Seductive Journey: American Tourists in France from Jefferson to the Jazz Age

Seductive Journey: American Tourists in France from Jefferson to the Jazz Age

by Harvey Levenstein

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For centuries, France has cast an extraordinary spell on travelers. Harvey Levenstein's Seductive Journey explains why so many Americans have visited it, and tells, in colorful detail, what they did when they got there. The result is a highly entertaining examination of the transformation of American attitudes toward French food, sex, and culture, as well as


For centuries, France has cast an extraordinary spell on travelers. Harvey Levenstein's Seductive Journey explains why so many Americans have visited it, and tells, in colorful detail, what they did when they got there. The result is a highly entertaining examination of the transformation of American attitudes toward French food, sex, and culture, as well as an absorbing exploration of changing notions of class, gender, race, and nationality.

Levenstein begins in 1786, when Thomas Jefferson instructed young upper-class American men to travel overseas for self-improvement rather than debauchery. Inspired by these sentiments, many men crossed the Atlantic to develop "taste" and refinement. However, the introduction of the transatlantic steamship in the mid-nineteenth century opened France to people further down the class ladder. As the upper class distanced themselves from the lower-class travelers, tourism in search of culture gave way to the tourism of "conspicuous leisure," sex, and sensuality. Cultural tourism became identified with social-climbing upper-middle-class women. In the 1920s, prohibition in America and a new middle class intent on "having fun" helped make drunken sprees in Paris more enticing than trudging through the Louvre. Bitter outbursts of French anti-Americanism failed to jolt the American ideal of a sensual, happy-go-lucky France, full of joie de vivre. It remained Americans' favorite overseas destination.

From Fragonard to foie gras, the delicious details of this story of how American visitors to France responded to changing notions of leisure and blazed the trail for modern mass tourism makes for delightful, thought-provoking reading.

"...a thoroughly readable and highly likable book."—Deirdre Blair, New York Times Book Review

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Seductive Journey

American Tourists in France from Jefferson to the Jazz Age
By Harvey Levenstein

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1998 University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-47377-5

Chapter One

The shock of haute cuisine (early 1800s)

The first place most tourists got to use their French was in one of the Channel ports. The introduction of regular packet service made England the most convenient first stop on a continental tour, and France, a short hop across the Channel on one of the little steamers that were introduced in 1819, was usually the next stop. Alas, the customs sheds at Havre, Calais, Dieppe, and Boulogne often provided a kind of "good cop/bad cop" experience that was not conducive to contemplating the mysteries of the subjunctive. The bad cops were, of course, French officialdom, whose apparent thickheadedness has always baffled Americans. Passengers would arrive pale and shaky from seasickness (there are almost as many accounts of seasickness on the Channel ferries as on the transatlantic crossing) and first confront the disconcerting French police, who would take their passports, mutter something about retrieving them later in Paris, and demand payment for the process. Then came the gauntlet of grim customs officials who, after warning them that the penalties for smuggling contraband were extremely severe, would search their luggage forillegal imports-mainly tobacco and cigars. Sometimes men and women would be separated for body searches by agents of their own sex.

When they extricated themselves from customs, travelers would then find themselves surrounded by a disreputable-looking mob importuning them to go to certain inns, hire them as couriers, or just begging. However, once they selected one of the inns, their baggage would be whisked over there and the more attractive side of travel in France would soon emerge. Although they often looked tumble-down from the outside, the accommodations in the Channel ports were usually clean and comfortable, with attractive amenities such as fresh flowers. The major revelation, though, would be the food. Most Americans were accustomed to meals built around great slabs of fried meat and large mounds of potatoes, grains, beans, cabbage, squash, and pies. They used condiments but had a deep suspicion of sauces, which they had heard the French used to camouflage frog, horse, tainted meat, and other disgusting things. They were therefore pleasantly surprised at the lightness and delicacy of much of French food, particularly in comparison with theirs. The Georgian Ann Gordon seemed surprised that "the viands" in her family's first dinner in France were so "delicious.... There is no smell of garlic or taint as we generally have supposed." Even those not enthralled by their accommodations would be impressed by the food. The Philadelphian John Sanderson reported in 1835 that the hotels in Le Havre "are shabby compared to ours; the one I lodge in has not been washed since 1656; but the cookery and service are altogether in favor of the French."

