The American Traveler in Victorian Europe

Travel was popular in the late 1800s and among some of the most prominent travelers to Victorian Europe were Americans, nicknamed Yankees.* They crossed the seas by steamers and traveled throughout Europe primarily by rail. The most desirable season for Americans to travel varied on the destination with winter travelers heading to Spain, Italy, or Egypt. June and July was usually set aside for special excursions to the North Cape or the Land of the Midnight Sun, stopping at ports in Norway and Sweden on steamship. London was the hot spot for American travelers in the months of May and June, Scotland was visited in the fall, and, as for Paris, it was claimed there was never a bad time to schedule a visit. However, to accomplish these European trips, travelers needed tips and tricks to achieve a successful journey.

Victorian Europe: Travel Poster of the 1890s, Author's Collection

Travel poster of the 1890s, Author’s collection.

One of the first tips when traveling in Victorian Europe  was what travelers needed to wear, what they need to pack, and what money the needed to take. As weather was always a concern, travelers were advised to pack both heavy and light clothing. This clothing was placed in steamer trunks that could not be over 14 or 15 inches deep. These trunks were considered an absolute “necessity” for the stateroom and while they may have been a necessity, a passport was not. In fact, passports were considered to be “advisable” to carry rather than a required item because they functioned as an additional means of identification throughout Victorian Europe.

Travelers also had to consider money. However, if a person needed more than $500 Letters of Credit — a letter issued by one bank to another bank guaranteeing payment by the specified person — was advisable. For smaller sums, Traveler’s Checks were suggested. If travelers were planning on spending considerable time in one city, they also needed to carry a bank draft or open a bank account in that city.

Once a steamer left the dock, travelers were to apply to the dining room steward who would then ensure them a proper seat in the dining room. Additionally, all steamers had a variety of service people, including an on-board surgeon. Service people, including the surgeon, required a small fee when their services were used on board. There were also onboard fees for bedroom, toilet, and table stewards too and deck, smoke, and boot stewards charged nominal fees. In the late 1800s, fees for these services ranged from a shilling for the barber to ten shillings for the surgeon. Most steamers at this time also had a library, and a steward could deliver a biography, fiction, or classic novel to any passenger, but it was the passenger’s responsibility to return the book to the library before the voyage ended.

Victorian Europe traveling by steamship

Victorian Steamship in 1897. Author’s collection.

Railway travel was one of the easiest and nicest ways to travel in Victorian Europe. It was also something popular with those living in England, France, Italy, Germany, or Belgium. There were primarily three classes of railway carriages. The most luxurious class was first class. It offered upholstery of “great taste and refinement.”[1] However, the class most frequently used by the general European public was third class. It consisted of neat, wooden-seated carriages. These different classes of travel in Europe also meant different fare charges:

“The European system is the differentiative or class system, and the writer believes the truly economical and democratic system. Everywhere there are at least three classes of charges, the first-class charge being on the average 3.69 cents a mile; the second 2.70 cents a miles; the third, 1.76 cents a mile. In some cases, in Germany and Italy, there is a fourth-class charge, – in Germany, .80 cents a mile; in Italy, 1.28 cents a mile. In addition to these charges, a special charge is made for speed in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Italy, and on a few lines in other countries, where goes to make the express fare. Thus in Germany there are seven rates of fare, highly differentiated, the highest charges in Northern Germany being nearly treble the lowest charge. In Europe generally they are more than double.”[2]

“The Travelling Companions” is an 1862 oil-on-canvas painting by British artist Augustus Leopold Egg that shows two well-dressed women in a first-class railway carriage. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Most trains also had compartments or cars exclusively for ladies. There were also smoking coaches in countries where smoking was prohibited. Otherwise, if smoking coaches were not separate, faint tobacco odors often lingered in the cars. Additionally, although there were no luggage limits when traveling in Bavaria, Belgium, or Italy, continental Europe had a limit of 50 pounds and England instituted a limit of 100 pounds per person. There were also some differences related to baggage in Victorian Europe, as indicated in this 1882 explanation:

