Of Turtles, White Gloves, and Kings: Americans Travelling Abroad: 1893

Traveling Companions, Augustus Egg, 1862

Traveling Companions, Augustus Egg, 1862


Miss Bisland’s Tales of Traveling Americans.  

It is fruitless to deny that Europeans have some legitimate excuses for considering Americans eccentric (writes Elizabeth Bisland in the Bazar). The rich American is either so cosmopolitan as to have no salient features distinguishing him from the gentle-folk of other lands, or so aggressively plutocratic that the amusement he awakes is quite unmingled with either pride or pleasure. It is of the American of very modest means, who has made many sacrifices in order to see the treasures of European art, that one is able to recall a thousand delightful and humorous memories.  

The best vantage ground from which to single out these delightful types is an American legation in some famous continental capital. One of the most delightful figures that ever drifted through a place of the sort was a Western magistrate of purely local fame, but “judge” by courtesy of the entire community of — let us say — Cherry Creek, Ark. Apparently the slender current of the judge’s life had flowed in unison with that of Cherry Creek for well-nigh three-score years before he set out upon his journeys. But in the May morning of youth he had dreamed of such possibilities, and a daily round of thrift and economy, practiced through many decades of monotonous existence, eventually realized the slender sum requisite for the European tour projected by this new Arkansas traveler. The period of his waiting he had beguiled with slow, faithful efforts at self-culture, which even led to the acquisition of a creditable amount of Greek. Thus equipped, and eager-hearted as a boy, he had, at the period of his visit to this particular legation, spent three years in journeying from country to country, acquiring some familiarity with many European languages, including Russian.  

“I wanted to talk to the folks themselves,” he explained, “and, Lord! they air so pleased when you kin talk to ’em in their own tongue ! Why, when I was in St. Petersburg last May, I made out all my washing-lists in Russian, though they warn’t long. But I kin tell you, ma’am, when I put down my name and address at the post-office, and did it in Russian, you never see anything like the way they was tickled with it. You b’lieve me, they went round and showed it to every one of the clerks, it pleased ’em so.”  

The judge, though a stanch Republican, was by nature so courteous that his heart prompted a respectful notice of that peculiar anomaly in this democratic age — a reigning sovereign. To the American Minister he disclaimed any special interest in potentates, but added: “If you think the king would really like to see me, I don’t mind calling at the palace and leaving a card for him.”  

The minister hastened to assure him that his majesty very considerately exempted from this formality most of the foreigners who did his capital the honor of visiting it — a courtesy which in itself he considered all-sufficient. The judge thereupon, being much pleased and relieved to find he had discharged all social obligations of his position , departed in time, to pursue knowledge in other lands, and, the end of his financial tether reached, one can imagine his face homeward set and his heart glowing with his one crowded hour of glorious life, that was worth an age without a name on Cherry Creek.

In another foreign capital there arrived one day a party of pretty Texan girls, chaperoned by an elderly spinster. They called at the American Legation on the eye of a ball to be given in honor of the royal family, and the minister’s wife kindly invited them to be present. All six faces radiated with pleasure until their hostess added : “You know the etiquette of costume on such occasions is very strict. I hope you have something suitable.” — a suggestion that plunged them in gloom, as they had only their traveling-gowns with them. The chaperon, however, was bent on her charges having their ball and their royal meeting, and, after a moment’s deep thought, cried, in a burst of inspiration: “Girls, we might all wear white gloves!”

“Will that do?” asked the five girls in one anxious breath, and the minister’s wife, mentally resolving to assume all responsibility for infraction of rules, cordially decided that it must do.  

At the earliest possible moment the Texas contingent appears, gala attire unmistakably suggested by a bit of the traveling gowns turned in at the throat, a touch of while tulle, a little posy in each bosom, and white gloves on every hand. Royalty, interested by the unusual costume and the bright, eager faces, amiably suggests a presentation. The court takes the cue, more introductions follow— honor is rendered where honor is due — and exit Texas beaming with excitement and gratification.  

In the absence of the American plenipotentiary accredited some years ago to a famous monarch now dead, there arrived three women who announced their desire to see the king.  

“Nothing can be easier,” declared the secretary in charge. “The king goes to-morrow in state to a religious ceremony at the cathedral. Get a balcony on the route of the procession and you can have an excellent view of him.”  

“Good gracious ! You don’t suppose we came all this way to do that,” cried the trio. “Why, a cat could look at the king that way. No, indeed! We want to shake hands and talk to him.”

“Impossible!” declared the secretary. “Such a thing requires a formal presentation. Only the minister makes those, and he is absent.”

