Cunard’s R.M.S. Scythia
Making the Grand Tour by Shelley Dziedzic
* (This article was written before the November 2011 publication of Parallel Lives, which has wonderful new details of Lizzie’s Grand Tour and all the places she visited. This article will be revised after all have had a chance to enjoy the new publication).
“Grand Tour”– the words roll off the tongue like the “Open Sesame” to Aladdin’s secret cave! The words tourism and tourist evolved from these two magic words which meant, for most lucky enough to enjoy it, freedom, discovery, and a glimpse of a larger world. Making the Grand Tour began in the early nineteenth century when the sons of wealthy aristocrats or prosperous merchants were sent to explore the exotic places, sow a few wild oats, and gain a more worldly view before settling down to their chosen career. As traveling became an easier prospect thanks to the great progress in connecting European cities by train, families- and eventually chaperoned young ladies might venture forth in safety to acquire a broader education in the Arts. By 1890, “Crossing the Great Pond” was commonplace, as the great European migration to the United States was in full swing, and Americans who had the money and leisure crossed east bound to soak up the treasures of the Holy Land, the British Isles, the Mediterranean, and Western Europe.
The great steamship lines such as White Star, North German Lloyd, Hamburg Amerika, and Cunard catered to both the steerage and saloon Cabin Class passenger. As the decades passed, these liners increased in luxury, speed and creature comforts. And so it was in the summer of 1890, on July 21, Miss Lizzie Borden set sail aboard the Cunarder Scythia out of Boston, bound for Liverpool for nineteen weeks of glorious freedom and unfettered exploration of places she had only seen in picture books. In company with five other maiden ladies of good family, Miss Ellen M. Shove, and the Misses Anna and Carrie Borden (sisters) Elizabeth and Sarah Brayton, and a chaperone beyond reproach, Miss Cox of Taunton, the merry band boarded with much excitement and expectation on sailing day. The Scythia was not the most modern Cunarder, to be sure, but she was dependable, convenient, and the Cunard name was the last word in safety in the minds of loyal travelers.
It is not certain who originated the idea for the trip, but it was Thomas J. Borden, the father of Carrie and Anna, who seems to have organized the necessary paperwork, and to whom the ladies’ passports were sent in Fall River. Miss Shove had journeyed up to Boston earlier in the month to secure her passport. The Borden party must have taken the train up early on June 4. 1890. Perhaps there was even time for some last-minute shopping for travel diaries, warm capes, and a few frivolous luxuries so dear to a girl’s heart. They were girls only in the sense that they were single and still living at home with their parents, for Carrie was aged 25 and the youngest, while her sister, whose hair was already prematurely gray was 32. Lizzie was shy of 30. Her father had presented her with a set of sealskin sacques for her upcoming thirtieth birthday which surely Lizzie had packed in her steamer trunk, for the journey would continue into November and she would have need of them. So with steamer trunks pack to the brim, the ladies most probably left Fall River on Friday, spent the night in a hotel near the pier and left, as Cunard liners would do, on the tide on Saturday, June 21st.
Deck plan courtesy of Eric Sauder
Lizzie had procured a very nice outside cabin #120 on the port side of the spar deck, just behind the spacious saloon and just on the opposite side from the Ladies Cabin. The word “posh” came from the preferred cabin position- Port Out Starboard Home. She was well-situated away from the worst of the engine’s vibration, and in a section which would have been most desirable for ladies traveling in a group. Lizzie would have had a lower berth as the odd numbers were uppers. There would have been a wash basin in the cabin, but the privy would have been down the corridor. Chamber pots would have been present in the cabin. Passage for the Cabin Class ranged from 60-100 dollars. Imagine the thrill of watching Boston Harbor slip away as the ladies looked out over the widening wake fanning out behind the stern, seagulls shrieking as they followed the ship out to sea. For Lizzie, whose venturing beyond the confines of Fall River had been limited, this was a taste of pure, unbridled freedom. Then there was the fun of exploring every square inch of the ship- except for the steerage of course, which would have been off-limits to the ladies of the Cabin Class.
On the first and last night at sea, it was the custom for the passengers to wear their boarding clothes at dinner, as evening dress would still have been packed on the first night, and surely packed just before disembarking. Due to the soot and smuts from the funnel, traveling suits were usually made of a dark color such as black, gray or navy blue. With Lizzie’s penchant for blue, we can imagine her in a neat suit of navy blue with a trim jacket, sleeves just beginning to hint at the leg o’ mutton style to come, with a stylish hat and dark, fitted gloves. Shipboard life held many simple pleasures in store. After a generous breakfast, a bracing stroll on the deck was in order, followed by a leisurely session in one of the caned deck chairs where one was warmly tucked up with a woolen deck rug. A solicitous steward in impeccable white would bring a heavy ceramic mug of steaming beef bouillon to ward off the chill around 10 a.m., and then there was luncheon to anticipate. A piano was a mainstay of the saloon, and it is possible Lizzie amused herself there from time to time. Sometimes a charity concert or program would be gotten together with passenger as performers to raise money for some worthy cause, or just for amusement. Some ships carried a small string ensemble to play for passengers during dinner. After luncheon, the ladies would often retire to the writing room to pen details of the voyage to friends and family back home on ship stationery.
