Tag Archives: the Great Depression

Travel 1931: A Reflection of (racist) Times

You are reading that correctly: “…every effort to appear civilized.” The author was Aleko E. Lilus and the article, “The Old Seaport of the Sulu Pirates,” appreared in the highly popular monthly magazine Travel, October 1931 (Robert M. McBride & Co., Camden, NJ).  I did not seek out this magazine. This classic of Western mores illustrated through travel was a recent gift  knowing full well my interest in antiques and popular culture through the ages.

cover of the Oct. 1931 edition, illustration by Frank Newbould

Travel (1902-2003) “…was reflective of the world at the time…” (Contextualization, Clay Dillon) and let’s remember the time. 1931: the depth of the greatest world economic depression ever, Fascism was flourishing in Italy with many European and American supporters, the Nazi Party was gaining ground in Germany, the Western empires controlled most of Asia, Africa and South America. In the USA the Klu Klux Klan was terrorizing and murdering African Americans, Jews and Catholics – and not just in the south – and the United States shut the immigration door to all but white Christian Western Europeans.

Yet for the affluent who could travel, and the majority that could only dream through films and lavishly illustrated magazines, this was the “Golden Age” of Aryan dominance – the opportunity for the “savage” to rise above his station. Travel writers could transport minds from a three room Hoboken apartment to exotic lands, “educating” their audience that there were people that had it “far worse” than you had it at home.

children gathering grapes in France, 1931, page 20
“land of boundless opportunity for the man of business”

The articles run the gamut from the cathedrals of Mexico, the American Southwest, the vineyards of France, a once great Medieval European city to the wilds of Australia.  Yet the language used to describe non-Western cultures was far different than those used for lands closer to home.

“The sultan’s niece…became a co-ed of the University of Illinois. She was thoroughly Westernized, but on her return…she promptly forgot her pretty American ways…and went native…As an educational and social experiment she must be considered a complete failure.” (p.25).

“Some of them…have bought Fords…but in the back country they still shoot bows and arrows and have never heard they belong to a vanishing race…” (p.28 “Exploring the Southwest in Your Own Motor” by Harry Fergusson).

“They love their children but they are inclined to spoil them for discipline comes hard to the southern mind..” (p.17 “Malta – Stronghold of the Sea King” by Francis Mc Dermott).

“The Spanish Colonials…upon this land they called “New Spain” … lavished their genius, endowing it with…civilization…” (p.7 “The Glory of Mexico’s Cathedrals” by James Jenkins).

Soochow, China, photo by M. O. Williams, p.33
illustration for a Cunard Line ad.

Travel was a gorgeous magazine, especially its stunning black and white photography and its advertising illustrations. In researching the history of Travel, it was second only to The National Geographic in readership for an audience interested in the world outside the United States. Indeed the last article in the October 1931 issue was on Australia’s unique animal life, “Nature’s Side Show in Australia” by Georgia Maxwell.

Clif Dwellings, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, photo by Ewing Galloway, p. 27

Naturally, for any modern traveler, 1931 prices for hotels and steam ships seem absurdly inexpensive until one factors what a 1931 dollar purchased compared to today – $16.00 for what $1.00 was worth during the Great Depression.

The queen of Philadelphia’s hotels, the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, had rooms as low as $4/day in the depth of the Depression – cheap but these were teaser rates  especially if you didn’t have a job.  A 12-day cruise to the Bahamas started at $125 ($2,000 in 2011  dollars) and the French Railways campaign that “Everybody’s back” speaks to today’s ads urging the weary to travel once more.

I well remember this anticipated magazine that arrived at my home every month as a child.  I also believed for many years that Mark Twain was correct, Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” but life has taught me that even the great Twain was a victim of wishful thinking. 

As a travel journalist I’ll be the first to praise the work I’m fortunate enough to enjoy, yet I’m well aware of the fine line that separates being the eyes of the reader from the human that may color the picture with their own cultural prejudices.

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