“When the American traveller goes to the Grand Central Depot in New York, he has probably secured his ticket beforehand, as he can very rarely do in Europe; he drives to the baggage-room, where his baggage is not weighed at all, but is checked in a trice, instead of being daubed and pasted over with nasty paper labels; and he proceeds to a well-warmed, comfortable waiting-room, or more probably directly to the train, carrying himself his small bagged, and usually in ten minutes at most he is off. Had he been abroad, it would have been indispensable at the large terminal station to allow a full half-hour before the departure of the fast express train for buying tickets and registering baggage. The writer recently spent (and wasted of course) twenty-five minutes by the watch during cold weather, but under ordinary circumstances, waiting in the draughty baggage-shed, in the splendid Gare du Nord, or Northern Station, in Paris, simply to register ordinary baggage for London. There, as everywhere, it was placed in a line on a truck, and had to wait for one machine to weight and one official to register, and for a long queue of shivering, nervous, and impatient travellers to pay out odd sums, often very heavy, after an approximate verification of their ‘bulletins,’ and now and then a wordy and futile discussion the official. As each one escaped from this trial, he marched off to the human cattle-pen, known more euphoniously as first and second class waiting-room, and rejoined his small baggage, fumbled about for a small fee to the porter who had brought it in, having previously given a larger fee to another porter who had brought in his large luggage, trundling ti slowly up to the weighing machine.”[3]

Victorian Europe - old luggage

Victorian luggage. Author’s collection.

When American travelers arrived at their destinations, they often came across “guides” in the big cities of Victorian Europe. For instance, in Paris it was reported:

“Paris is full of ‘guides.’ One cannot step fifty feet from his hotel but he is spotted and asked ‘if he wants to see the sights.’ In most cases these guide will tell you they are American citizens, or lived in New York. They appeal to you as an American. But beware of them; they are only ‘coppers,’ so to speak. They will charge you a fee for taking you round, and receive a big commission on whatever you buy, and you will pay double for everything you purchase under their direction.”[4]

Travelers also sometimes experienced puzzling or confusing phrases or words. For instance:

“In England, ‘dessert’ applies to only the fruit portion of the menu. Puddings and other dishes of the kind are referred to as ‘sweets.’ The word ‘pastry’ refers to all kinds of cakes, puffs, tarts, etc. … In directing a person, an American would, ‘About four blocks from here,’ while an Englishman would say, ‘The fourth turning from here.'”[5]

To help American travelers in England, the following phrases were thus provided as follows:

American Phrase
English Phrase
Baggage Room
Luggage-Booking Office
Buggy or Light Carriage
Candy or Bon-bons
Candy store
Confectioner’s or Sweet Shop
Cloak Room or Parcel Office
Left-Luggage Office or Cloak Room
Morning Coat
Derby Hat
Felt Hat or Bowler
Drug Store
Dry Goods Store
Linen Draper’s Shop
Elevated Railroad
Overhead Railway
Elastic-side Boots
Half or Low Shoes
Locomotive Engineer
Engine Driver
Men’s High Boots
Top Boots
Notion Store
Prince Albert
Frock Coat
Smoking Car
Smoking Carriage
Station Agent
Station Master
Street Car
Tram or Tramway
Telegraph Operator
Telegraph Clerk (pronounced “clark”)
Ticket Office
Booking Office
Valise, Satchel, or “Grip”
Bag or Portmanteau

British General James Wolfe appears to used the term Yankee before Madame Tussaud, Eliza de Feuillide, or Madame Récamier were born. He used the word to refer to New England soldiers under his command stating: “I can afford you two companies of Yankees, and the more because they are better for ranging and scouting than either work or vigilance”[6]


  • [1] Minot, Robert Sedgwick, Railway Travel in Europe, 1882, p. 11.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 17-18. 
  • [3] Ibid., p. 9-10.
  • [4] Boot and Shoe Records, Vol. 31, 1897, p. 48-49.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 47.
  • [6] Wright, Robert, The Life of Major-General James Wolfe, 1864, p. 437.

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