Here is a fun book I picked up on our Midwestern book scouting trip. Three Weeks in Europe – The Vacation of a Busy Man first captured my attention because of its charming illustrated binding, but as I was cataloging the book, I began to read a few pages, (always a danger) and then found I couldn’t stop. It turned out to be an engaging story. Written by John U. Higenbotham, the author embarks on a steamship bound for Europe; the year is 1903, and he narrates his experiences on the ship with detailed observation and dry wit.
“Some one has brought a phonograph on board. It seems too bad to jar one’s nautical enthusiasm with these landlubbers’ devices. It is intended as a present to the Sultan of Morocco. I have very little use for the Sultan, but to unload this machine on him is a pretty severe punishment even for his crimes. Besides, after “Hiawatha” has been ground out until the cylinder grows wobbly and sticks on the high notes and repeats the low ones in idiotic a few times, the Sultan will remember where it came from and authorize his Grand Vizier to wipe out a Christian village or two to steady his nerves. No one can measure the possibilities for mischief that are wound up in that little, wheezy box.”
These were the days when steamship travel meant long separation from any real communication with friends and family…it was interesting to note the great importance to him of the letters he received upon reaching his quarters on the ship, sent ahead from friends and family wishing him a “bon voyage.” He tells of the overwhelming feeling of separation as the ship leaves port, with multitudes of passengers immediately taking up pen and paper to write letters to those they have left behind. His observations of his fellow passengers are amusing.
“Of course, a bride and groom are aboard. They are as alone as Robinson Crusoe amid all the life and play around them. They were four days recovering from seasickness and hated to get well then. It meant sitting up and looking around. He has not been shaved since starting and unless the barber comes on deck and shaves him without separating them there seems to be no prospect of accomplishing it. And even then, the razor might slip and cut her!”
And on the beauty of the ocean…
“The Gulf Stream is plainly evidenced by the quantities of brown seaweed on every side of the boat. At night, after watching the phosphorescence on the surface of the water for a long time and wondering whether it was fish or seaweed, an appeal was made to the captain. He said, “It is organic substance,” but whether animal or vegetable, his English and our German were insufficient to determine. Whatever it is, its effect on a dark night is transcendently beautiful, particularly when viewed from the stern of the boat, where the long wake of the vessel becomes a foam crested path of light narrowing to a vanishing point miles behind us. The stars are beautiful tonight and the comet is plainly discernable.”
(I’m still trying to figure out what comet he was looking at in 1903. (Can anyone help me here in the comments section? )
He disembarks at Southampton and from there makes visits to Gibraltar and the Mediterranean, Capri and Sorrento, Pompeii and Naples, Rome, Florence, Venice, Millan and Bellagio, Lucerne, Paris and London. Wonderful old black and white photographs taken by the author illustrate the story of his journeys.
And this brings me to a couple more books I can highly recommend for fans of ocean travel — The Only Way to Cross by John Maxtone-Graham, published by Macmillan in 1972 is a must-have book. It covers the heyday of steamship travel and transatlantic voyages on great ships such as the Mauretania, the Olympic, the Normandie and the beloved Queen Mary, plus many more. IIlustrated with historical old photographs, it also shares the details of construction of the ships, ship-board life, workers (sailors, stokers and stewards) and society. Illustrated with maps, and lots of photos of every segment of the great steamships, from steerage to the sumptious interiors of first class. The reverse side of the dust jacket unfolds to form a poster-size chart of the principal Atlantic ocean liners.
One of my favorite books on ocean liners is Last Dinner on the Titanic – Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner.
The book is beautifully illustrated with colorful Edwardian artwork and archival black and white photographs, and contains recipes for fifty dishes featured on the Titanic’s menus, carefully researched from period sources. This book inspired me and some of my friends to hold a “Titanic Dinner” each year on April 14th (the date of the great ship’s demise) where we all prepare one or two menu items from the book, print out traditional menus and place cards, set out the best china and glassware, and dress in period costume for dinner. It’s a bit of fantasy and time-travel, and more affordable than an ocean voyage–with none of the sea-sickness. And here is our toast, taken from the front of the book:
“The pleasures of the table are common to all ages and ranks, to all countries and times: they not only harmonize with all the other pleasures, but remain to console us for their loss.”
– Anthelme de Brillat-Savarin