A long, black locomotive pulling gleaming carriages loaded with passengers pulls into a station. People stumble and tumble out onto the platform and a husband in a fine grey suit is accompanied out of a railway carriage by his wife in her white dress and their two sons and daughter, who help them haul their trunks and cases out of their compartment and onto the platform. Steam rushes everywhere and they hurry towards an enormous, smoke-belching ocean-liner just a few dozen yards away, moored securely to the side of a wharf. Passports and tickets are doublechecked and porters help them carry three enormous steamer-trunks and several smaller cases onboard, all with brightly coloured stickers plastered over their leather surfaces: London, Cairo, Paris, Rome, New York, Shanghai, Prague, Berlin…
Euston Station, London. April, 1928
THIS could be a scene out of almost any costume drama that ever graced Hollywood or ever appeared on our television screens, interrupted at the most interesting moments by advertisements for tissues, babies’ toys and the latest female fragrances, but there was a time when travelling abroad was glamorous, exciting, fun, fashionable and which was a popular pasttime taken up by millions of people all around the globe, back in the days before we were crammed, seven or nine to a row in stuffy, uncomfortable, cramped seats in the Economy Class area of a 747 jumbo jet, to be bored to death by a nonstop, 20-hour flight from Sydney to Los Angeles. Back in the days before terrorist attacks and luggage-restrictions and airport-closures, back when travel was, or at least seemed to be, easier, more pleasant and infinitely more enjoyable. This was known as the “Golden Age of Travel”.
There are all kinds of golden ages, aren’t there? Golden Age of Hollywood…Golden Age of Television. Golden Age of Radio. Golden Age of Jazz. Golden Age of Baked Alaskas (probably). But have you ever thought that there was a “golden age” of travel?
As I type this, I’m sitting in an apartment in the city-state of Singapore, which was one of the biggest travel-destinations of the prewar era. What was the Golden Age of Travel? When was it? How did it come to be? Why did it ever exist?
Admittedly, it’s rather hard to imagine that there was ever a golden age of moving around from country to country. But believe it or not, yes there was. But when did it start and when did it end? And why and how did it ever exist?
Before the Golden Age
There was a time when travelling was a pain in the ass…like it is today. When it was difficult and dangerous and irritating and annoying and it took forever to get anywhere and things were never certain and you could get screwed over and end up in jail…like it is today. There was a time when people thought it was too much hassle or it was too expensive and just not worth while…like it is today.
But there was a time when it seemed, travel was easy. Simple. Enjoyable. Fun. God help us, even fashionable! But when was it and how did it come about?
To understand why there was a ‘Golden Age of Travel’ to begin with, we need to know something of what travel was like before.
There was a time when travel was hard and dangerous and pointless. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, few people travelled anywhere. It wasn’t worthwhile. It took far too long. It was too expensive. It was dangerous. It was inconvenient. The poorest of people would hatch, match and despatch within the boundaries of their own villages, towns and cities. Travel was done by horsedrawn vehicles on lonely roads where you were liable to be stuck-up by highwaymen or robbers. It hardly seemed worthwhile. And then you needed the money for the horses, the carriage, the coachman and so-forth. It was during this time that travel was in the dark ages. When only the rich people could travel, and even then, only when it was absolutely necessary (like going to London for the Season to find a wealthy young man to marry your daughter off to).
But when the Industrial Revolution came, it changed things forever. And for a few years, travel became glamorous, fashionable, comfortable, much faster than it had ever been before, and for most people, relatively cheap. This was the time known as the Golden Age of Travel.
The Birth of the Golden Age
The Golden Age of Travel was made possible due to the invention of two major pieces of machinery. The steamship and the steam-train, without which, quick, efficient, cheap(ish) travel, would have been unthinkable. Although they had both existed for a number of decades, it wasn’t until the last quarter of the 19th century that they had really reached a level of practicality as to make them fully useful.
