Migrant Knowledge

‘Plant-like Women and Luxury Wives’—American Women in Nineteenth-century German Travelogues and Guides

Marie Nella Hoffmann

What Did They Know?

A Miniseries on Prospective Baden Migrants and Their Knowledge of America in the 1870s and 1880s

With contributions by Martin Bemmann, Marie Nella Hoffmann, Hannah Laubrock, and Luca Leitz-Schwoerer

Travel literature has been a popular genre for centuries, especially in times of pandemic. It offers readers the opportunity to discover unknown worlds without leaving home. Travelogues and travel guides promised the same escapism to their readers in the nineteenth century. Besides aspects such as geography, history, politics, and economic circumstances, they also informed their readers about women and their role(s) in North American society. Such depictions influenced certain images of “the American woman” in Germany. Since travelogues and especially guidebooks were important sources of information for emigrants planning their journey to the US,1 analyzing such images can contribute to a better understanding of what kind of knowledge about “America” the usual Baden migrant possessed in the late nineteenth century. After all, about 80 percent of the US immigrants from this southwestern German state were male,2 and many of them certainly were interested in finding a wife or at least a female companion in their prospective new homeland. Learning about these women must have been of high interest for them.

Between 1894 and 1899, the city libraries of Lahr and Freiburg, both located in Baden, owned several travelogues and guidebooks on the United States, some of which were even in English.3 This was not surprising as interest in more general information about the US had been increasing since the late eighteenth century. Over the course of the nineteenth century, travel reports became an established genre for information about the United States, its history, and its people.4 The transitions between the travelogues and guidebooks were often fluid, as both followed similar structures. They portrayed the country's geography and its population, and they provided—explicitly or implicitly—specific advice for emigrants: How does emigration work? Who should emigrate, and who would be better off staying in their home country? What job prospects and living conditions await the emigrants abroad? How should emigrants prepare for their journey? Often, very detailed descriptions of emigration itself were provided, describing the departure and subsequent passage by ship, the immigration process, transportation and public transport in the United States, and procedures for settlement.5 Many guides warned potential emigrants to avoid false expectations. Cautionary advice was presented to actively counteract and correct a distorted image of America as a paradise on earth where hard work paid off and anyone could escape poverty.6

Many travelogue writers presented their stories as reports of discovery and conquest examining how a journey and settlement in America could take place. Highly popular, reports were often read by all the members of associations dedicated to the topic of emigration, that is, Auswanderergesellschaften, and certainly by potential individual emigrants. The reports’ simple language and strong subjectivity also appealed to a broad audience as they made it easier to understand the emigration experience. Travelogues made emigration a more tangible reality and conveyed a sense of authenticity. The numerous, specific needs of individual emigrants influenced the topics addressed by advice literature during the nineteenth century. Therefore, guidebooks more explicitly considered and included the recipients in their writings than travelogues, offering instructions and methodical reflection on travel or emigration. Since emigrants did, indeed, use these guides, the information they contained needed to be very accurate to ensure that their readers would be able to emigrate successfully. In the same vein, and due to their similar nature, some travelogues also provided meticulous descriptions of potential career prospects for various professional groups. For example, J.A. Reidenbach, the author of one of the most famous travelogues from the 1870s, dedicated half a page to career prospects for piano teachers in his guide Amerika Land und Leute. 7

Featured image: Excerpt of title page of J.A. Reidenbach, Amerika: Eine kurze Beschreibung der Vereinigten Staaten, sowie ein Ratgeber für Auswanderer,Vol. 1, digitized by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

The particular appeal of travelogues about the United States at that time derived from their depiction of strangeness in the sense of “othering” as understood in cultural theory. This also was true for their portrayals of American women. The construction of “strangers” is a complex process subject to con-tant cultural and time-specific change. In this case, how German emigrants engaged in this process toward American women has not yet been widely researched, even though, as Alexander Schmidt noted, “almost all European books on America in the late 19th and 20th centuries” addressed women and gender roles.8

