Burton Holmes and His Travelogues

Elias Burton Holmes (1870-1958) was born in Chicago, the son of a banker, and the grandson of a wealthy builder and importer of French wines and gourmet foods. He bought his first camera at thirteen, and soon became a serious camera enthusiast, setting up his own darkroom facilities and joining the Chicago Camera Club. He dropped out of private school at the age of sixteen, and went with his grandmother on a trip to Europe, which he found every bit as romantic and fascinating as he had imagined. Yes, in fact, he took pictures there and brought them back to show.

In 1892 Burton traveled to Japan, there meeting (and becoming a junior associate of) John L. Stoddard, the foremost traveler/lecturer of the late 19th century. Shortly after his return, the Panic of 1893 ruined his father financially, and Burton had to find work. He was unsuccessful as a camera salesman, but a stereopticon lecture of his pictures from Japan raised a surprising amount of money. Holmes struggled along these lines for four years, until Stoddard retired, and arranged for Holmes to fill his engagements for the 1897-8 season. Within a few years Holmes' "Travelogues" had become part of American life.

Burton Holmes, dressed for dinner, Morocco, 1894

Burton Holmes, dressed for dinner
(Morocco, 1894)

Holmes introduced film clips into his lecture series as early as 1897, but the mainstays of the original lectures were black-and-white lantern slides, printed from his phtographs, which had been hand-colored with great care in Japan. (Later he found and trained American artists to do this.) He visited hovels and hotels all over the globe, and (disguised as a diplomat) attended the coronation of Haile Selassie in Ethopia. He traveled to every continent, to every country he could find (except Afghanistan); six times around the world, beginning at a time when airplanes had not yet been invented, and dozens of times across the oceans.

Holmes thought of himself as a performer, rather than a teacher or lecturer; and perform he did, sometimes six shows a week, sometimes each of the six in a different city. A Burton Holmes roadshow was reported to have been a fascinating experience. His general practice was to travel abroad in the summers, making movies and gathering material for his lectures; in the winter he would go on tour. Always, Holmes stood on the stage in formal dress. Regular stops included Carnegie Hall in New York, Symphony Hall in Boston, and Orchestra Hall in Chicago. Although he "retired" from the stage in 1949, he continued to present shows until health problems forced him to stop, aged 81. By this point he had delivered more than 8000 lectures.

Holmes branched out into other areas, as well. Having begun making films for his own lectures, he set up a travel film producing company. He began by recycling his old material and soon they were making a new travel short-subject film every week from 1915 to 1921. A film production and distribution company he set up in Chicago prospered, making travel documentaries, industrial films, and (during World War II) films for the U. S. Government. Some of his films found their way into retail sales to inviduals who liked film and projected their own. The Burton Holmes Travelogues company (also known as Burton Holmes Incorporated and Burton Holmes International) lasted into the mid-1980's.

Burton Holmes and his Travelogues company became synonymous with travel film and lectures. There is a star with his name on Hollywood Boulevard.

Burton Holmes, 1907. Photograph by Dana Hull; courtesy Library of Congress.

The Burton Holmes Lectures, based on the slides and his narrations for them, were reorganized into a series of books, originally published in 1901 in ten volumes. In following years he added more volumes, and they remained in print under the name The Burton Holmes Travelogues. More than 40,000 copies of these sets were sold...one reason why they can still be found in used-book stores across the nation. Our grandparents bought them for the coffee-table, as geography books for the children, and as the romantic encyclopedia of remote places, all in one package. In recent years they have been reprinted (series title: The World 100 Years Ago) with some outside commentary. The reprints are expensive and hard to find new, but there are plenty of used or remaindered copies for sale at low prices.

Holmes and his company provided the photographs for a number of volumes about travel destinations, including the Orient and Mexico. Under his name also appeared a booklet of travel maxims, and a guide to stereopticon slides of distant lands. Apart from these volumes, Holmes wrote only two other books. The first of these, The Traveller's Russia (1934) was a flop; Holmes bought the remainders and gave copies to friends.

His last book, the autobiography The World is Mine, was published in 1953 by Murray & Gee, of Culver City, California. Finally we were able to see pictures of Nirvana, his incredible apartment in New York City. Besides photographs of Nirvana, this book has many pictures from early, middle, and late phases of his life; but the actual narrative only covers the period up the end of the first World War. Nevertheless, it was the only authoritative source on the inner workings of Holmes Travelogues business until the publication of Thayer Soule's On the Road with Travelogues: 1935-1995: A 60 Year Romp.. Soule was Holmes' right-hand man from 1935 until Holmes retired in 1951, and he went on to become a famous travel filmmaker and lecturer in his own right.

Dust Jacket of Holmes' autobiography

A book of Holmes' photographs, edited and selected by Genoa Caldwell, with text taken from his own writings, was published by Abrams in 1977. The Man Who Photographed the World: Burton Holmes : Travelogues, 1886-1938 is a well-designed book, with generally excellent but sometimes rather bad reproduction of his photographs. It reprints a fine short piece on Holmes, written by Irving Wallace and published in The Sunday Gentleman in 1947. The back cover of the dust jacket has a classic photograph of a locomotive which has crashed through the wall of an upper level of a railway station in Paris, landing outside the station at an angle on the street below. (You've seen a picture of this event on on posters and postcards; you didn't know that Burton Holmes published a photograph of the same event.)

In 2006, Genoa Caldwell wrote and edited another book of Holmes' work, Burton Holmes Travelogues: The Greatest Traveler of His Time, 1892-1952 (Photo Books). This is a superb and wonderful collection of hundreds of his photographs with background material and appropriate comments by Holmes from a variety of hitherto inaccessible sources. If you are interested in Holmes, or travel, or history, or people, or photography, or any of a hundred other topics that are part of Holmes' legacy, you should look at this book.

Besides these books, and his autobiography, and a page in Supplement Six of the Dictionary of American Biography, there isn't much in print today about Holmes. I think it was always true that Holmes the writer took a distant back seat to Holmes the traveler and Holmes the showman, and his work properly lives on in his slides and films. You've probably seen his film work, without knowing who it was who made the original films. But in these days of color video on "The Travel Channel," I doubt that his films will find much life in the future, except in historical clips and documentaries.

Burton Holmes had thousands of fans, and signed thousands of autographs. In every one of these he wrote what he truly believed about travel.

Holmes' trademark autograph

The pages on this website are historical study: non-fiction. But, because of their subject, they are adventure, and armchair travel, and the mysterious East, and the mysterious past, all rolled into one. Here stands Holmes, camera at the ready, immaculately dressed and ready to essay the worst the hotel can offer. Here are officers of the Czar's army, staring at this interloper, while sturdy emigrants board a train to Siberia in hope of a better life. Curious Filipino tribesmen examine his photographic equipment. Holmes climbs a mountain and records what he sees there for all of us. Holmes the man is gone, but Holmes' vision of the world lives on in his photogaphs and his films, and in the popularization of travel lectures that made them part of our cultural heritage.


Burton Holmes' Star on Hollywood Boulevard
Burton Holmes' Star on Hollywood Boulevard.
Photo © Bruce Nolte; used by permission.


Update history: This page created 8 December 1999. Latest revision 7 October 2016