Chaos in ports, threats of strikes, misplaced luggage, pandemic paperwork and canceled flights – going on holiday these days can be an anxious gamble. But as Lucy Lethbridge shows touristswe Brits can’t help ourselves.
Other books have told the history of tourism. There was the bestseller by Alain de Botton The art of travel (2002), A philosophical look at travel ‘for pleasure’, and more recently overbooked (2013) by former New York Times correspondent Elizabeth Becker, who took a close look at the tourism industry.
This book pursues a much narrower subject – British tourists and their very specific and often odd whims and desires from the early 19th century to the 1970s. If that sounds like a niche, it’s not. Like other meticulously researched single-topic social history books like Lizzie Collingham’s The cookie or Mark Kurlansky’s Saltit quickly points to broader sociological truths and customs.
Lethbridge has previously grappled with the intricacies of British society and class snobbery. your previous book, servantgave a voice to domestic workers largely ignored by history, and in touristsrather than focusing on well-known or respected British travellers, it puts a spotlight on the general public, the ‘vagrants’ and tourists, where they’ve gone, what they’ve done and who inspired or made their travels possible.
The book begins with panoramas and dioramas, visual spectacles that for many were a chance to see “the globe in a nutshell.” William Bullock’s Egyptian Hall, commissioned in 1812, was “a pharaonic temple-like structure in Piccadilly” where the chair-travelling public could buy a simulated experience for pennies.
Things really got going with the extravagant performances of the great spectacle artist Albert Smith, founding member of the Alpine Club, eccentric hacker and “sharp drainer of snobbery and pretentiousness”, whose painted sets, spiced up by set designers and 3D effects, were bestsellers. Appearances in the 1850s. This angered high-minded souls like the critic and Victorian polymath John Ruskin, who believed Smith’s “Alps in a box” witnessed perverted sacred landscapes. But the earnings reflected the public’s enchantment, as Smith’s Mont Blanc show raked in “£30,000 (over £1m today) in ticket sales at the box office in the six years it ran.
tourists is a roving tale of Britons holidaying abroad and at home, and Lethbridge is as good with the sketchbook-carrying Victorians as it is with the caravan club of hardy motorhome owners. As we learn, several factors played a role in the 1950s that made the enormous caravanning boom of that decade possible. New to the market were chemical toilets with “water-colored Elsan Blue with Jeyes liquid,” a folk chant revival, Pakamac raincoats (which were “surpassed in 1971 by the arrival of the raincoat, with its crucial and capacious front pocket”). and then the introduction of Camping Gaz stoves, which ran on denatured alcohol, in 1956. It’s those kinds of details, as pleasantly nerdy as the Mac wearers themselves, that make the book such a satisfying read.
What also becomes clear are the similarities between tourism behavior then and now. Just as there is “dark tourism” and creepy YouTubers traveling to conflict zones today, the Daily Express reported in 1919 that in the Belgian city of Ypres there were “visitors trying to capture the thrill of a terror they had not experienced.” . In an 1853 edition of Murray’s Handbook to Naples, a sombre suggestion is made “to attend the burial of a pauper in one of the 366 deep pits in the Campo Santo Nuovo”.
This is all reminiscent of the leagues of camera-wielding Western tourists at Ganges tombs seen today. And just like we have Instagram filters, the Victorians had their own odd accessory, the Claude glass, which saw tourists arriving at a beauty spot turn their backs to the view while holding up a plano-convex mirror that was a simplistic, tinted color mirrored version of the scenery.
The 18th-century clergyman Reverend William Gilpin, known for his relentless pursuit of the ‘picturesque’, promoted ideas that the prospect was the goal, something that would ultimately be included in an album. For Gilpin, the Claude glass gave nature a pleasant and soft hue.
Critics believed that such aesthetic consumption “reduces the world’s great sights to little bubbles of artificial emotion,” which could be said of the art of the selfie and social media in general. But as Lethbridge says about vacation memories, “Who would believe your travel stories if you couldn’t show them something wonderful?”
tourists: How the Brits went abroad to find themselves by Lucy Lethbridge, Bloomsbury £20, 320 pages
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