Coupled with efficient and relatively safe mass-transport beyond city limits for the first time ever, the early 20th century saw the rise of the motor-car. From about 1910 onwards, private ownership of automobiles in Western countries was on the rise and the relative aubndance of affordable motor-cars meant that for the first time, many people could drive to where-ever they wanted in their Fords or Stanleys or Austins. People were freed from the restaints of timetables and tickets and could go off on a holiday whenever they wished. It was during this time that trips to the seaside became increasingly popular. The tourism industry began to grow rapidly during this period as cities, towns and villages all around the world began showing off their special attractions which they hoped would attract more people to their residences and pump money into their small, local economies. For the first time, famous historical locations such as Stratford-Upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare, were accessible to the masses who could go there in cheap and comfortable transport and witness in person what they might have only ever seen in photographs or read about in books.
The Austin 7. This diminutive 1920s motor-car was one of the first cars manufactured in Britain for the working man
This was when the Golden Age started. The modern travel-industry was born.
The Golden Age of Travel
The Golden Age of Travel ran, with a couple of stops and starts, between about 1880 to 1939. It was in the last quarter of the 1800s that truly efficient transport for the masses had been achieved, with widespread availability of railways and steamships crisscrossing the majority of what were then considered travel-worthy destinations, such as Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and its Empire and various countries in the Far East, such as China, Hong Kong, Japan and India and much of continental Europe, with countries including Germany, Poland, Czechslovakia, France, Italy and Spain.
This panoramic shot of New York Harbor in 1907 shows how busy international ports had become by the early 20th century. The ship docked in the center of the photo is the R.M.S. Lusitania
With advances in mass-production, printing, communications and literacy, there was a sharp rise in the amount of travel-literature produced during this time. Steamship companies and railway companies produced leaflets and pamphlets and travel-agencies opened up, advertising fascinating new places that people to go to for a *gasp* holiday!
By the early 1900s, travel was big business. It was around this time that it became truly practical for upperclass but also well-to-do middle-class people of means, to travel abroad. Railway companies flitted people from city to city and big steamship companies such as Cunard, the Red Star Line, the French Line, P & O and the White Star Line began making fat dollars with the rising travel industry.
This French Line poster from the mid-1930s advertises the French Line’s most famous ocean-liner, the S.S. Normandie
In Germany, a family of printers opened up their business in 1827. For a while, they didn’t have much to do. But starting in the 1870s and 1880s and the rise of the Golden Age of Travel, they found all kinds of new things to print about and they made themselves famous by creating a dizzying amount of popular guidebooks of countries all around the world that would give fledgling travellers a whole host of things to see and do on their travels. This family created the Lonely Planet guidebooks of their day. They were the Family Baedeker. And starting properly in 1872, Baedeker guidebooks were the go-to source for travellers going around the world. The guidebooks covered a wide variety of countries from their native Germany to the United Kingdom, the Orient, the United States and much of mainland Europe. You can still buy Baedeker guides today and vintage and antique guides are actively collected and traded. The Baedeker website may be found here.
Travelling in Comfort and Style
The Golden Age of Travel saw the rise of many industries that were essential to a good holiday. Railways competed for customers by giving them comfortable seats in day-coaches, comfortable beds and rooms, small as they were, in sleeper-coaches, and fast connecting-trains between big cities and major ports. Trains offered lounge-cars and dining-cars for their passengers where they could eat, chat, smoke and write as they wished. Steamship companies competed for passengers by trying to build bigger, faster, safer and more luxurious ships. They offered ammenities like pianos, ship’s orchestras and ballrooms with vast dance-floors, luxury cabins, restaurants, bars and cafes, libraries, writing-rooms, radio-telegraphic services and on some ships (such as the Queen Elizabeth 2), even cinemas!
This White Star Line steamship poster from the mid-1920s advertises big, glamorous ships of speed, offering fast crossings to the New World. The early 1900s until 1939 was considered the golden age of steamship travel
Train travel expanded significantly during the late 1800s. Starting in 1883, the most famous rail service in the world started running routes between London to Istanbul. It was called the Orient Express. For over a hundred years, it was a name associated with first class rail-travel, fine dining, comfort, luxury, mystery, intrigue and adventure, spiriting passengers away to the exotic and fantastical Near and Middle East. The Orient Express formally ceased functioning in 2009, but other companies that offer similar services (and which still run under similar names) continue to operate today.
