Caroline Emmerton: World Traveler
By David Moffat
In 1888, Caroline Emmerton’s trip to Europe was cut short with the unexpected news that her father had passed away at the age of 52. Emmerton, traveling with her sister, Annie, and their mother, was 22 years old at the time. What was Emmerton doing in Europe? How common was it for a young woman to travel abroad in the 1880s.
This trip in 1888 was not Emmerton’s first trip abroad. As an adolescent, she stayed at a farmhouse in the Loire region of France. Her travelling companion was Miss Annie L. Warner, an ornithologist and a teacher at the Oliver School in Salem. Warner later assisted with Emmerton’s settlement house, serving as President of the Woman’s Friend Society, and as secretary and treasurer of the Salem chapter of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Massachusetts Civil Service Reform Association when Emmerton was the chair.
Year’s after this trip, Emmerton delivered an essay along with a small hand drawn plan of the house she had stayed in. Emmerton’s essay offered insight into the home she stayed in for 2 weeks. Using a few contextual clues, I was able to identify it as an 18th-century farmhouse near Le Grand Avray in Selles-sur-Cher, a town of about 4,600 people.
Whether it was the trip she took to stay in France or not, we know Emmerton travelled abroad in 1883, when at 17-years-old, she was listed as a passenger on the S.S. Cephalonia bound for Liverpool with her mother and sister. The S.S. Cephalonia ran the route between Liverpool and Boston, stopping in Queenstown, Ireland on many voyages. It was launched by the Cunard Line in 1882 and ran until 1899. The family brought with them eight pieces of luggage. Perhaps Elise Gardner, a German-born maid, was traveling with them, but this is ambiguous.
The tradition of traveling went far back in Caroline’s family, starting with her grandparents. Her maternal grandfather was born in Jersey and immigrated to the United States while her paternal grandfather traded overseas in places such as Russia in 1811. In 1857, Caroline’s mother, Jennie Bertram Emmerton, then 20, was listed on her father’s passport application with her sisters, “all of whom plan to accompany him abroad.”
In 2018, a record 93 million Americans travelled abroad, about one third of the U.S. population. Half of them traveled to destinations outside Canada and Mexico. In 1880, only 0.1% of Americans travelled overseas for tourism. The numbers had been steadily rising since the 1840s. When the Hawthornes went abroad in 1850, they joined about 11,000 other Americans who were travelling overseas for tourism, about 0.085% of the population.
Emmerton applied for passports in 1895 and 1905. She is listed on ship passenger lists from 1892, 1899, and 1907, traveling to the United Kingdom. This likely served as her jumping off point for exploration of the continent. Emmerton delivered lectures, one about the Gothic cathedral in Amiens, another to the Saturday Morning Club describing a trip to Florence or Naples. She focused her commentary on art, specifically the statues of the Loggia dei Lanzi and the Medici Tombs. Of the latter, she wrote:
There is a wonderful expression of abandonment to profound meditation in the position of the hand. His face is deeply shaded by his helm, a most graceful and heroic headdress, and it is pressed down far over his brow. He wears a sort of Greek armor covering his whole person except a small portion of the knees; and Michel Angelo seems to have refrained, in this solitary instance, to mark the muscles in his usual way. He has transferred all that expression of physical power and feeling to the expression of intellectual power and feeling which is certainly vast. It becomes no longer a marble image but a conscious heroic prince and leader… The most potent, the most fascinating, the grandest human life in marble yet portrayed, in which the stone is no obstruction, but only a fit medium of disembodied thought.
In the story of her travels, she references the earlier journeys of Sophia Hawthorne and George Eliot. Emmerton was in line with many of her contemporaries who traveled to Europe, finding the value of travel in art and history.
Many of the prominent writers of New England went abroad as part of their education, while others traveled for diplomatic missions. Others saw Continental Europe as an escape from Anglo-American Victorian repression or as a cheaper living situation. In the era of the Hawthornes, writers like Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, Charles Eliot Norton, Margaret Fuller, William Deans Howells, Delia Bacon, and Harriet Beecher Stowe travelled abroad. American actors like Charlotte Cushman, Fanny Kemble, and Ira Aldridge toured through Europe, and artists and sculptors trained in Europe, like Salem’s William Wetmore Story.
American literature began to reflect these wider horizons, from Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, set in Rome, in 1860, to Amy March’s Paris sojourn in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, from 1868. In 1869, Mark Twain satirized the new class of traveling Americans in The Innocents Abroad. Henry James made a career of novels about American expatriates in the 1870s and 1880s like Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady.
With at least five known trips to Europe from 1883 to 1907, Emmerton was part of an international American upper class that came into being in the late nineteenth century.
When Emmerton passed away in 1942, an auction of her estate listed her library of books for sale. It included many histories of European countries, a history of Pompeii and its rediscovery, and works on Renaissance art by Vasari, Ruskin, and James A. Symonds. It also included 33 volumes of Baedeker’s foreign guide books. We know from her own reference that she used Baedeker’s Northern Italy.
It’s hard to know if these voyages had any impact on Emmerton’s worldview, but perhaps the experience of meeting people in foreign countries expanded her horizons. At a time when many Americans were reflexively anti-immigrant, she turned her life’s work towards welcoming them to America. The anti-immigrant sentiment that Henry James exhibited shows that travel alone cannot teach empathy but the broad perspective that Emmerton brought to her work seems to be influenced by her formative years taking in the world.