The Travelogues

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 for charity.

This seemed to point a direction, and Holmes thought he would see if he could actually make a living traveling (which he loved to do) and presenting his trips on stage (which he also loved to do). He was able to make a modest income at this, and have some wonderful travel experiences, which he wrote about extensively in his Lectures, but the large audiences were not really there. He struggled along these lines for four years; but Stoddard retired, he arranged for Holmes to fill his engagements for the 1897-8 season. This "seal of approval" was the missing ingredient. Within a few years Holmes' "Travelogues" had become part of American life.

The Beginning: Window Card
From the First Lecture

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.)

Holmes introduced film clips into his lecture series as early as 1897, and as the years went by they became an increasingly important part of the audience's experience. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century he began to call the lectures "Travelogues," in part because they were now more than simply lectures with photos. Many of his films were the first motion pictues ever shot in the countries he visited, and their dispersal and loss ove rthe years has been extremely unfortunate. [See our sections on Holmes' films, and the recent story of their partial rediscovery.]

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. 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.

The Travelogue experience, from the point of view of the artist, is covered best in Holmes' own autobiography. Thayer Soule's book, about the creation and presentation of the Travelogues, is critical to understanding how they worked and what the audience experienced. And at this date, more than fifty years after the last lecture delivered by Holmes himself, we can still see something of what our great-grandparents saw, in Genoa Caldwell's books about Holmes.

For many years Caldwell's 1977 Abrams book, The Man Who Photographed the World was the only modern and readily accessible book about Holmes. Soule's 1997 book, On the Road with Travelogues, is more about the process than about the photographs. The big news of 2006 was that Genoa Caldwell had edited another beautiful collection of Holmes' work, Burton Holmes Travelogues: The Greatest Traveller of His Time, 1892-1952. This is a Taschen art book, beautifully printed and designed, with a wonderful collection of hundreds of Holmes' photographs, and a narrative of his travel and lecture experiences taken from his own words.

In the years to come we may hope that his rediscovered films will be restored and made available for distribution to those interested in history, travel, and human culture. You could writing to the Travel Channel now, letting them know they have something to look forward to (and maybe they should help fund the restoration, eh?). Along with the films, several crates of audio tapes were also discovered, and one might hope that some of them contain Holmes' narration of his own shows. We may yet be able to experience a Burton Holmes Travelogue.


Advertising the first London lectures—the first "Travelogues" [© BHHC]


Update history: Initial creation 8 December 1999. Latest revision 23 October 2007