It is possible, the distinguished party of which Lizzie was a member, may have been invited to dine with the ship’s captain and Master, Thomas Roberts at the captain’s table on one night of the crossing. Dressing for dinner was an anticipated part of the crossing. The Purser would have acquired a suitable table for unaccompanied young ladies, seen to their valuables, and was in general, a fatherly presence aboard who could be counted upon in an emergency. The liners of the period were notorious for card sharps and enterprising scoundrels who knew how to seduce and bedazzle wealthy single ladies traveling without a male escort for protection. The Purser’s wary eye was always out for “mashers, “gold diggers” and professional gamblers. Conversation and time to enjoy the society of one’s fellow travelers was a great attraction of ocean voyaging.
Lizzie found congenial company on her return voyage in the form of young Hannah Pffiefer, a little girl who charmed Lizzie and became her fast friend and companion. On the last evening at sea, the trunks and valises were safely packed and awaiting the disembarkation process, while the grand Farewell Dinner was taking place and shipboard comrades autographed the final menu and exchanged addresses. After six days together, it was sad to be parting company with friends departing to the four corners, perhaps never to meet again. Young ladies went back to their cabins to record the activities of the final hours in their travel diaries and journals, have one last moonlight stroll on deck, a last glance through the porthole, and then regretfully one last night of being lulled gently to sleep in their bunk by the motion of the waves. With luck, one encountered only calm seas, and did not suffer the “mal de mer, an affliction which could ruin a happy crossing in short order.
Upon landing, the great steamer trunks which were not needed in the cabin were sorted out by the first letter of the last name, and so Lizzie and her Borden companions would head for the “B“ section on the pier where a helpful steward would attend to the loading of the trunks and valises onto a conveyance, or they might be sent on to the hotel later by arrangement. Most likely the little band of ladies spent the first night recovering their land legs in a comfortable Liverpool Hotel before going on to their first destination. Perhaps they stayed at the venerable Great Eastern Hotel which opened in 1884 as a convenience for the railway terminus, and is still in operation today as a five-star accommodation. Lizzie’s complete itinerary is unknown, but nineteen weeks would have afforded sufficient time to see a great many cities associated with the European Grand Tour. The Grand Tour particularly emphasized France and Italy, which were much admired, but also nearly always included highly civilized Vienna, Amsterdam in Holland and Brussels in Belgium were also frequently included. We learn from a Boston newspaper that Scotland was covered extensively as was France and Italy. No doubt the little group of travelers crossed from Dover to Calais, and most likely spent several days enjoying the sites of London first.
Paris was on the circuit and quite likely Dijon, Lyons, and Marseilles were duly visited, being favorite stops on the typical tour.. Safely in Italy after the hazardous crossing from France, Turin, Genoa, Florence, Venice, Rome, and Naples offered much to admire in the way of Roman ruins, Renaissance architecture, paintings, sculpture, and scenery. Florence boasted the peerless Ufizzi Gallery where Lizzie could revel in Madonnas, angels, and the Great Masters. At Naples there was the beautiful bay and across the Bay of Naples lay the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The ladies most likely enlisted the expertise of professional tour guides and itinerary planners such as Thomas Cooke Tours. Ltd. which had been in business since 1841 and knew the requirements of Americans traveling abroad. It is easy to picture the wide-eyed Lizzie, her Baedecker guidebook in hand, breathlessly racing from canvas to canvas in the Louvre, eagerly retrieving her little purse to purchase copies of the famous paintings, sketches of cathedrals, and perhaps a fine cameo on the Ponte Vecchio to take home as a souvenir. A reporter would later write of Lizzie’s room back in Fall River and mentions prints of the great cathedrals on the walls.
Soon the luggage would be bedecked with colorful labels from hotels, and the Cunard Line- a sure sign of a seasoned traveler, and the envy of the folks back home. Americans could be counted upon as easy marks for souvenir hucksters, and many first time tourists soon found their bags heavy with bits of “Roman Ruins”, plaster copies of great sculptures, jewelry, letter openers, bits of lace, thimbles, spoons, trinkets and mementos for those back home. Lizzie carefully rolled copies of Italian Masters and engravings of great cathedrals to take home to Fall River. So many of these souvenirs did she bring back, that she was hard-pressed to find a place for them in her tiny room on Second St. It is noteworthy that very soon after her return, Emma gives Lizzie the larger bedroom. It was said by her travel companions, that Lizzie was very sorry to have to return to Fall River at the end of October, and expressed this regret in strong terms on the westbound crossing home, once again aboard the Scythia. But then, who would not be sorry to have such a wonderful interlude come to an end?
What fabulous tales the ladies must have had to tell at the welcome home reception for them at the Central Congregational church on Rock street in November, and perhaps just for once, Lizzie Borden was the envy of many of the young women who attended the party. The Braytons and Carrie and Anna Borden would make many other trips abroad, but Lizzie and Ellen Shove do not apply again for a passport. They had only their memories of those nineteen golden weeks over the years.
Sources: Lizzie Borden Past and Present, Leonard Rebello, Al-zach Press, 1999.
The Sway of the Grand Saloon: A Social History of the North Atlantic, John Maxtone-Graham, Delacorte Press, NY, 1971.
The Only Way to Cross, John Maxtone-Graham, Macmillan Publishing, NY, 1972.
Golden Age of Travel 1880-1939, Alexis Gregory, Cassell Publishing, London, 1990