Nellie Bly's 72-Day Trip Around the World

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

In 1873, French author Jules Verne published Around the World in 80 Days, the fictional account of a man named Phileas Fogg who took advantage of new nineteenth-century technologies to circumnavigate the globe. It wasn’t sci-fi by any means, since those means of traveling—steam ships, omnibuses, and railroads—did exist at the time, but it took one daring woman to make the made-up journey a reality.

The Pitch

Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, under her journalist pseudonym Nellie Bly, had already earned a reputation as the world’s first investigative reporter and a fearless individual. Her previous escapades, including uncovering the plight of female factory workers and checking herself into a mental institution for ten days, had been sensational adventures that introduced a new frontier of hands-on journalism, but her popularity was waning as more reporters began to parrot her style. After reading Verne’s novel, Bly approached her editor at the New York World with an outrageous pitch: If he would allow it, she would make the journey and document her experience for the paper.

John A. Cockerill, managing editor of the World, was intrigued by Bly’s proposal; the business manager, however, was not so easily convinced. A journey of the scale Bly proposed was unprecedented by man or woman, and although Bly insisted that she could undertake it without a chaperone, the male senior staff at the paper were unconvinced of the woman’s ability to succeed, preferring to send a man instead. Bly had her answer at the ready: “Very well. Start the man and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” The editors conceded.

Bly planned ahead and packed light—extremely light. Rather than the “dozen trunks” her editors had derisively predicted she would need to carry with her, Bly took along just a single piece of luggage, sixteen inches wide and seven inches high. In a bag easily small enough to comply with today’s airline carry-on regulations, she packed a few changes of underwear, toiletries, writing implements, a dressing gown, a tennis blazer, a flask, a cup, two caps, three veils, a pair of slippers, needles and thread, and some handkerchiefs. She packed not a single spare dress, wearing only the garment she commissioned from a dressmaker made of “a plain blue broadcloth and a quiet plaid camel’s-hair.” In her only concession to vanity, Bly did carry a single jar of cold cream. She refused to take a revolver, assured of “the world's greeting me as I greeted it.”

Not-So-Smooth Sailing

The World, now fully backing Bly both financially and with a front-page story on the day of her departure, saw her off from Hoboken Pier in New Jersey. From the start, Bly was exact with her timing, marking her departure on the Augusta Victoria at 30 seconds after 9:40 p.m. on November 14, 1889. Ambitiously, she aimed not merely to match Phileas Fogg’s ‘round-the-world record, but to beat it, hoping to be on the road for no more than 75 days and four hours.

Bly’s journey got off to a rough start, as she—a first-time traveler—found herself violently seasick on the transatlantic crossing to London. The sight of food made her nauseated, and her fellow passengers were rather judgmental of the queasy woman proposing to travel around the entire world. In attempting to sleep off her nausea, Bly awoke 22 hours later to a knock on her cabin door; the Captain feared she had died. The long sleep seemed to do the trick, however, and Bly managed the rest of the journey in good health and with good appetite, making fast friends with her shipmates.

Upon arriving at Southampton, Bly was faced with a critical decision. Jules Verne himself had issued an invitation to the reporter to visit him at his home in Amiens, France, but she only had one chance to make the trip without missing her connection in London. She went without sleep for two nights to do so, and was greeted at the station by the author and his wife “with the cordiality of a cherished friend.” Though forced to employ the services of a translator, the two writers had a pleasant visit, during which Bly learned that Verne’s story had been inspired by his reading a newspaper article—a fitting detail to share with a journalist.

A Rival Traveler

Hoping to ride the wave of Bly’s publicity, Cosmopolitan magazine sent a rival reporter to race her, headed in the opposite direction. Elizabeth Bisland left New York the same day as Bly, with only six hours’ notice to prepare. While the public took interest in this second traveler, Bly herself was unaware of Bisland’s competition until her arrival in Hong Kong on Christmas Day, when she was called into the office of the Oriental and Occidental Steamship Company prior to her departure for Japan. When asked if she was the Nellie Bly having “a race around the world,” she naïvely responded that yes, she was running “a race with Time,” only to be told, “I don’t think that’s her name.” Bisland had passed through Hong Kong three days prior, with a blank check from Cosmopolitan to offer ships bribes in any amount to accommodate her schedule. Bly’s response was assured:

I am not racing with anyone. I would not race. If someone else wants to do the trip in less time, that is their concern. If they take it upon themselves to race against me, it is their lookout that they succeed. I am not racing. I promised to do the trip in seventy-five days, and I will do it; although had I been permitted to make the trip when I first proposed it over a year ago, I should then have done it in sixty days.

Making New Friends

As a single woman traveling alone, Bly attracted considerable male attention, despite her best efforts to deflect it. On the ship from Italy to Egypt, a rumor spread that she was “an eccentric American heiress, traveling about with a hair brush and a bank book,” and she was made an offer of marriage by a man with eyes on her (falsely reported) wealth. On another occasion, she described being called upon by a ship captain whose “smooth, youthful face” and “tall, shapely, slender body” belied her expectation of a grizzled old seaman. Though Jules Verne had winkingly predicted that Bly might find herself a companion along the way, as Phileas Fogg did, she was determined that hers was a voyage to be made alone.

