued, and twenty years later the annual figure approached two million.

The United States was the first nation in history so many of whose citizens could go so far simply in quest of fun and culture. The size of this phenomenon made international travel, for the first time, a major element in world trade, a new problem for the American economy and for American balance of payments, and a new opportunity for the destination countries. In 1970 the Department of Commerce estimated that the expenditures of American travelers overseas had reached $2 billion each year. In the United States, economists began to count foreign travel as a major import, and other countries began to plan for tourism by Americans as a principal export.

The democratizing of foreign travel had required extensive and energetic efforts of salesmanship, advertising, and organization. It took two full centuries (from the eighteenth to the twentieth) to bring fifty million people to the United States from overseas. In the late twentieth century, every year one-tenth that number of Americans would fly across the ocean in the opposite direction. Democracy had reduced a transoceanic adventure to a two-week holiday. The travelers went, usually, for no life-shaking purpose, but only for vacation, for the instruction and delight of new places, for new sights and new sensations.

Vacation travel became a mass-produced, packaged commodity. Not until the 1960’s did the threat of air piracy, promoted by the irresponsible sensationalism of the press, radio, and television, add an unpleasant new fillip of adventure to a trip abroad.

The pioneer in packaging travel for mass consumption was not an American, but the Englishman Thomas Cook. In the 1840’s, Cook’s first planned tour took nearly six hundred people the eleven miles from Leicester to Loughborough for a temperance convention, at a reduced round-trip third-class fare of one shilling a head. Cook was soon sending hundreds to Scotland (1846) and Ireland (1848), and then he brought thousands to the Crystal Palace Exposition in London in 1851. In that year, too, Cook offered Britons his first “grand circular tour of the continent,” and by 1869 he advertised the first middle-class Conducted Crusade to the Holy Land. Cook’s sophisticated countrymen called his tours a “new and growing evil,” vulgarizing the sights that had been properly reserved for the aristocratic, the knowledgeable, and the wealthy. “The Cities of Italy,” the British consul in Florence complained in Blackwood’s Magazine in February 1865, were now “deluged with droves of these creatures, for they never separate, and you see them forty in number pouring along a street with their director—now in front, now at the rear, circling round them like a sheepdog—and really the process is as like herding as may be. I have already met three flocks, and anything so uncouth I never saw before.”

But Thomas Cook defended his tours as “agencies for the advancement of Human Progress.” How foolish to “think that places of rare interest should be excluded from the gaze of the common people, and be kept only for the interest of the ‘select’ of society. But it is too late in this day of progress to talk such exclusive nonsense, God’s earth with all its fullness and beauty, is for the people; and railways and steamboats are the result of the common light of science, and are for the people also…. The best of men, and the noblest minds, rejoice to see the people follow in their foretrod routes of pleasure.” But the democratic spirit that Cook praised had not yet entirely prevailed even in America, where daughters of wealth lusted after foreign titles. A few rich scions like James Hazen Hyde (inheritor of New York Life Insurance millions) and William Waldorf Astor (heir to the $100 million Astor fortune) who began by mimicking European aristocrats finally became expatriates.

In the United States in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when the promoters of transatlantic travel still found it more profitable to deal in immigrants than in tourists, Americans who wanted a planned European tour still relied on Thomas Cook & Son. President Grant used Cook’s. And Mark Twain, in a published testimonial in which he disavowed knowing Cook personally, informed all Americans that “Cook has made travel easy and a pleasure.” Not until the twentieth century did Cook’s have a serious American competitor.

Wells, Fargo and the other companies which became the American Express Company had been organized in the mid-nineteenth century to forward goods and money across the continental spaces of the growing nation. Later in the century these same companies did a flourishing business arranging remittances from successful, recently arrived Americans to their needy families back in Europe. In 1895 American Express opened its first European office, which offered traveling Americans a mail-forwarding service, assistance in securing railroad tickets and in making hotel reservations, and help in finding lost baggage. President James C. Fargo, who was in charge until 1914, insisted that there was no money in the tourist business: the company had begun in freight and express and should stay there. But when World War I forced the consolidation of the different express companies, American Express branched out into new services. Before the end of the war the company had begun developing a foreign travel service, which grew spectacularly at the war’s end. By 1970 American Express had about a thousand offices throughout the world, and was serving tourists everywhere.

American Express sent the first postwar escorted tour to Europe in October 1919, and three years later dispatched the first all-water round-the-world pleasure cruise. With its packaged tours, American Express abolished tourist worries and made the knowledge or the previous experience of the traveler unnecessary. Specializing in people going places for the first time, they made it possible for middle-class Americans to take a trip abroad at a precisely predictable cost, going to the cities and staying in the hotels which American Express had already expertly tested on a mass market.

