By Bonnie McBride
While our mission statement here at the Massachusetts Historical Society proclaims that we hold materials dedicated to the study of the history of Massachusetts and the United States, we also hold materials that may be of interest to scholars researching other countries. As I am returning on a trip to Norway this summer, I decided one day to search and see what manuscripts (if any) we hold related to that country.
I was especially interested in reading about other travelers’ impressions and thoughts on the country, and so I chose to look through Edwin F. Atkins travel diary of what seems to be his first solo trip through Europe, at the age of 22 in 1872. He starts off with writing of how hard it was to say goodbye to his mother and sisters in Arlington as he left for Boston, first traveling by train to Providence and then onward to New York City, where he boarded a steamer bound for Plymouth in the United Kingdom. After a rough day at sea he writes “I think that I never again will travel by sea while anything remains to be seen in my own country.” Looking closer at the Atkins family papers, I did learn that Edwin did travel abroad again, many times to Cuba to visit his plantations there. Apparently he either got used to sea travel, or decided that some discomfort was worth the rewards of travel.
Reading through his diary, I started to make connections between a travel diary of the past and how we keep track of journeys today – often through a blog or social media. Similarities end there though, because travel journals in the 19th century were not intended to be shared in the same public way a travel blog is shared in the 21st century. A diary was kept mainly for yourself, to remind you of places you visited, how the food was, and to record interesting tidbits about your day. Reading each page of Edwin’s diary puts me in the mind of someone recording their thoughts so he could then recall what happened each day when choosing to share the trip with other people. For example, most of his daily entries are similar to this entry from 10 August 1872 “At Christiania [which is now Oslo, the capital of Norway] we went to Victoria House, a very good house we had a nice room and a good supper.” He was not one to speak in superlatives, often just noting the “fine scenery” and “clear weather.”
Because of his usually reserved writing, when he writes in great detail I knew he was writing of something special. On 20 August 1872, Edwin is on a steamer sailing through the Sognefjord, which he noted had “scenery of the finest kind.” He decided to spend the night sleeping on the deck: “We made a landing which woke me up; we were among scenery of the grandest – snow covered mountains just above us; from here we ran to Andal down a fjord where the rocks rose some two and three thousand feet right out of the water. Coming back through the same branch of the fjord, we entered another leading to Gudvangen more beautiful than the other with many beautiful waterfalls coming down from the rocks above more small villages…” Having been on a very similar ferry ride through the same fjord, I can completely understand his awe at the beauty surrounding him.
Edwin’s journal goes on to detail his travels around Norway and then into Sweden, and abruptly ends upon his entry into Germany. His last full entry is dated 2 September 1872 and while the next page holds the date 3 September, nothing else is written. I’d like to imagine that Edwin, like so many other travelers (myself included), was so caught up in his travels that he had no time to jot down his memories. If you are interested in reading travel diaries from faraway places, be sure to check out ABIGAIL to discover our collections here at MHS!