Travails of Edwardian Female Travelers


Summer vacation is coming, ladies! Have you wired ahead to the hotels where you’ll be staying?  Do you know how to pack your hats properly?  What are you going to wear in the sleeper car?  How will you handle unwanted male attention on a train?

Are you as clueless on these matters as I am?

Thank goodness for the exceedingly well-mannered and somewhat snobbish Isabel Curtis. She has all the answers in her article “Tales of Feminine Travelers Who Have Learned to Journey Safely and Happily Without Male Escort”, published in the June 1906 volume of Good Housekeeping.  I’ve excerpt the most relevant passages below.


For two hours, one night. I listened while the Travelers talked. The Travelers were a group of ladies’ maids: intelligent, well-bred, young women gathered together in Miranda’s pleasant room, at a big hotel in New York. A lady’s maid is of the class one meets so seldom—except in a novel or the stage—that I was glad to know them in real life. Miranda was responsible, I suppose, for an all-evening theme by telling what a queer reception Lady Chesterton had in New York.

“My lady.” said Miranda, “came across on a line which lands in Boston. Her luggage was labeled ‘Miss Chesterton‘. She hates the fuss that is made over anybody who brings a title to America. Before going to visit some old friends she wanted to rest, so after a few hours in Boston we took the train for New York. We arrived here late at night and drove to a hotel, which some English friends had recommended to my lady. The clerk said there was not an empty room. We got the same answer at the next hotel. It was nearly midnight when we made our third stop, here. Again there was no room. While we stood by the desk in perplexity, a lady and gentleman passed us, called for a room and got one. My lady turned back for a talk with the clerk who became perfectly honest with her. He told her there were rooms enough, but women arriving in the evening without an escort could not be given accommodations. The same rule exists, so he told us, in every reputable hotel.”


“Lady Chesterton did not feel that way about it.” continued Miranda. “She approved of the idea, but it was midnight and where were we to go? She told the clerk of her quandary and gave her name, though she did not wish to register under it. After a brief glance at my lady’s letters to her banker we were accommodated and provided with every comfort. One thing the clerk told us about traveling in America my lady will put into practice before our journey to San Francisco; she will write ahead and secure rooms at hotels wherever we are to stop.”

“Talk of traveling with no man along.” sighed Felice, a chatty French maid. “That an episode my lady and I had last night! I went with her to the theater—ah, what a stupid play!” The girl threw out her hands tragically. “‘Felice.’ said my lady, ‘let us have something to eat and forget it. There is the rathskeller where my husband and I go after the play. Such good things to eat and such music! It was a heavenly place, but what a crowd! We walked to the end of the room before we found a table. ‘We will have lobster a la Newberg began my lady, ‘with some little—‘ ‘Pardon, madame,’ I interrupted, ‘but for what do they take us?’

wt7“One waiter had beckoned to another, they stood staring at us, then hurried away for the head waiter. Oh, he was polite. ‘When does your escort arrive?’ he asked with his beautiful smile. ‘Escort?’ repeated my lady. ‘Your father, husband, brother?’ ‘We have no gentleman coming to join us.’ He grew more polite, more smiling. ‘I am sorry, indeed, but this table is engaged.’ ‘Of course it is engaged,’ said my lady haughtily; ‘please send a waiter at once to take my order.’ But she did not have her little supper at the rathskeller. That head waiter told us very confidential—we could not eat there unless a gentleman was with us. So, all down that long room we had to walk, everybody watching us and wondering, I suppose, ‘Who are these terrible people,—thieves or what?’”

“Such experiences,” said Martha, a plain-looking New England girl, “are valuable lessons for the women who travel. My mistress has had difficulties; she did not resent them, however…So she wires ahead to a number of hotels, wherever she is to stop—any hotel in your own town will give you a list of them. She learns about prices, accommodations, the distance from a railroad station, so she knows whether she has to take a carriage or not. She asks for menus, if the place is run on European style, then she has a fair idea of what living there will cost.”

“Are you girls on the go all the time?” I asked curiously.

“I am, for at least eight months of the year,” said Emily, a dainty little creature who was busily mending a lace flounce. “My mistress is Miss Marlitt, the actress. Travel with her is not the weariness it is in some positions because she has reduced packing to a science. Every bit of baggage she owns either for the hotel or the theater is a thing of such neatness and convenience that ‘living in a trunk,’ as we say, is as easy as if one were at home. I cannot afford many of the small contrivances Miss Marlitt owns, but I have adopted some of them to make travel easier for myself.”

“Tell us of them,” begged Miranda.

“Well, there is my little scheme for carrying hats. I punch two holes, an inch apart, in the lid of the top tray of my trunk and run in a yard of tape. Over this I lay my hat, top up, filled with any light-weight articles. I stick a long hat pin through it, as if I were putting it on my head, then over and over the hat pin I wind the tape, which ties securely on the other side of the lid. This draws the hat brim down tight. Around the crown and trimmings, I tuck other light articles, or tissue paper, which we use by the ream.”

“What do you do with so much tissue paper?” queried Annette.

