Marjorie’s European Tour, 1903-1904

When nineteen-year-old Marjorie Van Wickle graduated from school in May 1903, she found herself pressured by her mother, Bessie McKee, to join a group of socially prominent young women who would spend a season being “presented” to society in Boston. Shy and reticent, Marjorie begged her mother to allow her to opt out of this social requirement. But, she willingly accepted Bessie’s alternative plan that she spend a year doing a “Grand Tour” of Europe, instead. A professional chaperone was hired (Miss Helen Macartnay) to escort Marjorie and her favorite cousin, Dorothy Pardee, on an eleven-month excursion that would take them to all the European capitals, starting in Paris in June 1903 and ending back there in April 1904. Also in the party was another young woman, Gertrude Vaughan from Wilkes Barre.

On June 6 the three young women and their chaperone boarded the Deutschland, a luxury ocean liner of the Hamburg Amerika Line. Their first stop was Paris where they stayed at the Normandie Hotel near the Opera House. From Paris they went to London and then followed a popular tourist route to Oxford, Stratford, Warwick, Chester, Loch Katrin in the Highlands of Scotland, Edinburgh, Roslyn, and Melrose. Marjorie wrote letters and postcards home every week, sometimes more often. The dozens of pages in each letter were full of descriptions of her travel experiences, the hotels, the people she met, the architecture and the gardens, and her own observations on the manners and traditions of the different countries. Everywhere they went they were armed with their trusty Baedeker’s travel books (the Fodor’s of the day), letters of introduction, and addresses for the nearest Thomas Cook’s travel office where they could pick up their mail from home and draw cash on their letters of credit.

From England they traveled across the North Sea to Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, then south to Germany and Austria, visiting museums and attending concerts and opera wherever they could, finally arriving in Venice, Italy, in September.


Marjorie’s first impressions of Italy, as they sped south on the train, were of red-tiled roofs, Lombardy poplars, and “vineyard after vineyard.” She described “true Italian scenes”– soft grey castles and little stucco churches with their campaniles, the blue Adriatic Sea beyond, and the cloudless skies. But nothing prepared her for the stunning vista that awaited her as she stepped out of the railway station in Venice. She gasped as she caught her first glimpse of the Grand Canal:

“We could hardly believe our eyes. All the picturesque old Venetian palaces were there spread out before us, such as we had dreamt of all our lives, and at our feet lay a gondola ready to take us and our trunks to the Hotel. A more fairy-like ride I never had – the soft cushioned gondola with its graceful rowers and gorgeous blue of the canal. It was perfect weather, warm like mid-summer, and as we wound in and out of the labyrinth of piccolo canali and under the quaint stone bridges and looked up at the soft tinted houses with their vine covered balconies, I thought it must be very like Heaven … [The next day] we breakfasted looking out over the Grand Canal and watched gondolas gliding up and down with their slender black hulls and white-suited gondoliers.”

They were to spend almost a month in Venice, staying at the Grand Hotel across from the Santa Margarita Church on the Grand Canal. Their rooms overlooked the Canal, and from their windows they could see the gondolas passing by “with gay paper lanterns and filled with musicians and singers, and the voices are so sweet over the water … as the moon was full you can imagine how perfect it all was … they sing things from the opera.” They dined at Florian’s, bought embroidered linens at Jesurum’s, and took afternoon tea at Caffe Quadri’s, all in St. Mark’s Square, with its magnificent view of the Cathedral of San Marco.

“There was dear old San Marco in front of us, every pinnacle standing out against the sky and the mosaics and golden crosses a blaze of glory. The late afternoon, with the sun full upon it, is the most ideal time of all. Later we went inside, for the first time – and as much as I had always heard of its beauty, I never imagined it could be as lovely as it was … the walls and ceiling are completely covered with the most beautiful glass mosaics.”

They went to the Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice’s famed museum of pre-19th century art, and admired the Carpaccios, Titians, and Bellinis. And they visited dozens of churches, studying the ancient art in each one. A day trip by vaporetto to the Lido on the Adriatic Sea was a welcome respite from the requisite visits to churches, palaces, and museums:

“The beach was a mass of pavilions and bathing houses, and of course Gertrude and I couldn’t resist the temptation of going in the water. So we bought bathing suits – blue and white striped cotton ones! And went bravely in. Such funny sights I never saw as we looked! The pantaloons came down way below our knees, and the coat tails considerably above! But the water was delightful – so soft and warm and no surf. And the other people looked funnier than we did, with their huge bonnets, no stockings, and frequently no skirt at all. As we came home in the little steam boat, the sun was just setting over the domes and spires of the distant city. It was very lovely. That evening we sat out on the porch listening again to the singers and getting them to play our favorites and went to bed still hearing the voices wafting over the water.”

On their last evening in Venice they went to the Piazza for a farewell visit to San Marco:

“It was so lovely with the deep blue sky back of it and some tiny clouds colored pink with the sunset. Each bit of mosaic and gilding caught the last rays of the sun and shone bright, while the rest of the church was in half shadow. I think I have never seen anything more beautiful – and to think that it was our good-bye. Oh, I hate to leave Venice. But it must be the two o’clock train to-morrow.”

The October issue of “Notes from the Archives” will cover the next part of the Grand Tour adventure – Milan, Como, Bellagio, Genoa, Siena, Pisa, and Florence.