In America, many men swilled whiskey all through the day, washed down meals with hard cider, and, if they were high class, fell into a postprandial stupor over flagons of port. Tourists were therefore amazed at how, as L. J. Frazee wrote, the French drank wine "as regularly at dinner as milk with our Kentucky farmers [who in fact were notorious whiskey-drinkers], yet show no signs of inebriation." Jefferson had been impressed by how formal dinners did not end up as drunken brawls, as they often did in America. He wrote,

In the pleasures of the table, they are far before us, because with good taste they unite temperance. They do not terminate the most sociable meals by transforming themselves into brutes.... I have never yet seen a man drunk in France, even among the lowest of the people.

James Fenimore Cooper made a similar observation. "A dinner here does not oppress one," he wrote. "The wine neither intoxicates nor heats, and the frame of mind and body in which one is left is precisely that best suited to intellectual and social pleasures." Light French wine and cookery, said Samuel Topliff, "always keeps Frenchmen's heads clear, and they are light of heels and merry of heart-they drink no grog [rum] to stupefy and benumb the senses."

Prim and proper Emma Willard, on the other hand, was rather put off by the loquacious sociability that wine encouraged at mealtime. Accustomed as she was to the silent religiosity with which genteel Americans consumed their meals, she wrote her sister of her disgust at the Frenchmen at her Le Havre inn's table d'hote in 1830. "Oh! the deafening racket made by these Frenchmen," she wrote, "as they went on with their meal and became animated in their conversation. Such jabbering."

The leisurely pace at which the French ate also contrasted with Americans' penchant for bolting their food and rushing from the table. (The American motto, said one European observer, should be "Gobble, Gulp, and Go.") Tourists discovered that unlike American inns, where all of the dishes would be placed on the table at once and everyone plunged in at will, the dishes were served in at least three orderly courses. Generally, a first course of soups and other entrees was followed by one of roasts, and then dessert. "We were compelled to eat slowly or wait for some time upon others," L. J. Frazee wrote upon first encountering this in Le Havre. "While this would not suit one of our western men who is for doing everything in a minute," he noted, it did help digestion by giving one time to chew the food. It also allowed foods to be served fresh from the oven, something which was "of no small moment to the epicure." After eating "a great quantity" at a "very good" table d'hote at his Marseille hotel, Amos Lawrence noted another advantage. "Eating one thing at a time enables one to consume an immense quantity if it be done in good order of meats first, without feeling oppressed."

The "New Woman" lands in France (turn of the century)

By the 1890s, determined attempts at culture-centered tourism were becoming enmeshed in the controversy surrounding the emergence of the so-called "New Woman." High-quality women's colleges and state universities were now producing an educated elite of women who were trying to establish beachheads in medicine, social work, and other professions. Thousands of middle-class women joined women's clubs, which brought them out of their homes to discuss the issues of the day and made them feel that they had a voice in current affairs. Younger women were bicycling, exercising, and participating in sports-things that seemed to express their long-repressed sexuality. The drive to gain the vote gathered steam. Of course, exactly who this "New Woman" was depended very much on who was discussing her. Moreover, although many women saw her as an omen of their bright future, many men saw her as a dangerous threat to the established order. Inevitably, women's high profile in European tourism seemed to present them with a ready target.

Ironically, some criticism of the married New Woman sprang from the critics' notions that she was, in one of their own words, "the superior of her husband in education, and in almost every respect." This was most apparent in the popular stereotype of women tourists as overbearing culture vultures, marching through the Louvre bent on improving themselves. A popular turn-of-the-century doggerel had it that:

Mrs. Dick is very sick And nothing can improve 'er Until she sees the Tooleries, And gallops through the Louver.