“I crumple sheet after sheet of it and stuff the puffy sleeves of nice gowns, I wind it in twists about flowers and ribbons on hats and build little fences around perky bows or dress trimmings which do not stand crushing. Then my plan for carrying liquids defies the most violent baggage-smasher. When every bottle is corked securely, I set it in a square tin box, fill in between with clean, sawdust and lock it. All that is necessary when repacking is to empty the sawdust on a paper and pour it again around the bottles. When I go from the sleeping car to the dressing room I carry a linen affair which looks like a strapped music roll. Inside are numerous little pockets, one row lined with silk rubber holds a washrag. Tooth brush, sponge, and nail brush. In the others are tooth powder, a buttonhook, pins, brush and comb, my belt and collar, any small bits of jewelry, hairpins, a housewife with needles, thread, scissors, a thimble, hooks and eyes, and tape. A loop at the top hangs it up and as every pocket is labeled, dressing is a quick job.”

“I wish I might have my turn at the dressing room after you,” said Felice. “Ah, women are so mean, so slow, so don’t-care! One morning when we were getting into Chicago, we waited half an hour for a—person to let us have our turn. A line of other women were waiting; some of them rapped at the door, some of them said things. At last somebody went for the conductor. He made the person open the door. Her hair was dressed as if she were going to a party, she was rouged, powdered, manicured, perfumed, hatted and veiled and she smiled so triumphant! I had to brush my lady’s hair while she sat in her berth, and our faces, we could not wash them till we got to our hotel.”


 “Another thing.” continued Emily, “that women ought to know is that it is a conductor’s duty to hear the appeal of any woman who has the unwelcome attentions of a man thrust upon her. ‘I have in mind,’ said my brother. ‘one man who boards my train three times a week. He is rich, well dressed, good-looking and holds a fine position in his own town. He walks past seats occupied by a homely woman or in which a man is lounging till he finds a pretty girl. Then politely enough he takes his place beside her. A refined woman is so afraid of making a scene she would rather endure any unpleasantness than call the conductor. Women ought to complain in such cases. It can be done so quietly that even the passenger in the next seat need not know what is happening. It means not only protection for one woman but for others. One experience of that sort would make such a man wary in the future. I keep an eye on young girls who are traveling alone. More than once in the midst of a flirtation with some man who is not fit to speak to her, I have escorted a pretty child to the Pullman and given her a bit of fatherly advice. But I would say to mothers if it is necessary, send your ten year-old daughter across the continent in the care of conductors and a kindly public—she is safe; but when she is eighteen, pretty, a bit headstrong, perhaps, and innocently fond of admiration and attention, don‘t send her on a hundred mile journey alone.

“There is not a doubt of it,” cried Martha, heartily. “Dear me! how some women do dress when they travel! They fairly outrage every law of good breeding. I wish you could have seen a vision that flounced through our car the other morning. Her blonde hair was in a wild frowzle, she wore a billowy wrapper of baby blue silk fluttering with frills, ribbons and laces, while she fairly blazed with diamonds. I’m glad Miranda was not there, she would have classified her as a wild American.”

Miranda’s handsome face flushed. “I am guilty already of thinking that some American women do dress [oddly] when they travel, although,” she added hastily, “you would see plenty of such display in England and the Continent. You can always pick out the real aristocrat there by the plainness of her clothes when she travels. She wears, as Lady Chesterton does, a simple walking suit with a dark silk waist which sheds dust, a long traveling coat and a plain hat with very little trimming on it. A wrapper of soft black silk and black bed slippers are all that is necessary for the sleeping car.”

“Do tell me then how to care for children when traveling,” cried Annette.

“Get acquainted with them before they start and discover what they like to do,” said Martha. “I once brought five motherless little ones from Oklahoma to Maine, and there never was a fretful, uncomfortable half-hour. We secured the end of the Pullman and in my grip I had stowed away hooks, paper dollies and doll house furniture, games, a scrapbook with pictures ready to cut out and paste, beads to string and for the elder girls dolls’ clothes ready to sew. When we got on the cars I took off the children’s traveling clothes and put each one in a soft, thin play frock with round neck and short sleeves. I had a roll of old linen cut in squares and a pint bottle filled with suds from good toilet soap. A few drops of this added to a cup of cold water cleansed smutty faces or grimy hands, then the soiled washrag was tossed from the window. The children had their dining car meals at the same hours they would have eaten at home and they had the wholesome food to which they were accustomed. There was no candy or cookies between meals, only an occasional drink of cool milk or filtered water from the dining car, for I have a horror of the beverage served from a railroad ice water tank. At 3 o’clock, the three little ones were laid on a rug on the floor with comfortable pillows under their heads and the shades down to shut out the sun. While they napped I read a story to the elder ones. Before 8 they were all in bed and at once dropped off to sleep without the least trouble.

When the conductor assured us we had ten minutes to spare, I took the youngsters for a breath of fresh air and to stretch their legs, whether it was on the platform of a busy depot or on the green prairie by a water tank.”

“Did you have a plentiful supply of eyestones along?” asked Emily.

“Better than that,” said Martha, “I had a tiny camel’s hair brush, which will remove a railroad cinder in a second. Ah, I must not forget the aid I had from the children‘s aunt. She dropped a bundle in my grip just before we started. It held a bunch of envelopes, one was to be given each child at a certain hour every day. Sometimes the envelope held some nonsense rhymes that we all laughed over, or a Japanese butterfly which was wound up until its wings were in tatters, a paper ball. a tiny mirror to flash reflections, puzzles or conundrums with their answers in the next envelope, funny pictures, pencils and paper, stories out from magazines or postals of scenery we had to pass.”


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