A Timeline of Adventure: Stories from the Columbus Women’s Travel Collection
Posted May 6, 2024

By Daniel Willis, Audiovisual Archivist

This blog is Part 2 of a series focusing on the new Columbus Women’s Travel Collection, AV 364 and our latest exhibit, Columbus Women on the Move.

Read the first blog post here, and discover the new display on your next visit to the Ohio History Center!

Helen Bresee (Right)

Helen Bresee's Travel Diary

Helen Bresee's 1936-1937 Trip Schedule

Helen Bresee's Trip around the World

The Columbus Women’s Travel collection captures the travels of three Columbus women and highlights a trip one of them, Helen Bresee, took around the world with two of her friends, Fran and Gilbert Olsen, between 1936 and 1937. Helen Bresee’s portion of the trip lasted 11 months. During that time, she recorded her daily activities in four separate diaries. These diaries allow her story and experiences to live on. Additionally, Helen and Fran both captured footage from their trips. They then pieced it together into a video. This video is now part of the collection and available for viewing.

Helen’s trip began on August 24, 1936, when she departed from Berwyn, Illinois by train and headed west. On August 26, 1936, Helen observed the Great Salt Lake in Utah: "This afternoon we crossed miles of salt beds, then the Great Salt Lake and finally the desert... For miles there was no sight or sign of a living thing except sage." From Utah her train tip took her to San Francisco where she met up with her friends Fran and Gilbert and sailed to Hawaii. The departure from San Francisco was scheduled for August 28, 1936. Helen lamented that the boat would not set sail until nighttime. This disappointed her as she wanted to get good footage of the then-under-construction Golden Gate Bridge, “we learned that the boat wasn't to sail until midnight. This was a great disappointment to me as I can't take good movies for our departure ... After we passed the Golden Gate and under the cables for the new bridge. I went to bed.

They departed from San Francisco and sailed Hawaii, at this time a United States territory and not a state, where they toured the dole pineapple plant on September 12, 1936. Helen remarked that “the pleasant reception room had 3 faucets - one of cold water and two of pineapple juice.” Many of her entries commented on the foods she ate during her travels. She was especially fond of fruits and sweets. After departing Hawaii Helen and her friends sailed to Japan and then to Korea which was occupied by the Japanese military. They observed the life and diets of the Korean people. Helen’s diary entry for October 18 mentioned that “Every house has huge jars in front of it. They are called kimchi and are used for pickle jars.

Helen's trip took place during a pivotal moment in world history. Much of her journey took place just before the outbreak of war between China and Japan, a conflict which grew into World War II by 1939. This tension can be seen in her work. She recounts traveling through China and noticing the presence of soldiers and warships. On November 7 she writes, "For the first time since leaving home the men's and women's washrooms are separated. However, an armed soldier sits out in front of the woman's [SIC]. At every station too the soldiers are on guard." Later, while in Nanjing, China on November 11, she comments on the presence of colonial warships in the harbor, "a Japanese warship was anchored at one side of the harbor and a mile away two British warships." The war in Asia began on July 7, 1937, shortly after Helen returned to the United States of America.

They left China on November 21, 1936 and sailed to Indonesia. On December 2, Helen described her experience eating mangosteens for the first time, "They are fruits with hard thick shells and small white sections in side [SIC]. The tasted is indescribable but delicious." While sailing through Indonesia Helen wrote about the presence of  sharks following their ocean liner, "I saw a dark object swimming in the water. I knew at once that it must be a shark. Then we saw several. They were attracted by the garbage the ship had thrown out... One was at least 8 feet long. There was also a 3' baby. One came to the surface and opened his mouth where we could see his rows of teeth."

