Monday, 26 September 2016

Petticoat Travellers - Early 20th Century Steamship Travel

While researching my first cosy mystery set on an ocean liner in 1900, I came across a fascinating, though tongue-in cheek article entitled,  ‘The Ethics of Ocean Travel’ written by journalist Earl Mayo for Era Magazine, in 1904, written at a time when Trans Atlantic steamship travel was becoming fashionable.

He gives an interesting and amusing portrait of ocean life, especially in respect of the innovation of women travelling to foreign countries.

‘The woman traveling abroad without male escort was so much a rare avis as to be a negligible quantity a generation ago, or even more recently. To be sure there were women who crossed the Atlantic on their own responsibility in the days of our mothers, or even in those of our grandmothers, but in the infrequent cases when this happened the chances were ninety-nine out of a hundred that she was to be joined at the moment of landing by a husband, brother, or some other relative.’

‘Now, however, all this is changed. We are living in the age and in the land of the new woman-not the freakish, faddish person designated by this title a few years ago, but the self-reliant, independent, resourceful woman whom we all know in greater or less numbers.'
‘....a peculiar illustration in the. case of one of the ships of the Atlantic Transport line, which carried fifty-eight women and one man! Needless to say that later on the man became engaged to and married one of his fair fellow·voyagers. What earthly chance does one poor, unprotected man stand among a shipload of women?’

Mayo calls these ladies 'petticoated travellers' and goes on to say the shipping line was known as 'the woman's line' , possibly, he says, 'because these ships carried only first·cabin passengers, ..... the officers have more time to devote to little attentions of courtesy and assistance which women especially appreciate.' or maybe he means - demand?

He also expresses some concern about the rules by which these women should conduct themselves while travelling alone. For instance, ' a hotel dining room a gentleman would hardly presume, without previous acquaintance, to address a woman seated at the same table.'  Though he goes on to say  '.... it would be foolish to refrain from conversation with one's table neighbor in the saloon of an ocean liner where the same situation is to be repeated at every meal for seven or eight days.'

However he does have these ladies' reputations at heart in that: ‘Under no consideration will the woman traveling alone allow bon camaraderie to degenerate into even a mild form of flirtation. Shipboard flirtations are not for the unchaperoned.’ His reason being: ''The most gentlemanly passenger aboard may prove to be a professional gambler and the man of pious mien and clerical garb may have an unsavory reputation ashore.'

Apparently American ladies enjoyed a more lax attitude towards their independence and he feels it incumbent upon himself to explain that; '

Europeans in general have not been educated up to the idea of a woman's right to travel about alone and many American women abroad have been subjected to serious embarrassment from the inability of Europeans to appreciate or understand the freedom of movement which the women of the United States enjoy at home.' 

I get the impression Mayo meant well, but how many ladies found his advice insulting, patronising or downright presumptuous? 

The full article is here: Earl Mayo on the Ethics of Ocean Travel


Petrea Burchard said...

I'm actually surprised, given how long ago he was writing, at how progressive he was! I wonder what the women of 100 years from now will say about our progress.

Jennifer Pittam said...

Lovely post. Signed, a freakish, faddish lady traveller...

Jennifer Pittam said...

Fascinating post. Signed, a freakish, faddish lady traveller...