The backlash was also fostered by changes in middle-class men's concepts of manhood. A more physical, aggressive ideal of masculine behavior was coming to the fore, embodied by "take charge" men like Theodore Roosevelt. So, the other half of the Mrs. Dick stereotype was the weak, submissive husband being dragged along by her. In this reversal of what was supposed to be the normal order of things, the women were clearly in charge, not only of the cultural aspects of the tour, but of the whole touring experience. Their emasculated husbands were portrayed as longing to return home to America, where the proper family power structure could perhaps be reestablished. Henry Adams's typical male tourist was:

Bored, patient, helpless; pathetically dependent on his wife, and daughters, ... the American was to be met at every railway station in Europe, carefully explaining to every listener that the happiest day in his life would be the day he should land on the pier in New York.

In an article for Everybody's Magazine, Booth Tarkington wrote of meeting a desperately unhappy Iowa businessman whose wife ventured into every church they passed because she wanted to report on European architecture to her women's club. He dreamed only of the day when his disgust with touring would surpass his fear of seasickness and he could convince her to return home ahead of schedule. Tarkington concluded:

He has hundreds of fellow-sufferers every year upon the Continent; like him in their loneliness, dazedness, and comprehensive protest ... most of them bearing their woe in silence, and only turning the eyes of a sick dog upon the women-folk who have dragged them down to the sea in ships. The Continent holds no charm for them; they plainly hate it, seeing "nothin in it."

Men such as this represented exactly the opposite qualities-physical weakness, cowardice, and passivity-of those extolled by partisans of emerging new ideal of manhood.

Genteel women's freedom to engage in cultural tourism did not lead to similar freedom in other touristic spheres. As with the upper class, the Victorian restrictions on women's dining out unaccompanied by men became more onerous in the last two decades of the century, when the time of dinner shifted decisively from the afternoon to the evening, a time when they would be assumed to be on the prowl. One night, Jane Addams and a woman friend studying in Paris had an enjoyable evening meal at a modest restaurant, followed by a wonderful ride along the boulevards in the top deck of an omnibus. This was possible, she wrote her sister, only because they were accompanied by a male family friend. "We can do nothing of the kind," she added sadly, "after he leaves us." In European Travel for Women, Mary Jones warned, "Although Paris is essentially a city of restaurants and cafes, there are none to which it is pleasant for ladies to go by themselves, and you had better avoid them." She could only suggest several tea shops in "the English and American quarter" and, for lunch, one of the Bouillons Duval, where "you are waited upon by young women; although the company is not exciting, it is respectable." Other guidebooks said unaccompanied women could at least eat lunch at first-class restaurants, but most middle-class women bypassed them. In the 1890s, when they discovered Paris's pensions, they would breakfast there, lunch out at a modest place such as a Bouillon Duval, and return to the pension for dinner. In the evening, groups of women from the pension would go to the theater, opera, or concerts, but not to restaurants. Not surprisingly, some women felt that real independence came only from traveling with a man. "I never knew what fun one could have if one had a man to trot around with all the time," a recently married friend wrote Mary Peabody from France. "One sees and does so much more and feels so independent."

Women tourists were also criticized for being the opposite of the New Woman: shallow creatures who went to Europe only to shop, flirt, and find titled husbands. The first charge had little impact on upper-class women, who felt thoroughly at home among the couturiers and jewelers of the rue de la Paix. However, many middle and upper-middle-class women were more ambivalent about shopping. In the 1860s, the Scotch-Irish immigrant A. J. Stewart copied the French and opened up an immensely successful department store in New York City. In the ensuing decades, imitators providing an equally abundant selection of goods opened in New York and many other American cities. In some ways, this was a liberating process for middle-class women, for it legitimized their leaving the home for trips downtown and gave them more control over personal and household expenditures. At first, most religious leaders accommodated themselves to this rising consumer economy, but in the 1880s moral guardians such as the ex-preacher Edward Everett Hale began warning that the plethora of consumer goods being churned out by the new urban-industrial economy was encouraging an orgy of base materialism. By the turn of the century, Protestant reformers who preached the "social gospel" and advocates of "the simple life" were also condemning the materialism associated with rising consumerism and the growing quest for luxury. Since shopping for clothes and luxuries was now closely associated with women, the criticism seemed directed mainly at them.