In late January the traveling trio arrived in India, a British colony at the time. The visited Calcutta and later, on January 29, they were in Darjeeling and took a day trip to see Mt. Everest. Helen expressed that she was not sure which of the mountains was the famous one, "Several people pointed out Mt. Everest. we saw various peaks, but weren't quite sure which was the world famous one." They left India in early February and made their way by boat to Egypt. While passing Aden, modern day Yemen, on February 15, Helen watched an Italian movie, "After dinner there was an Italian movie. we sat thru two reels of it and then went to bed as I really hadn't much idea what it was about."

Helen and her friends spent a week in Egypt and the middle east. They visited the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Sphinx by camel on February 21, 1937, "Our cars could take us but we preferred to ride a camel... We passed the largest pyramid which with the two others we had been seeing for some time. The size was really astounding. We continued on to the Sphinx." While visiting these historic structures Helen also complained about her clothing, "My skirt was much too tight but every one [SIC] else was having the same trouble." Her experiences are tied together by such comments. She recalls the feelings of discomfort as often as she comments on new experiences. The diaries chronicle the frustrating elements of travel. They left Egypt and visited the Dead Sea where Helen remarked, "The water felt very sticky and was so salty it made one's lips pucker."

After the Middle East they sailed to Italy. They remained in Italy from March 9 to April 17, 1937. While in Florence, on March 27, Helen commented on a meal she had, "We had wine, potatoes, peas, and ice cream with chocolate sauce. I liked it all but the peas which were choked in garlic."  In between her commentary of local food she also remarked on the state of the world. During a visit to the Doge's Palace in Venice she remarked that, "Here [Doge's Palace] Mussolini and Hitler met and departed enemies. Now they are said to be good friends again." Hitler and Mussolini's alliance, which later included Japan, was the basis of the Axis Powers of World War two. After visiting Italy Helen and the Olsen's went separate ways for the remainder of the trip. Helen continued to Yugoslavia, Hungary, Switzerland, and Germany, while the Olsen's headed north to Scandinavia. Their journey is captured in the collection's video footage. The rest of Helen's journey is recounted in her diaries.

Upon arriving in Berlin on May 27, Helen observed a demonstration of German troops, "German troops and a a band were marching up and down the center terrace of Unter den Linden.... Outside [the palace] there was a little garden in which the Kaiser and his chancellor made the decision about the last war. [World War I]" Her statement of the "last war" feels especially ominous as the second World War had not yet begun. However, she seems aware of the tension over Europe during her time in Berlin. In that same vein, on May 28, she commented on the 1936 Berlin Olympics and what became of the stadiums and athlete housing, "After breakfast this morning I started out alone for the Reichssportfeld.... Of course the place was rather deserted now. They estimate that about 2,000,000 people came to Berlin for the Olympics last year.... All the male participants were housed about 20 miles away and brought by military trucks. The houses are now used for soldiers."

On May 31, Helen left Germany and traveled through Belgium. She arrived in Paris, France on June 2, 1937. On June 8th she visited Notre Dame which she felt "was splendid from the outside. The inside I found less impressive." She also observed the cemeteries at Belleau Wood and commented on the scars left from World War I, "The woods still have considerable debris in them. There are twisted pieces of metal belonging to airplanes, pieces of shell, and scrap iron. Trees with shell holes are still to be seen. A number of German machine guns are still standing." Helen left France on June 18 and sailed across the Atlantic to return home. She arrived in New York City on June 25, 1937. The last line of her diary reads "...my trip is over. May I get another chance to go again before too long!" She got that chance. She went on nearly forty more trips between 1937 and 1981. She visited countries that no longer appear on the maps and saw enough sights to last a lifetime. But those stories are as of yet unread.

To Learn More

To view AV 364 and read the many unread diaries from the collection, or to look at any of the other material featured in the Columbus Women on the Move exhibit, please consider booking a research appointment at the following link: https://ohiohistory.libcal.com/

To find more collections related to Ohio’s rich history you can search the Ohio History Connection catalog: https://ohiohistory.on.worldcat.org/discovery

For further information on the library please visit https://www.ohiohistory.org/research/archives-library/

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