Vacation, All She Ever Wanted: Women’s Travel Diaries 1827-1991

Vacation, All She Ever Wanted: Women’s Travel Diaries 1827-1991

Relive past adventures of some fearless females! Duke University has a gorgeous digital collection of historic women's travel diaries available online.

When the weather turns warm, wanderlust seems to magically kick in. Our thoughts turn away from responsibilities and drift toward new adventures. Once an unavoidable necessity, travel for pleasure became popular in the 1800s with Victorian high society. Recording the intimate details of ones excursions was a popular past time, especially among ladies. If you’re fortunate enough to have your ancestor’s travel diary or journal, be sure to properly care for and archive it. If not, don’t lament. Thanks to Duke University’s Digital Repository, you can explore their collection of digitized women’s travel diaries from 1827–1991 anytime you want.

Digitized collection of women's travel diaries at Duke University.
The homepage of women’s travel diaries collection, available from Duke University’s Digital Repository. This screenshot showcase some of the eclectic front covers from this rare books collection.

According to the site, “The diaries in this digital collection were written by British and American women who documented their travels to places around the globe, including India, the West Indies, countries in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, as well as around the United States.” Selected from the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University, as part of the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture, these 165 travel diaries are beautifully digitized for online browsing and research.

Wander-ful Women Writers

Please note: these women’s travel diaries are original scans of rare books. Transcriptions are not available, aside from one. From the old-fashioned cursive to the ravages of time, the text can be difficult to decipher (although I had fun giving it a try—see the excerpts below). Still, the descriptions of the diaries alone are enough to send your mind wandering to far-off places and yearning to discover more about the women who made these journeys. Many of the journals also include ephemera such as photographs, maps, and sketches by the authors.

Let’s join a few of these courageous ladies on their unique adventures…no passport required.

Mary C. Parks journal, 1827-1832, vol. 1

Mary C. Parks traveled extensively with friends and family to Germany, France and Switzerland over several years. She kept two journals, chronicling everything from the local landscape to the histories of historical sites. Also, there are several sketches and extracts from letters among her entires.

Saturday evening, July 14, 1827
Mantes, Hotel du Grande Cerf

At the moment we were departing from Vernon the Hendersons arrived, the pole of the carriage had broken almost directly on their leaving Rouen. So much for French carriages! Vernon is a very pretty place and was much frequented by the English some years since. We were very much amused at Bonniéres with an extraordinary turn out of carriages, called cuckoos. We could not help sympathizing in the sorrows of one poor horse, who was compelled to drag along eight persons that were packed into one of those machines.

Within five miles of Mantes is Rosny the palace of the duchys (sic) of Berré. It must always be viewed with interest as it was formerly the residence of the good Duke de Sully; it was to this beautiful château he always retired when disgusted with the cares and intrigues of the court; the scenery is considered very like that of Richmond; the Seine certainly does almost look as picturesque as the Thames when winding through the sweet vale or Richmond. —On arriving here we had great difficulty to find a place of rest, as the house is now quite full, however we have at last succeeded in procuring bedrooms, demolishing a good supper, and now quite are quite ready for a comfortable repose. Goodnight.

Harriet Sanderson Stewart diary, “Western Wanderings,” 1906-1907, vol. 2

In 1906, British woman Harriet Sanderson Stewart set out with her father to visit the West Indies, Canada, and the United States (Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C.). Ms. Stewart documents her travels in two volumes. She describes everything from native plants to entertainment to local customs. Accompanying her diary entries are, “numerous watercolors and photographs…by Stewart, as well as clippings, postcards, maps, menus, and dried flora.”

Watercolors found in one of the many digitized women's travel diaries from Duke University.
Hiding behind a nondescript green and brown cover lie beautiful watercolor sketches done by Harriet Sanderson Stewart as part of her travel diary.

Monday, March 4, 1907
On board S.S. Bolivia
off Aguadilla, Puerto Rico

“Here we are at last, and here we are likely to remain, for the ship is a slow one in every respect, and instead of our reaching St. Thomas this morning, tomorrow, or even Wednesday is spoken of. This is rather a dingy old tub, much frequented by cockroaches & other delights—even mosquitos finding entry. The more interesting part of the crew consists of 1 dog, 3 kittens, 1 cat, many cocks and hens, sundry pigs, various small birds, some parrots, 3 old guinea pigs & their 3 infants!—the latter ruminants having just been purchased. Need I remark that the ship is not perfumed with Ess. Bouquet? — There are only two passengers besides ourselves. I am the only lady on board, and everyone is very nice to me.”

Jeanette Reid Healy diary, May 1920-December 1920

Jeanette Reid Healy and her husband Augustine (referred to as “G” in her diary) were a wealthy couple from Chicago. It was his family’s extremely successful harp-making company, Lyon & Healy, that afforded Mr. and Mrs. Healy a great deal of travel time and money.  Their travels during 1920-1922 include Japan, Korea, and China, as well as Africa and Europe. In this volume, (the first of four she kept on her journey), Mrs. Healy describes her time in Asia and encounters with its culture and people. She describes: kimono, public baths, members of the Korean Independence Movement, the Great Wall, and the process of setting up a house with servants in Peking, China.

Screenshot of one the the books in the women's travel diaries digital collection from Duke University.
A screenshot of Jeanette Reid Healy’s travel diary. The Digital Repository allows visitors to zoom in and out, jump to specific pages, and rotate the view. Discover every high-resolution detail!

Sunday, September 12, 1920
Japan

We started at about 10:30 for Motohakone via Ojigoku with hissing hot water and sulphur spurts, both overestimated we thought and rather flat compared to Noboribetsu Onsen. Arrived at Umijiri where we took a sampan with two boatmen & were rowed down to the far end of  lake Hakone to the hotel—Fuji was clear and lovely now surrounded by clouds and again clear cut against the sky. After tiffin we walked to the temple, rather dilapidated but with lovely old mossy grounds and long flights of steps flanked by lofty cryptomeria. Umé-san who had lost us at the start appeared at dinnertime, having taken a different route.

The dining room seemed filled with Germans who later congregated in the bar. G. and I spent the evening talking to a young Dutchman & cockney Britisher from Shanghai. The night proved disastrous; fearful beds, rats running & leaping on the roof, sounding like an army of dogs & one fell off with a tremendous clatter. Some man snoring next door & G. shouting ‘hey’ in his ear in his loudest voice dissipated any idea of sleep I might have had!

Now that you’re inspired by these women’s travel diaries of the past, it’s time to think about the future. Consider recording your own experiences during your next special vacation or annual family trip. Not only will you have a cherished keepsake, your travel diary will be available for future generations to enjoy. Bon voyage!

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