Some middle-class women took this to heart and felt particularly guilty about shopping for fashionable clothes. Jane Addams inadvertently betrayed this when she arrived in Paris at the outset of her long cultural hegira in 1884. One of the first things she did was to go to a dressmaker to be fitted for a "traveling dress," a necessity in those days when luggage had to be sent ahead to major cities and women traveling by train had to spend days living out of small handbags. In a letter home, she pointedly regrets having being seduced by style at the expense of comfort. As if by divine retribution, the sleeves were too tight and, unable to move her arms freely in it, she had to take it off to write the letter. In other letters, she took pride in resisting the shops' temptations. American women usually broke their finances in the dazzling little jewelry shops of the Palais Royal, she said in one, but she "emerged unscathed."

"Willie" Allen, a Georgia schoolteacher touring Paris with five other women in 1895, tried to make their shopping seem like madcap fun, rather than anything serious. "It is amusing to see how crazy we are over the shops," she wrote home. "Not an hour passes but some one comes in with a remarkable purchase-usually of the value of 18 or 19 cents." Eleven years later, when escorting a group of high school girls in Paris, she noted how disruptive it was that one of them was allowed "to extravagantly buy anything that struck her fancy-demoralizing the others quite good deal." Mrs. Warren Tufts, a New York City widow on a conducted tour of Europe in 1907, noted with disgust that "members of the touring party [were] hopelessly weak when sightseeing; must have carriage," yet were "very strong when shopping; walk many miles."

More damaging to women, though, was the idea that each summer Europe was being invaded by armies of pretty, young, empty-headed American "flirts." (This was rather ironic, since, for most young American women, European touring posed quite the opposite problem: dealing with ogling men and suggestive comments.) Henry James, who was regarded as perhaps the most incisive observer of American behavior in Europe, was probably the major purveyor of this idea. His 1878 novel, Daisy Miller, about a very pretty and very superficial young American girl whose flirtatiousness with European men ultimately leads to her death, made her name synonymous with this stereotype. Concerns spread over the dangers courted by women such as she, who did not realize that what constituted innocent flirting in America was taken much more seriously by European men.

Perhaps worse, Daisy Millers were also said to be giving American women a bad name abroad. The author of Under the Tricolor, an 1880 book about Americans living in Paris, assured her readers that she always told the French that although "Daisy Millers" did exist and were to be seen in Europe, the more common kind of young American woman was to be found in Louisa May Alcott's books. When one of the heroines in the didactic book Three Vassar Girls Abroad is approached in a museum by a strange Frenchman who asks to carry her sketching box, she rebuffs him sharply. "I suppose he thought all American girls were like Daisy Miller," says her approving friend. The influx of unmarried women in 1880s and 1890s compounded these concerns. The New York Herald welcomed the "New American Girl" as "better dressed, better mannered, more lovable and lovelier than any maiden in Europe," but a Mrs. J. Sherwood wrote that each year Europe was flooded with eleven thousand virgins, all of whom were beautiful, but not all of whom were well-behaved. "Beautiful, rich, vulgar. Beautiful, rich, fast. Beautiful, rich, loud," were the universal criticisms, she said. A thoroughgoing snob, she thought it was the daughters of the nouveaux riches-the flirtatious Daisy Millers-who should be "repressed."...


Excerpted from Seductive Journey by Harvey Levenstein Copyright © 1998 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Harvey Levenstein is professor emeritus of history at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He has published a number of books on American history, including Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet and Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America.

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