Travel and the Reimagining of Traditional Culture

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted June 21, 2021

By Becky Preiss Odom, History Curator/Manager, Curatorial Department

Americans have been traveling since the founding of the United States. Those who could afford to travel overseas went to see the cathedrals, castles, and other trappings of their European heritage. Travel became accessible to more Americans at the turn of the twentieth century because of lower transportation costs; faster, more comfortable means of travel; support for trip planning and tours by travel agencies; and increased leisure time and disposable income experienced by some segments of the U.S. population.

Americans travelled both within the U.S. and abroad for a wide range of reasons. Some sought to experience diverse geographies and peoples to contribute to their education and satiate their own curiosity. Travelogues published in magazines and newspapers by other travelers often peaked their curiosity and attracted large numbers of tourists to particular destinations. Others traversed land and sea to support developing business ventures in an industrial and increasingly global world. A third group of benevolent travelers sought to bring their version of religion, education, civilization, and culture to colonized peoples.

 

A passenger ship traverses a canal in Corinth, Greece, 1902. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2003681426/.

Souvenir Chinese hair comb purchased in the Philippines around 1914. From the collection of the Ohio History Connection, H 93949.

Items from the Mary Eloise Green Collection evidence some of these forms of travel. For instance, Eloise’s maternal aunt, Eva Campbell, and her husband, Colin, travelled to the Philippines in 1912 to serve as teachers. Eva sent a Chinese comb she purchased there to her parents, Thomas and Mary Ann Creviston, around 1914.

Travelers often sought out souvenirs to share their adventures, the people they encountered, or the places they visited with those at home. At first glance, souvenirs may also seem beneficial to the people or communities from which they are acquired. Souvenir purchases provided income to local peoples and had the potential to share or promote traditional cultures with new audiences around the world.

But souvenirs had great potential to harm indigenous and colonized people and cultures. Some groups modified traditional cultural productions specifically for tourist consumption. In some cases they created secular versions of sacred objects that would have otherwise been inappropriate to sell, while in other cases they employed good sales tactics by catering to tourists’ tastes and popular styles and colors. These souvenirs, though part of a culture’s history, created false understandings of traditional cultures. And those misunderstandings have been passed along with the souvenirs to subsequent generations.

Souvenirs are also prime examples of what Museum Studies Scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett calls “destination culture.” She argues that the meaning of an object is located at its destination, which is to say that the context of an object’s use or display determines its meaning to viewers. The Chinese comb, for instance, was removed from its culture of origin and placed in a new context: first the Green family’s farmhouse in Logan County, Ohio, and then Eloise’s home in Columbus. In these new contexts, the item became a representation of Chinese people that objectified and simplified an entire culture and nation. But it also had particular meanings for Eloise. The story of the comb seemed to remind her of her parents, while her aunt who taught in the Philippines influenced Eloise’s decision to go to college and become a home economics teacher.

While travel had the potential to broaden Americans’ knowledge and understanding of the world, in many ways tourists did more harm than good to the peoples and cultures they visited. In addition to the harm inflicted by souvenirs, sacred grounds and places of historical importance were trampled by naïve, disrespectful, and arrogant tourists. Benevolent travelers, such as missionaries and teachers like Eloise’s aunt, infantilized and destroyed traditional cultures. When these travelers returned or reported home, they spread their attitudes to other Americans, the effects of which are still felt today in places like the Philippines and the entire African continent.

Travel in the early twentieth century reflected Americans’ preoccupation with land and empire. Whirlwind tours across faraway continents provided yet another way to conquer foreign lands and peoples. Tourists unfairly labeled unfamiliar customs as “backward” and the people who practiced them as “uncivilized.” These attitudes generated support at home for the civilizing and uplifting programs of benevolent imperialism, including education and missionary work. This, along with the commodification of other cultures by American tourists’ souvenirs, helped to buttress U.S. empire building across the globe.

Eloise Green and her brother, Earle, in 1909. Courtesy of the Logan County Historical Society.

Selected sources:

Dulles, Foster Rhea. “A Historical View of Americans Abroad.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 368 (Nov., 1966): 11-20.

Kaplan, Amy. The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Washburn, William S. “The Philippine Civil Service.” The Journal of Race Development, vol. 1, no. 1 (Jul., 1910): 36-57.

Wexler, Laura. Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

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