Travel for Travel’s Sake

By Ashley Montevago

This week’s object is a 19th century traveling case which belonged to Mabel R. Gerow. The case was used to transport various toiletries Ms. Gerow needed for her travels. The brown leather bag lined with blue silk contains a hair brush, mirror, several small glass bottles, a cork screw, sewing kit, and many other objects. A calling card holder can also be found in the case with the calling card of Miss Florence Gerow, a popular item of the century. They were used to set up proper calls to one’s social circle and would be the determining factor in accepting or possible rejection of an in person meeting. More examples of calling cards, as well as other Victorian objects, will be on display in our “True Politeness:” The Daily Life of a Victorian Lady exhibition at the DuBois Fort, beginning September 12.

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Researching this traveling case took me on a fascinating trip and I discovered new information. It can be inferred Ms. Gerow was part of the upper middle class of the period and was well accustomed to traveling. Why else would she have such an extensive traveling case? The 19th century was a time when traveling became much more popular due to the development of the Transcontinental Railroad. Many upper and middle class people were able to venture off to other states with ease. Mabel R. Gerow was originally from Vineland, NJ, however she died in Chicago, IL, in 1903. This led me to look further into her death to figure out why she died 800 miles away from home. I found out she died in a theatre fire, the Iroquois Theatre fire, which killed over 600 people due to poor planning and improper fire safety. When the theatre first opened, the Chicago fire captain pointed out the major safety violations but was assured that the theatre was completely fire proof. On December 30, 1903, a spark from a light fixture set the stage curtain on fire causing a surge of panic in the theatre. When the “fool proof” fire curtain was used to contain the fire, it snagged and stage hands could not get it to open fully. The fire quickly spread destroying everything in its path. The few hundred who were lucky enough to make it out experienced health issues months later.

Finding Mabel R. Gerow’s traveling case serves many purposes. Its main function is to be on display in Gertrude Deyo-Brodhead’s bedroom located in the Deyo House. People can take it for face value and see all the wonderful things women in the 19th century needed on trips away from home. If one takes the time to dive deeper into the object, many new pieces of information can be discovered. Ms. Gerow’s traveling case took her places she had never been and it allowed me to discover things I had never known about.

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