Nothing dissuaded, the three friends on the following morning walked determinedly up to the palace and resolutely demanded to see the reigning monarch. So overwhelmed was the aide-de-camp by the composure and urgency with which the request was made, that he actually carried it to the king, who, infinitely amused, granted it at once.  

“We have come a long way to see you,” said the  spokeswoman, “and we didn’t mean to go away till we’d done it.”  

The king invited them to a seat, and they conversed with him fluently and cordially for ten minutes ; at the end of which time they rose without awaiting any intimation from him, and all three shook hands warmly, saying : “Well, we’re pleased to have met you, but our time is short and we have a lot of other things to see,” and so departed, leaving the king convulsed with merriment.  

It is not alone monarchs who are treated lightly by these finely unconscious democrats. In the drawing-room of an Oxford hotel last summer were three women and a small boy engaged in search for a missing guide-book.  

“What has Willy done with that Bedekerr?” cried the exasperated mother, and, after the red volume had been restored, threw herself into a deep chair and plunged into its pages, announcing the results of her investigations from time to time.  

“Gurrls, there’s a two-forty train to Kenilworth, and I guess one day’s enough for this place.” Then, after a studious interval: “My sakes, gurrls, listen to this! It says you couldn’t see all thet’s to be seen in Oxforrd in a month. Guess’s no use our stayin”, then — we’ll take that two-forty train.” And at the aforementioned hour they turned their resolute backs upon the most beautiful and richly historic spot in England.  

These memories — odd, amusing, and delightful —of one’s fellow-countrymen are endless ; but there is room for only one more — the recollection of hearing on the crowded Munich railway platform a soft Southern voice saying: “Honey, don’t set down there right in the way; they’ll tromp on you.”  

And of seeing a small girl rise up, clasping to her bosom a cigar-box with a perforated cover. There was something curious about this box, because hurried travelers who came too near it started suddenly away, and regarded the little party of three, an old lady and two children, with undisguised horror.

After some space of struggling with the intricacies of that badly spelled and poorly pronounced English which dwellers beyond the Rhine chose to call their German tongue, it was delightful to hear the accents of one’s native land, and an excuse was seized upon to make the old lady’s acquaintance. She was from Georgia, and knew no other tongue than her own.

She was sixty-five years of age, and was traveling for the first time in Europe with her two small grand-children. She had experienced no difficulty whatever, and, indeed, without a word of German managed to secure for herself on this occasion the best carriage and get her luggage attended to before any one else, by mere dint of gentle, sweet-voiced persistence. The Teutonic officials merely shrugged helplessly and obeyed when she said:  “No, yo’ don’t take that bag— yo’ hear me! Set it right down there like I tell yo’.” — all in tones as soft as rose-leaves.

Another traveler at this moment shied violently away from the little girl’s box, from which little serpent-like heads were being thrust, and this attracted the old lady’s attention, causing her to ask, gently: “Honey, ain’t those turkles of yo’rs hongry?”

“Yes, grandmaw, I reckon they are,” said the child. “They ‘ain’t been fed since we left Flawrence.”

And then the train carried the Georgians and the hungry turtles away.

The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 10 July 1893

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Miss Bisland was in a position to speak frankly about travelling Americans.  In1889 she was sent racing around the world by the editor of Cosmopolitan, a monthly journal, in an attempt to beat the famous girl-journalist Nellie Bly, sponsored by the New York World. As a publicity stunt, the newspaper had sent Miss Bly to  beat Phineas Fogg’s 80 days around the world. Due to some skulduggery, Miss Bisland lost the race, but both of the ladies came in well ahead of the ficitional Fogg. Miss Bisland was a friend of writer Lafcadio Hearn, publishing a book on his life and letters, and after her sensational race around the world, she wrote on less frivolous topics.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


2 thoughts on “Of Turtles, White Gloves, and Kings: Americans Travelling Abroad: 1893

  1. qnpoohbear

    Ahh Miss Bisland! In an attempt to be droll, methinks this account exaggerated and/or deliberately poking fun of newly wealthy Americans. There were/are many cultured American travelers, especially old monied people. At that time, the society ladies of New York headed to Paris and London to “do” the Season. Before that time, many American men set out on a Grand Tour. Americans did come with an ingrained set of prejudices against certain types of people based on experiences in their own home land. I’ve read scathing remarks on any number of ethnicites not to many anti-Semitic and racist comments written in American diaries.


  2. Pingback: Primrose’s Packing List for Fashionable Victorian Dirigible Travel (Custard Protocol Special Extras) - Gail Carriger

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