“Mendes I. Cohen and the Travails of Travel in the 19th Century”

Posted on December 19th, 2013 by

Maryland Historical Society  Source:  Luce, W. Ray, "The Cohen Brothers of Baltimore:  from Lotteries to Banking," Maryland Historical Magazine, 68 (1973), 288-308.

Maryland Historical Society
Source: Luce, W. Ray, “The Cohen Brothers of Baltimore: from Lotteries to Banking,” Maryland Historical Magazine, 68 (1973), 288-308.

Whether the purpose is to see friends and family or enjoy a relaxing vacation, many people associate the holiday season with travel. Of course, for the millions of Americans who take to the roads and skies this month, holiday travel is rarely without its headaches: lengthy security lines, flight delays, and traffic jams seem to be ever-present this time of year. Yet the modern sojourner should take heart, for as difficult as travel is in the 21st century, it is exponentially easier, quicker, and safer than it was for 19th century adventurer Mendes I. Cohen.

Born in 1796 into what became one of the most prominent Jewish banking families in Baltimore, Cohen retired from business in 1829 and used his wealth to embark on a seven-year-long tour of Europe, the Middle East, and Egypt. During his time abroad, Cohen wrote over three hundred letters to his mother and brothers back home in Maryland. From the historian’s standpoint, this extensive correspondence represents a treasure trove of information detailing not only the sites and people Cohen visited, but also the manner in which he traveled and the challenges faced by trans-Atlantic voyagers in the early 1800s.

Though the breadth of his correspondence would seem to suggest otherwise, one of the first problems Cohen ran into was the logistics of sending and receiving mail. For the modern traveler, communication is often as easy as picking up a phone or updating one’s status on social media, but for Cohen maintaining contact with home involved a complicated series of steps in which the arrival of letters depended upon the willingness of individual strangers to assume responsibility for their delivery. Consider the following instructions Cohen provided to his brother Jacob before setting sail from New York:

This will be to inform you of my route and how and where to direct your letters to me with further orders. I sail for Liverpool and have a letter of introduction to our consul there, Francis B. Ogden, to whose care you will direct and after the 30th of December you will please direct to the care of Messrs. Wells & Co., Paris….Whilst in Bristol and London my letters will be forwarded to me by Mr. Ogden and I will take care after I leave London that they will follow me to Paris. Your letters to Paris, Messrs. Wells will forward to me wherever I direct him. 

Beyond the need to depend upon others for his communications with home, Cohen also had to deal with the fact that mail simply moved much more slowly in the early 1800s. Most of Cohen’s letters from England and Western Europe took upwards of six weeks to reach their recipients in Baltimore and even this lengthy period of time was subject to extension if the weather failed to cooperate.

Important as his letters may have been for combating homesickness and boosting morale, the troubles Cohen had corresponding with family could have been avoided by simply limiting his communications. Doing without was not an option, however, when it came to such necessities as food, and here again Cohen faced challenges unknown to the modern traveler. To begin with, in contrast to the all-you-can-eat buffets that typically greet cruise ship passengers today, Cohen had to provide his own provisions for the nineteen-day trip across the Atlantic. In his first letter from New York, Cohen mentions bringing onboard “pickles, onions, etc., anchovies in [salt], lemons, oranges, limes, [and mineral] water,” a menu that was expanded in a later letter to include salted herring, smoked tongue, green tea, and rice. Aside from the hassle and expense of bringing these supplies onboard, Cohen’s choice of provisions also points to another set of problems: the need to pack food that will not only resist spoiling but also provide nutritional protection against the maladies associated with ocean voyages. Due to their long shelf life, heavily salted and pickled foods were staples of trans-Atlantic travel, while citrus fruits were an essential ingredient in the fight against scurvy.

Unfortunately for the modern tourist, the subject of Cohen’s victuals on the Atlantic also points to an unpleasant element of travel that has remained constant across time: seasickness. Although he had previously travelled by steamboat to attend to the family’s business in the United States, Cohen was afflicted by seasickness throughout his voyages. Less than a week after setting sail from New York, for example, a presumably green-faced Cohen wryly observed that he “must not talk about rolling” while drafting a letter at sea. This same gallows humor was also in evidence when Cohen recounted the misery of a steamboat trip across the English Channel:

Though the day was fine and [there was] but little wind, many had their drooping heads,

and the high and low paid their tribute to Old Neptune, and I among the rest. 

As any smart traveler will do, Cohen recognized the likelihood of the ailment and took precautions by bringing along palliatives such as gingerbread (ginger being a well-known remedy for nausea) and laudanum (an opiate used to treat all manner of illnesses in the 1800s). Nevertheless, these were poor substitutes for the sure footing and clear-headedness that comes from being on land.

So, as we set forth over the river and through the woods for that three-hour-long car ride or plane trip to grandmother’s house this season, let us all take a moment to count our blessings. After all, if Mendes Cohen’s voyages demonstrate nothing else, it is that modern travelers have relatively little to complain about in comparison to those who came before us.

A blog post by JMM Researcher Joseph Abel. To read more posts about the Amazing Mendes Cohen, click here.

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