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Allison Silver

Allison Silver

Posted: June 10, 2010 03:35 PM

'20th Century Travel': Faster, Better, Democratized (PHOTOS, POLL)

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I wrote a history of travel in the 20th century for Taschen Books and it showed me more than anything else how radically travel changed over the last 100 years. Travel used to be so glamorous and exciting. That is not exactly the case now.

Here is a taste of what the book is about:

Americans changed the metabolism of travel in the 20th century.

Each decade was faster, easier and cheaper. First, Americans wanted to move faster. Then, travel had to be more convenient. Third, Americans demanded the democratization of travel.

When the century opened, travel was the prerogative of the wealthy -- people who used seasons of the year as verbs. They summered at a "cottage" in Newport, wintered in a villa in the south of France. Only the rich could afford the complex logistics of armies of domestics moving mountains of luggage.

But the growing power of the middle class in postwar America changed everything. Once the rich and celebrated validated locations as "the place to be," the increasing, and increasingly well to do, American middle class was close behind -- via ever-expanding means of travel.

Above all though, speed mattered.

"Speed is the cry of our era," the industrial designer Normal bel Geddes, said, "and greater speed, one of the goals of tomorrow." Bel Geddes said this in 1932 -- but it could apply to any year of the 20th century.

In the Gilded Age, for example, finely appointed luxury liners vied to break speed records. Over the next decades, trains developed express "flyer" routes. Then aerodynamically streamlined locomotives, with names like Zephyr and Mercury, roared down the tracks. The early, jerry-built propeller planes transformed into air-cushioned jetliners, then powerful jumbo jets. Travel time shrank.

Throughout the 20th century, once-popular means of transportation were regularly discarded as too slow. Stately ocean liners, even the glamorous French and Cunard Lines, could not compete against the speed of air travel. Luxurious long-distance trains fell by the wayside. Most of the mighty railroads declared bankruptcy by the end of the '60s. Even the élan of elite planes like the Pan Am Clipper paled when jetliners, no matter how jam-packed, halved flight time.

By the end of the century a weekend trip from New York City could just as easily be to Quogue (Long Island) as Prague (Czech Republic). With the LIE traffic -- maybe Prague was quicker.

Americans propelled these changes. We are a people fueled by wanderlust. We traveled across the ocean to get to here, and then traveled across the continent once we landed.

You could re-invent yourself in the New World. We were spurred on by a hope that good things awaited -- just beyond the next valley or over the next hill. Americans were ever eager to "light out for the territory," as Mark Twain wrote.

But when the Census Bureau pronounced the frontier officially "closed," in 1890, all this traveling did not stop. In fact, it increased.

Only now Americans were traveling for pleasure.

Americans transformed the notion of travel in the 20th century. They re-invented the form, just as they had re-invented themselves throughout their history. By the century's end, travel was swifter than those at its start could ever have dreamed. America's vast postwar middle class was peripatetic and unstoppable.

Consider the south of France. At the beginning of the century, the Cote d'Azur was primarily a winter enclave for Russian aristocrats. The weather might be wet and chilly, but it was balmy compared to January in St. Petersburg.

Winter was the season. The grand hotels shut tight for the summer.

But then Cole Porter, the rich American songwriter with sophisticated European friends, rented a house for the summer in Antibes, right next to the shuttered landmark, Hotel du Cap.

His house guests that summer of 1922 were Sara and Gerald Murphy, the scion of the Mark Cross luggage firm. They persuaded the hotel to stay open the next summer.

The Murphys checked in -- along with their friend Pablo Picasso and his entire family, even his mother. The writers Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas stopped by.

Summer in the south of France hit the social radar. Soon it was the place to be. And it still is.

This love of travel was America's legacy.

And the American travel plan -- swifter, more comfortable and democratized -- set the standard for the world.

Below, a selection of travel ads throughout the 20th century from my new book, 20th Century Travel: 100 Years of Globe-Trotting Ads. Let us know your favorites!