While in Europe where the train of choice was the famous Orient Express, in the United States, the 20th Century Limited, which started operations in 1902, was the way to travel cross-country. The Century Limited as it was sometimes called, ran nightly services from New York’s Grand Central Station to LaSalle Street Station in Chicago, Illinois in a journey that took anywhere from fifteen to twenty hours, depending on the weight and number of carriages, type of locomotive used and of course, the distance of the route, all of which changed over the course of the Century Limited’s sixty-five year run. The Century Limited was featured in a number of famous Hollywood films, most notably ‘The Sting’ and ‘North By Northwest’.
Packing for a Golden Age
The Golden Age of Travel saw the rise of the luggage industry as well. While previously people travelled with whatever cases and trunks they could find to pack their clothes and necessities into, the late 19th century saw the rise of storage-articles specifically designed for travelling, such as suitcases, gladstone bags, portmanteaux and of course, the steamer-trunk.
Portmanteau case. These were used to house shoes, shirts and suits without having to do much folding, which prevented creasing one’s clothes
The classic brown leather suitcase with brass catches and buckles and with leather straps to give extra security should the suitcase-locks or catches fail to work
Named for long-serving British prime-minister William E. Gladstone, the bag that now bears his name was a common sight starting in the late 19th century and were generally used when packing for short trips, as overnight-bags. They’re more commonly known today as ‘doctor’s bags’
This enormous Louis Vuitton steamer-trunk dates from 1920, right in the middle of the Golden Age of Travel. Steamer-trunks such as this were common sights at railway stations and major docks around the world, when even the fastest ships could only make the New York-Southampton transatlantic crossing in five days
Apart from the rise of the manufacturing of, and increasing variety of luggage, for the first time, ‘travel-sized’ versions of things started being manufactured, or travel-kits of household-items were being put together. Items like this gentlemen’s grooming-kit were essential items for a man who travelled a lot, either for leisure or business…
Kits such as these could be simple affairs or they could be extremely extensive, with slots and places for razors, combs, mirrors, cologne and brushes for shaving, clothes, hats, shoes and men’s hair-grooming. Similar compact grooming-sets also existed for women.
The Rise of the Hotel
Previously just cheap stop-overs for transients and travelling merchants, hotels and inns were not much thought of back in the old days. People rich enough to travel would probably own the place that they were going to stay at anyway, or would stay at the house of a friend. Poorer people would stay at whatever half-decent and cheap accomadation they could find. But in the second half of the 19th century, the modern hotel, the kind that we would recognise today, began to develop, starting in the 1850s.
It was during this time that many famous hotels were established such as the Langham (London, 1865), Claridges (London, 1812. Reopened with current name, 1854), Hotel Continental (Paris, 1878; Saigon, 1880), Plaza Hotel (New York, 1907), Palace Hotel (San Francisco, 1909), Savoy Hotel (London, 1889), Hotel Ritz (Paris, 1898), Windsor Hotel (Melbourne, 1884) and Raffles Hotel, (Singapore, 1887). Many of these hotels have become world-famous, each for different reasons which will be explained in detail later.
Between the late 1800s up to the First World War, popular travel-destinations included the American continent and mainland Europe. Travel to the East was reserved for the people who had the most money and a taste for exotic flavours and strange lands. If you had the money to travel, you went to the big American cities such as San Francisco and New York where all the white-collared American millionaires and socialites lived, or you went to Paris (a popular travel-destination of King Edward VII) or Germany, which was famous for its music, bathing cities, art and pickelhaube.
Travel during this time was still mostly reserved for the upperclass or the upper-middleclass, who had enough money to spend on expensive steamship-tickets and hotels. With the danger of submarine-attacks, commercial ocean-liners and the passenger-trade died down significantly during the First World War.
After the First World War, the Roaring Twenties saw a huge boom in travel. Previous to the 1920s, a huge amount of steamship revenue came from poor immigrants buying one-way tickets from Europe to the New World and landing at Ellis Island in New York Harbor. However, unrestricted immigration to the U.S. was closed in the early 1920s. Immigration would continue for several more years, but on a much smaller scale. It was because of this that steamship-companies began advertising comfortable and cost-effective trips to middle-class people. ‘Tourist Class’ was introduced in some shipping-lines and soon the race was on to find a new passenger-base.
