Few nations like to pack and explore the world like the British. From the golden days of the Grand Tour, the ultimate graduate school for the upper class, we have spilled to every corner of Europe, and beyond, in search of enriching experiences.
Gradually, thanks to the emergence of tour operators such as Thomas Cook, even the hoi polloi have discovered the advantages of escaping our islands, and now – with the arrival of low cost flights and holiday packages – few of us do not they spend at least a week every summer on the beaches of the Med.
What has changed beyond recognition, however, is our vacation habits. Where today’s tourists are primarily concerned with tanning and instagrammable photo opportunities, once-upon-a-time travelers did things quite differently … more often than not.
Here, Lucy Lethbridge, author of a new book, Tourists: How the British Went Abroad to Find Themselves, reveals some of the most fascinating episodes from over 200 years of globetrotting.
Improving the view with a ‘wisely used mallet’
In the 18th century, under the influence of Reverend William Gilpin, who first coined the term “picturesque”, tourists were encouraged to make the ruins and monuments more brittle. Gilpin recommended, for example, that the ruined Tintern Abbey be enhanced with a “wisely used mallet” to roughen its straight lines.
Gilpin is really the progenitor of the selfie and the post on Instagram, for him it was all a matter of background. He advocated the use of a portable convex mirror through which you can capture the scene behind you as if it were framed. The best kind of view, he said, “was the kind of beauty that would look good in a photo.”
The terrible mania of postcards
In 1867, during a vacation in Naples, an English tourist noticed that Italian guides were selling photographs of Pompeii and Vesuvius to tourists, to supplement their earnings because they were forbidden to tip. In 1869 the Austrian postal service created the first postcard that could be sent without an envelope. By the 1880s, cards were the most popular form of souvenirs in Europe, and by 1900 there were 10,000 different views of Paris available in postcard form.
Creating postcards has employed countless local photographers and printers – no place was too insignificant to deserve a photo. In 1902, the first modern postcard form appeared, with a line for dividing address and message. Many hoped that the postcard would be the end of proper letter writing and civil communication. As an Evening Standard editorial observed: “The postcard craze, like influenza, has spread to these islands from the Continent, where it has raged with considerable gravity.”
The first hotel rating system and Thomas Cook’s questionable reviews
Early guides and travel agents relied on recommendations to spread the word. Mariana Starke, author of the 1818 guide Travels on the Continent, ordered tourist sites and hotels by assigning them exclamation marks, from one to three. She gave Michelangelo’s dying slave, for example, a simple !!. She relied on travelers to send out reports and news that an inn’s standards had slipped and would be downgraded to! – or simply deleted from the guide.
Thomas Cook, who began his organized trips to Europe in the 1860s, encouraged his clients to write reviews in his Cook’s Excursionist magazine. Most of those published, needless to say, have been positive: ‘Everything is organized, everything is taken care of, you don’t have to worry about anything, neither timetables, nor luggage, nor hotels. E. You know, I met the man who organizes everything. I also said ‘Good morning’ to him. His name is Mister Cook and they say he is a saint! ».
Visiting Switzerland? Get your cow
Surprisingly, wheeled suitcases first appeared in 1970, in Macy’s, New York. Before that, suitcases had to be dragged, dragged, or carried (quite often by a porter). Victorian tourists carried huge amounts of clothing and equipment with them when traveling overseas and this inspired ingenious designs for trunks that opened into cupboards, desks, or medicine cabinets. Most European hotels don’t provide sheets, so travelers have been advised to go everywhere with their own sheets and cutlery.
A guide to Switzerland in the 1830s suggested that if you were planning to spend more than a couple of months, you would be advised to bring your own cow. And again in 1968, the Letts Guide to the French Riviera suggests that while dripping shirts and “tennis shoes” made sense, men should still pack a tuxedo just in case.