In the old days, carrying money to distant places had been a problem solved only by the complicated apparatus of bank drafts and letters of credit. The ordinary citizen who spoke no foreign language and had no connections abroad was bound to be troubled. In 1891 American Express copyrighted the first Travelers Cheque which ingeniously provided transfer of small sums of money for people who were unknown where the money was to be spent. This was, of course, another step toward democratizing foreign travel. When Americans were stranded in Europe in 1914 at the outbreak of the war, the American Express Travelers Cheque was one of the few forms of financial paper honored by European banks. By 1960, about $2 billion worth of these American Express Travelers Cheques were being sold annually. The insurance feature of the Travelers Cheque made it a new kind of “unlosable money,” and by relieving the traveler of still another worry, further enlarged the market for distant travel.

OF THE EVERYDAY American institutions that helped popularize foreign travel, none was more pervasive than the postal card. The earliest known postal card is the one for which John P. Charlton of Philadelphia secured a copyright in 1861. It was a plain card to which the sender affixed a postage stamp, blank on the reverse where the message was to be written. Under the Postal Act of that year, the required postage was one cent. A law of 1872, which directed the Postmaster General to “issue with postage-stamps impressed upon them, ‘postal cards,’ manufactured of good stiff paper,” brought another Americanism into the language. For advertising foreign places and the delights of foreign travel, an event of major importance was the First International Postal Treaty (1875), in which the member countries agreed that postcards could be sent between the member countries at half the letter rate.

In the 1890’s pictorial-view postal cards were being widely sold in Europe, and were beginning to reach American hometowns with enticing views of the scenic beauties of the Old World. The pioneers in printing these cards were the Germans, who by 1895 had popularized the “Gruss aus” (Greetings from) card, with appropriate local pictures from all over the world. This was an ingenious new form of packaged, mass-produced tourist greetings, ready-made for the lucky members of the new packaged tours. The card that showed a European castle or palace, a scene along the Rhine, the Seine, or the Thames, or a picturesque glimpse of an Old World city street with a standardized message and the words “Greetings from” elaborately printed, offered the special advantage that it left only a tiny blank space for the hurried traveler’s “Having a wonderful time!” along with his signature. These were forerunners of the still further improved American cards of the next century which required the tourist only to check off his message from a ready-made list. At first, presumably to protect the sale of the official, ready-stamped post-office cards, the United States Post Office prohibited the private printing of postcards. Meanwhile the postcard industry flourished in Germany, and colored picture postcards of scenes from everywhere were printed in Berlin. An increasing number of Americans traveling abroad used these to greet, and to impress, their friends back home.

Incidentally the cards, with romanticized versions of foreign sights and continental hotels, advertised overseas travel and awakened the envy and the desire of hometown folks. In Germany during 1899, eighty-eight million postcards of all kinds were mailed; and in 1902, when a half-billion were mailed in England, the German figure exceeded one billion. By the turn of the century the United States Post Office was already troubled by the problem of what were then called “naughty or suggestive” postcards emanating from the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. And an imperial decree of the Ottoman Empire in 1900 forbade some of their most interesting postcards when, applying the Muslim prohibition of images, it outlawed those of religious ceremonies, mosques, or Turkish women.

The camera, which began to be popularized by Eastman’s Kodak in 1888, would before long transform the traveler’s experience. Even before every tourist carried a camera, photography was shaping the American view of the travel world, but new techniques were required to reproduce photographs in large numbers. At first the only way to make a photographic postcard was to affix each photograph separately to the back of a card. It was 1900 before the half-tone photoengraving process, which had already created the illustrated newspaper, produced inexpensive photographic postcards.

The traveler’s sense of adventure, which once came from encountering the risky and the unpredictable, began to be dulled as the Grand Tour became the Packaged Tour. The traveler became the “tourist” consuming a mass-produced, guaranteed product. When the travel agent arranged facilities which were as much as possible like those back home, casual encounters with “natives” became fewer and more bland. The room was already reserved, the menu prearranged, the check had been paid in advance. Covered by ingenious new forms of insurance against all risks (including inclement weather and loss of baggage), secure in possession of his unstealable money, the tourist returned home with fewer memories but with more photographs. His satisfaction or his grievances were aimed less at the people in the country he had visited than at the hometown travel agent who had sold him the package.

Most important in diluting the novelty of the travel experience were those accessories and appliances in the American home which began to make actual trips to faraway places seem superfluous, and even perhaps inferior to what he could get with little trouble and almost no expense. The “stereopticon” (an Americanism which came into use after the Civil War) first allowed Americans in their own parlors to see realistic, three-dimensional views of the Holy Land, the Sphinx, and other exotic sights. Later, more and more Americans brought back their own photographic record, displacing the old traveler’s diary. Then movies at the neighborhood theater showed travelogues with sights (after the 1920’s in full color) and sounds of London, Paris, Istanbul, and New Delhi at all seasons of the year, at negligible cost, and without travel risks. For many Americans it was these movie trips even more than those in person that created their authentic image of places. By the early 1930’s Americans were visiting the Houses of Parliament to see where George Arliss had been Disraeli in the famous movie of that name, as later they visited the Trevi Fountain in Rome to see whether it was really the way it had looked in Three Coins in the Fountain. By late-century, television was bringing these and other exotic places with sound and in full color into American living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens. If the faraway places still interested Americans, the interest could be conveniently satisfied in their own homes—at the flip of a switch.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!