Paris and Berlin in the 1920s were popular travel-destinations. Although beset by political and economic problems, the new Germany, the Weimar Republic, enjoyed a brief high-time of jazz-clubs, cabarets, German pop-music and a thriving cafe-culture, which was eventually crushed by the oppression of the Nazi regime in the mid-1930s.
The 1920s in the United States meant the coming of Prohibition. With alcohol being nigh impossible to come by (unless you ‘knew someone…’), it became the fashion, stateside, to purchase a return ticket on a British steamship and enjoy two weeks at sea, sucking down as much booze as you could get your hands on in the ship’s restaurants and bars. Because these ships were run by British companies and not American ones, they were not subject to American liquor and prohibition laws. Lasting between 1920-1933, they were popularly called ‘Booze Cruises’.
Some shipping-lines during the 1920s and 1930s would set aside special ships in their fleets which were used specifically for long tours and cruises. It was possible to book for a tour by steamship of a specific part of the world, such as the American East Coast, the Mediterranean or the South Pacific. Some companies even offered world-cruises that would run for several months or even a year or more, sailing around the globe and stopping off at famous destinations along the way.
The 1910s to the 1930s saw a big rise in the Western fascination with the Orient. During the 1920s, the Chinese game Mahjong became wildly popular in America, and Oriental-sounding names were often added to red, yellow and orange-colours. The Parker Duofold, a popular 1920s fountain pen, was sold in ‘Mandarin Yellow’ or ‘Chinese Red’.
Cities and countries in the Far East that became popular travel-destinations included Saigon in French Indochina (Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam), Hong Kong, and especially, the Chinese port city of Shanghai and the British colony of Singapore. During the 1930s, Singapore was popularly called the ‘Crossroads of the Orient’ because of the vast number of people who would go there for holidays, including many famous celebrities of the day.
The Fullerton Building, Singapore, 1930. Today, the same building is the luxurious Fullerton Hotel
Similarly, Shanghai was called the ‘Paris of the Orient’ or the ‘Paris of the East’, due to the high level of cultural diversity that could be found in the city’s International Settlement Zone, up to the early 1940s, when the Second World War and the subsequent Chinese Civil War, would drive away foreign tourists until the late 20th century.
‘The Bund’ is the iconic row of colonial-era buildings that line the Port of Old Shanghai, and which greeted ocean-liners and their passengers as they docked in this exotic and famous Chinese port city
The End of an Era
The Golden Age of Travel died out in 1939. The coming of the Second World War wiped out the glamorous and luxurious world of travel and adventure that had existed between the 1870s up to the late 1930s and things would prove never to be the same again. After the War, Europe and Asia were in such shambles that it was impossible to resume prewar-style travel-for-pleasure, and at any rate, too many luxury ships had been lost to torpedos or mines and too many railroad bridges and railroad lines had been bombed out of commission to make such travel possible. Although commercial airlines had existed since the 1920s, advancements in aircraft design during the War meant that by the early 1950s, passenger-ships were losing serious ground to the growing commercial airlines that could cut travel-times from a few days down to a few hours. Passenger ships and railroads went out of style in the coming decades and soon, the romanticism of steam-powered adventures were nothing more than faded, framed posters, luggage-stickers, postcards, handwritten letters on hotel stationery and photographs in dusty albums.
Well might you ask…why did the ‘Golden Age’ of travel end in 1939? Why not in 1914? The reasons for this are probably because the First World War was not so damaging. The technological advancements made during the conflict were not so great and the number of countries affected was not as significant. The postwar boom of the 1920s allowed the travel and tourism industry to rebound. By the 1950s, so many things had changed that people realised that nothing would ever be the same again.
So…there used to be a time when people proudly showed off their passports to show all the stamps and all the stickers slapped on their suitcaes and trunks, like battle-scars of the well-seasoned traveller. These days, although travel is faster and in some ways better, in some ways, it’s like what Roald Dahl once wrote in one of his books, that “nothing is glamorous anymore”.