Scholars have taken up gender as an analytical category both in research on the history of migration and the history of knowledge, but the intersection of the two fields has not yet received enough attention.9 When reflecting on gender, historians need to ask not only what knowledge women possessed and transmitted as emigrants, but also what specific knowledge about gender relations emigrants in general possessed. Marriage, family life, and other gendered practices might have factored into the decision of emigrants, both male and female, to emigrate to the States. Various authors described gender and women in the United States in different ways; some were highly subjective, and others sought to be sensational. However, they had some things in common. Most publications lacked detailed ac-counts of minority women but highlighted American women’s high degree of emancipation. During the Gilded Age, a new generation of women benefited from newly created employment and educational opportunities that previous generations had fought for and achieved in the postwar years.10 These opportunities might have influenced some women’s decision to migrate to the United States. Consequently, the portrayal of females and their lives in the United States surely interested women and men alike.

Travelogues portrayed the (female) inhabitants of America as diverse and different in their regional peculiarities. Typically, they focused on the unblemished, “wild” nature of the United States and the native population or paid special attention to the immigrant population. These descriptions of the populations created a compelling contrast to intricate and often more authentic descriptions of land-scapes and cities—another typical part of travel literature. Carl Theodor Griesinger, for example, dedicated a whole chapter of his travelogue to the “Ladies in Free America.”11 Griesinger, who, like many guidebook authors, emigrated to the United States himself, was from Baden. He was born on December 11, 1809, in Kirnach near Wolfach in the Black Forest, which became part of Baden in 1810. He emigrated to America with his family in 1852. However, in 1857 he returned to Stuttgart, disillusioned.

Griesinger was not alone in writing about women: other travelogues also devoted passages to the “female sex” and its peculiarities, or, more precisely, to “Yankee women” (“Yankee” primarily referring to Americans living in New England). The Yankees were the part of the population the travel writers focused on when presenting the national character of the United States. Griesinger described Yankee women as elegantly but tastelessly dressed, especially compared to European women. However, his report undoubtedly contained exaggerations as he devised his writings to have a sensational effect.12 Unlike guidebooks, travelogues did not have to be limited to the essential information on emigration. They often contained curiosities, trivialities, and sometimes even deceptions since their primary purpose was to entertain. Griesinger characterized American women as being exceptionally lazy about work and exercise so that they became “like a plant in a greenhouse” from merely sitting in a rocking chair. According to Gert Raeithel, the laziness of the American woman, which was symbolized here by the rocking chair, could have laid the foundation for the later cliché of the “luxury wife.”13

Furthermore, Griesinger described American women as pleasure-seeking, supporting this with refer-ence to their tendency to attend “dance balls,” although this slightly contradicted his portrait of the lazy American woman. There were parallels between Griesinger’s report and the descriptions of American women in contemporary advice literature for emigrants, which also often dealt with the country and its people. Griesinger characterized American women as precocious, in constant search of male attention and a wealthy husband, rapidly coming of age, and highly emancipated. The contrast between the “German housewife” and the emancipated American woman neglecting her household duties had been a recurring motif since the 1850s, particularly in descriptions of the more affluent American women on the East Coast.

Griesinger and the abovementioned J. A. Reidenbach disagreed on the level of morality Americans displayed. While Griesinger criticized American women and their emancipated behavior as improper, Reidenbach underlined the high level of morality in the US since there were only official balls, whereas Germany public dances, which he considered more rambunctious. Reidenbach also ascribed morality, especially in language, to American women, which stood in direct contrast to Griesinger's characterizations. For example, Reidenbach implicitly aimed some of his reports at female emigrants when he stated that women could easily travel across America independently.

Additionally, women in America enjoyed individual freedoms, which Griesinger believed was due to their emancipated and self-confident demeanor. Given the differing opinions of travel report writers like Griesinger and Reidenbach, travel reports did not ultimately convey a clear and concise picture of Americans and their lifestyle. Furthermore, Southern women, Black women, and “Native American” women took a minor part in travelogues. Griesinger described black women in some parts but was strongly influenced by racist stereotypes. The reports often drew a subjective picture, sometimes muddied by sensationalism, driven by the authors’ desire for sales.