The shocking sight of a lady’s calf
Swimming in the sea was considered a health cure in the 18th century, and by the mid-19th century a dip in the waves was a must during the holidays. In most resorts, males and females entered the water separately, but once inside they could mix freely in an exciting way. Many French localities employed “guide baigneurs” in striped shirts who took the nervous bathers by the hand and helped them enter.
Bathing suits were usually hired on the beach. The women wore ankle-length black wool shorts under a knee-length tunic, with belt, wide-brimmed hats and voluminous capes. The swimsuits remained enveloping until after the First World War, when new stretch materials and rubberized fabrics revolutionized beachwear. In 1918, a one-piece fitted knee-length piece first appeared and was considered so shocking that it had to be worn with an overcoat that could be quickly removed by the sea.
The diet of wine and meat and a delicious bath foam drink
Healthcare has been big business for 200 years. The spa towns of Europe, with their large hotels and casinos, were particularly popular, but the treatments they offered were often bizarre and sometimes disgusting. They included soaking in hot mineral water, wrapping in cold wet sheets, and weight loss diets based on nothing but wine and meat.
In some drinking troughs, the healing springs had greased with the foam of the bathing bodies: in the famous resort of Wiesbaden it was called “cream” and patients were even convinced that it was particularly healthy to drink. In Carlsbad, the sulphurous waters tasted horrible, and drinkers were advised to rub their teeth with stale bread or sage leaves to avoid mineral encrustation.
The mad rush for Iceland
The Victorians were fascinated by Iceland and the Norse sagas. Adventurous tourists started going there in the 1850s, when Reykjavik was a small peat hut village. The trip lasted 10 days, passing through Copenhagen and Shetland. There were no hotels, shops and streets in Iceland.
When Reverend Sabine Baring Gould visited in 1859, there was little to eat except whimbrel stew (a wader) and the only accommodation for visitors was in churches lit by ptarmigan oil lamps. Yet she met British tourists everywhere she went, including Lord Byron’s grandson whom she met while walking alone across a glacier with a heartbroken after an Icelandic woman turned down her marriage proposal.
A flatulent rush on the ‘diligence’
Before the opening of the railway from Calais to Paris in 1867, the most common means of transport for the French capital was the famous “diligence”, a huge, unsuspended horse-drawn vehicle that held 16 passengers. It was traveling at a maximum speed of three miles per hour and was notoriously uncomfortable to shake the bones. There were three classes of seats and the expensive ones were inside. Many preferred the cheap rooftop seats because at least they were outdoors.
Matthew Todd, traveling diligently in 1816, wrote that the gasp had given all passengers terrible intestinal problems and the “offensive breathing” and “voluntary back rants” were so terrible that “he could barely keep his head in for five minutes in all. ‘
The surprising origins of the snow globe
Still among the most popular souvenirs from an overseas vacation, snow globes made their first appearance at the 1878 Paris Exposition where they were classified as paperweights. These balls contained a model of a man with an umbrella which, when shaken, was covered with falling white powder “in imitation of a snow storm”.
They were invented by Edwin Perzy, a Viennese surgical instrument maker who was working on better lighting for operating theaters when he inserted ground glass into a glass globe to increase reflectivity. It didn’t work, so he tried semolina. In a moment of inspiration, he made a model of the basilica of Mariazell, placed it in a globe and slammed the semolina snow on it. The snow globe was born.
The rise of the sun worshiper
At the end of the 19th century, pale skin became less desirable – it was associated with tuberculosis and weakness. Sunbathing, however, was considered, like vegetarianism, to be somewhat irritable. But in the 1920s, tanned skin suddenly became the pinnacle of fashion, denoting status, luxury and leisure. Fake tanning products were popular as were ultraviolet lamp treatments.
“No one is brighter in spirit than those who worship the sun,” wrote a doctor in 1930. Many tanning enthusiasts suggested rubbing the skin with lemon juice and olive oil to stimulate the tanning process. In 1935 Eugène Schueller, the founder of L’Oreal cosmetics, devised a ‘coloring oil’ which he called Ambre Solaire, the first that emphasized the importance of protecting the skin as well as improving the tan.