Famous Hotels from the Golden Age of Travel
The second half of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century saw the establishment of many famous hotels around the world. Here’s a small list of some of the more notable establishments that have made their ways into the history books…
Raffles Hotel, Singapore
Raffles Hotel, Singapore. Eastern Elevation. Main Entrance. Photo taken Wednesday, 13th July, 2011, by the blogger
Officially opened in 1887 by a pair of brothers from a family of hoteliers, Raffles is probably THE most famous hotel in Southeast Asia. During the Golden Age of Travel, it was frequented by such great personages as Noel Coward, Ernest Hemmingway, Rudyard Kipling and Charlie Chaplin. Kipling stayed at the hotel shortly after it opened and said that the food was as amazingly good as the accomadation was atrociously bad! The Sarkies Bros. (the two gentlemen who opened Raffles), ran an advertisement in local newspapers shortly after this assessment…only thing was, they didn’t mention how bad Kipling thought the accomadation was, only that he thought the food was incredible!
The Hotel was the location in which a tiger on the loose was shot, under the raised platform that held the hotel billiard-room in 1902. In the 1920s, the hotel had its first purpose-built ballroom constructed. Previous to this, the lobby did triple-duty as the hotel lobby, main dining-room AND dancefloor! The hotel even had its own house-band during this time, to provide live music to guests. The Hotel was also where, in 1915, one of the bartenders employed by Raffles, invented the most famous cocktail to come out of Asia since Gin and Tonic – The Singapore Sling.
In the 1930s, Raffles, faced with near-ruin thanks to the Great Depression, started allowing Asian guests at the hotel, which had previously been open only to caucasians. In 1942, the Japanese attacked Singapore. Terrified about what might happen, the hotel staff brought out shovels and dug a huge hole in the hotel gardens…to bury the hotel’s silverware and a grand, solid silver carving-trolley, one of the hotel’s prized posessions. When the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the silverware was dug up again and the carving-trolley was hoisted out of the ground, cleaned, polished, repaired and put back into service. You can still see it today in the Raffles Grill at the hotel. Raffles Hotel also has a small Hotel Museum, located on the third floor.
Waldorf=Astoria, New York
The Waldorf=Astoria (with a double-hyphen) was opened in 1893 and 1897. It was originally two hotels, run by cousins from the illustrious Astor Family, one of the wealthy, Old Money families in the United States. The Waldorf=Astoria was the first hotel to offer regular room-service to its guests, a new perk at the time, and one that the Astors hoped would make their hotel stand out amongst all the others that were springing up around New York at the time. The Waldorf=Astoria is famous for many things, such as the creation of the Waldorf Salad. Titaniacs will know the Waldorf as the location where the official American inquiry into the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic was carried out.
Langham Hotel, London
The Langham Hotel, opened in 1865, is one of the most famous hotels in the world. It’s mentioned twice in the Sherlock Holmes canon. The Langham is famous for housing many famous celebrities over the years, but also for being one of the most modern hotels of the time, keeping up with technological changes at amazing speed. It was one of the first hotels to have ensuite bathrooms for all the rooms. It also had telephone-connections and electric-lighting installed at the hotel just a few years after both technologies were invented. Most other hotels were still using telegrams, servants’ bells, pneumatic tubes and gas-lighting.
Palace Hotel, San Francisco
This photograph depicts the original Palace Hotel (1875) in flames after the powerful 1906 San Francisco earthquake
One of the most famous hotels in America, the Palace Hotel has existed in San Francisco since 1875. The original hotel structure was badly damaged during the Great Earthquake of 1906 and although the shell of the building survived the earthquake and subsequent fires, it was deemed too expensive to salvage it. The facade was pulled down and the entire hotel was rebuilt. It reopened, still bearing the name of the Palace Hotel, in 1909. Part of the new Palace Hotel was the addition of a lavish, glass-roofed Palm Court lounge where guests could mingle and relax. Palm courts were popular fixtures of many grand hotels of the turn of the century as they were light, bright, airy and inviting.
Plaza Hotel, New York
The Plaza is probably the most famous hotel in New York next to the Waldorf=Astoria. Opened in 1907, it is one of the most luxurious hotels ever built. It has made countless appearances in both film and television, most notably in the comedy movie ‘Home Alone II: Lost in New York’ and an episode of the British comedy series ‘Jeeves and Wooster’.
Hotel Continental, Saigon
Opened in the 1880s, the Hotel Continental is one of Saigon’s most famous establishments, mentioned frequently in Graham Greene’s famous 1950s novel, ‘The Quiet American’.