Due to this high degree of subjectivity, historians have questioned the source value of travel reports for research into historical migration movements. The authors of such travel reports were mostly intellectuals who could not be representative of the American emigrants. Moreover, their writings may not even have been read by the ordinary population. However, as Peter Mesenhöller argues, travelogues are nevertheless a source for researching a general history of consciousness.14 This is because the images constructed in the travelogues, whether ideal or counter-images (“America as the promised land” vs. “America as a disappointment”), contained the intellectual authors’ reaction to social developments and historical events. The images and ideas of America that existed in German culture significantly influenced how Germans, and Badeners, in particular, perceived American life and culture. The authors’ previous knowledge and popular knowledge interacted with each other. They both determined the character of these travelogues: the narratives picked up on the generally prevailing image of the United States, along with the authors’ prior knowledge. Once published, the travelogues then further shaped their readers’ perceptions and knowledge of America, which, in turn, further impacted popular knowledge about America overall.

Marie-Nella Hoffmann
Marie Nella Hoffmann is a student at the University of Freiburg. She is interested in (intersectional) women’s history and American studies.

Featured image: Cover of Theodor Griesinger, Freiheit und Sclaverei unter dem Sternenbanner, oder Land und Leute in Amerika, Vol. 1 (Stuttgart, 1862), digitized by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

  1. Mark Häberlein, “Nachrichten aus der Neuen Welt: Die Erweiterung des deutschen Nordamerikabildes im 18. Jahrhundert,” in Nord und Süd in Amerika: Gegensätze – Gemeinsamkeiten – europäischer Hintergrund, Rombach Historiae 1, ed. Wolfgang Reinhard and Peter Waldmann, 1145–61 (Freiburg, 1992), 1146. ↩︎
  2. Alexandra Fies, Die badische Auswanderung im 19. Jahrhundert nach Nordamerika unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des Amtsbezirks Karlsruhe zwischen 1880–1914 (Karlsruhe, 2010), 94. ↩︎
  3. Bücherverzeichnis der Lahrer Stadt-Bibliothek, II. Teil: Zeitschriften (Lahr public library book catalogue, Second part: Periodicals) (Lahr, 1889). ↩︎
  4. Häberlein, “Nachrichten aus der Neuen Welt,” 1146. ↩︎
  5. See ibid., 78. ↩︎
  6. Peter J. Brenner, Die Erfahrung Nordamerikas in deutschen Reise- und Auswandererberichten des 19. Jahrhunderts, Studien und Texte zur Sozialgeschichte der Literatur 35 (Tübingen, 1991), 101. ↩︎
  7. J. A. Reidenbach, Amerika Land und Leute (Nördlingen, 1870). ↩︎
  8. Alexander Schmidt, Reise in die Moderne: Der Amerika-Diskurs des deutschen Bürgertums vor dem Ersten Weltkrieg im europäischen Vergleich (Berlin, 1997), 190. ↩︎
  9. Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg, “Knowledge on the Move: New Approaches toward a History of Migrant Knowledge,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 43 (2017): 313–46, 342. ↩︎
  10. Angela Marie Howard, “Women and Gender,” in Encyclopedia of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 51–60 (New York, 2005), 53. ↩︎
  11. Theodor Greisinger, Freiheit und Sklaverei unter dem Sternenbanner, oder Land und Leute in Amerika, Vols. 1 and 2 (Stuttgart, 1863). ↩︎
  12. Rudolf Krauß, “Griesinger, Karl Theodor,” in Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie 49, 545–47 (1904). ↩︎
  13. Gert Raeithel, “American Women as Seen by European Men (1850–1950),” AAA: Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik 17, no. 2 (1992): 209–28. Available online with JSTOR subscription at http://www.jstor.org/stable/43023608 ↩︎
  14. Peter Mesenhöller, “Auf ihr Brüder, laßt uns reisen fröhlich nach Amerika: Reisebericht und Reiseliteratur im Kontext der deutschen Amerikaauswanderung des frühen 19. Jahrhunderts,” in Der Reisebericht: Die Entwicklung einer Gattung in der deutschen Literatur, ed. Peter Brenner, 363–82 (Bonn, 1989), 365. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Marie Nella Hoffmann, "‘Plant-like Women and Luxury Wives’—American Women in Nineteenth-century German Travelogues and Guides," Migrant Knowledge, December 23, 2022, https://migrantknowledge.org/2022/12/23/american-women-in-german-travelogues/.