Summer Travel Then and Now

Guest post by Daniel Kilbride

The summer tourist season is upon us. Travel today certainly has its frustrations. If Dante were to write The Inferno in our own time, he would certainly reserve a special circle of hell for the customer service employees of certain airlines. And anybody (like me, recently) who has ever had to drive into North Carolina’s Outer Banks during the summer knows that the much-touted speed of our conveyances is a relative concept.

Still, twenty-first century leisure travelers enjoy conveniences that women and men from earlier periods could hardly dream about. Travel can be so frustrating for us precisely because we take speed, ease, safety, and comfort for granted. When we are inconvenienced, we feel as if we are being deprived of an entitlement. Those conveniences are very, very new developments. My book Being American in Europe, 1750-1861 is not primarily concerned with transformations in the means and frequency of trans-Atlantic travel. Rather, it focuses on how Americans abroad struggled to situate themselves in western civilization at the same time they tried to develop a sense of national distinctiveness. But when reading the letters and diaries of my travelers, I could not help but appreciate the enormous difficulties they encountered in endeavoring to visit Europe. Even though transformations in tourism—what we might begin to call the beginnings of the travel industry—can be seen late in this period, even the most privileged traveler in the early nineteenth century endured barriers and indignities that would have any modern traveler writing angry letters to their chamber of commerce (and/or their blog).

It began with arranging one’s Atlantic crossing (getting to one of the big coastal cities would necessitate a blog post of its own). Before the establishment of regular passenger-mail-cargo routes early in the nineteenth century, would-be travelers had to track down a ship’s captain and haggle for a berth—and to bring along necessities like food and drink on their own. The adventure only really began once aboard. In the era before steam travel, a traveler might have to wait days or weeks before favorable winds enabled the ship to set out on the ocean. Kicking back in business class was not really an option, either. As passenger travel grew in the 1830s and 40s—and as early steamships began to make the crossing—shipping lines strove to promote comfort and even luxury. But technological limitations made this almost impossible. Early steamships captured the public imagination because of their association with progress, but they were not much faster than sailing vessels, on average. They were also dirty, noisy, and prone to explode—that last feature a big drawback on the open sea. Travelers’ accounts resound with stories of flying china and silverware, waves swamping genteelly-dressed women, and passengers throwing all pretense of refinement into the wind as they surrendered to seasickness and puked over the side of their boat.

At most, a modern airline passenger has to endure a talkative neighbor for a couple of hours. That was not an option before the era of grand steamships. When Levin Smith Joynes crossed the Atlantic in 1840, he discovered that among his fellow passengers was William Lloyd Garrison and a number of African-American abolitionists on their way to the World Anti-Slavery convention in London. The encounter was unpleasant for everybody involved. Garrison and his party were appalled by the outright racism and proslavery views of Joynes and the other passengers, who on their part were put off by the abolitionists’ moral grandstanding against gambling, drinking, and other ways of passing the time. Suddenly, that insurance salesman sitting next to you on that flight to D.C. doesn’t seem so bad.

Diligence_Stagecoach_001Things did not look up upon arrival.  Today, we have Fodor’s and Baedeker’s to tell us where to go, when and how to get there, and even what to think about what we see, hear, and taste. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travelers did not have that luxury. When it came to how to get from place to place, what to visit, and where to stay and eat, they were on their own. During his 1800-04 Tour, James Oldden Jr. of Philadelphia relied on his fellow carriage passengers for local knowledge. Without a guidebook, he took advice wherever he could get it.  He thought long and hard before visiting the Continent (speaking only English) and only did so after securing a bagful of letters of introduction to local notables. During his visit to the Continent he endured the loss of all his luggage and several life-threatening crashes of his diligence (a kind of large, misshapen stagecoach) in France. No wonder that early modern travel attracted only adventurous spirits.

Package tours and guidebooks, which began to appear around the middle of the nineteenth-century, made travel accessible to more conventional spirits. In the transaction, some of the spontaneity and adventure of foreign travel was surely lost. The traveling world was also smaller. Men traveling abroad in the early nineteenth century could expect to spend a festive July 4th and Washington’s Birthday as the guest of the American minister, a privilege few Americans enjoy today. But the travel industry also democratized tourism, making it accessible first to privileged women, and then to ordinary people. That, at least, is progress.

kilbrideDaniel Kilbride is an associate professor of history at John Carroll University in Ohio. He is the author of Being American in Europe, 1750-1861, published by JHU Press.