Bly’s journey was populated by a vibrant cast of characters, whose differences both great and small she delighted in reporting. On her first oceanic voyage, she took note of an American girl whom she claimed knew more about politics, art, literature, and music than any man on board, and she chronicled the “pecularities” of a man who took his pulse after every meal, another who counted every step he took each day, and a woman who had not once disrobed since departing from New York, determined that if the ship were to sink, she should be fully dressed. She made the acquaintance of other female travelers, including a pair of Scottish women traveling around the world as well, but over the course of two years—a much more leisurely pace.

While some of Bly’s observations about other races and ethnicities would now be seen as explicitly offensive, she made conscious efforts to respect the cultures she encountered. She made missteps along the way, as when she inadvertently insulted the Italians by offering a coin to a beggar child, but spent most of her time documenting Japanese fashion, Italian cuisine, and Egyptian alligator-hunting.  She was treated to a ride by the finest team of ponies in Hong Kong, but was not too much of a snob to see the appeal of a humble burro named Gladstone “with two beautiful black eyes” at Port Said.

Bly dispatched what brief notes she could to The World by cable, though she was surprised in Brindisi when the Italian-speaking cable operator asked her what country New York was in. Her more detailed, handwritten reports, however, traveled by ship, as slowly as she did. Her editors, forced to string out the story to maintain the public’s interest, began printing reaction pieces from foreign papers and geography lessons on all the countries Bly was visiting. After an 8000-mile journey across the Pacific and two weeks of silence from the woman of the moment, it was a relief to everyone when Bly arrived safely in San Francisco, back on American soil at last.

Home Sweet Home

The World, in a hurry to get their world traveler home again, chartered a one-car train to get her across the country with haste. She was greeted as a conquering heroine along the way, met at all stops by cheering crowds and well-wishers in their Sunday best. A Kansas man invited her to come to the Midwest that they might elect her governor; the mayor of Dodge City himself greeted her on behalf of his citizens; the Chicago Press Club held a breakfast in her honor; and the whole nation reverberated with cries of “Hurrah for Nellie Bly!”

Nellie Bly arrived in Jersey City at 3:51 p.m. on January 25, 1890, only 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds after she had left it. She beat her own itinerary by three days, and Verne’s story by eight. Elizabeth Bisland did not arrive for four and a half days afterward. Bly’s trip was an unqualified success, but on arriving, she professed: “I took off my cap and wanted to yell with the crowd, not because I had gone around the world in seventy-two days, but because I was home again.”

For more insight into Nellie Bly’s around-the-world adventure, her book, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, is available in the public domain.

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From Campaign Slogans to Social Movements, New Book Explores the Role Buttons Have Played Throughout History

Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon
Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

From their early days on the campaign trail during the 1896 presidential race to their current role as a way of showing support for social causes like the LGBTQIA+ pride movement, pinback buttons have remained one of the most popular ways for people to express their values and beliefs for well over a century. And now, button experts Christen Carter, founder of Chicago’s Busy Beaver Button Company and the Button Museum, and Ted Hake, owner of Hake’s Auctions, have put their extensive knowledge of the subject into the new book Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons ($25), a cultural journey showcasing 1500 of the most important and unique pinbacks throughout American history.

“Buttons seem like really a niche thing, but they really are very general,” Carter tells Mental Floss. “They cover so much history, and the history goes deep and wide.”

For the book, Hake and Carter—who both began collecting buttons during their respective childhoods—cover how buttons have been used to communicate messages during their 125-year history, from pinbacks featuring landmark political slogans and anti-war sentiments to others that simply proclaim a person's love of Dallas.

“[Buttons] are little windows on the world, and you can pick an avenue and head down to your heart's content,” Hake tells Mental Floss.

Some of the 20th century's most important moments had a button to go along with them.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

One of Hake's favorite buttons in the book doesn't feature a political or social statement—it's just a picture of a buffalo with the words “Eat Me at Bremen, Kans. June 9, 1935” emblazoned across it. But it wasn't just the design that really caught his attention; it was also its backstory.

The button's origins lie within the town of Bremen, Kansas, which, in June 1935, was celebrating both its 50th anniversary and the dedication of a marker for the defunct Oregon Trail, according to Kansas Historical Quarterly. Two weeks before the celebration, 500 townspeople gathered in Bremen to watch a buffalo get slaughtered, which was then shipped to the neighboring town’s ice house for preservation. When the big day finally arrived, the buffalo was shipped back to become the centerpiece of a community-wide feast. The button was made to spread the word for the unique event.

“Here he is on this button, inviting the good folks of Bremen to enjoy him,” Hake says. “So it is a little bit surreal, to tell you the truth.” During his research, Hake recovered this niche historical event that could’ve otherwise been easily lost to history. “At the end of the day, they capped it off with supper, a band concert, and they gave away a baby buffalo calf,” he says.

Buttons have been used to express both support and opposition to the United States's involvement in wars. Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

While pinback button technology has not changed drastically in the past 125 years, Hake and Carter still consider their golden era to be from 1896 to 1921. “The colors are just unusual and beautiful,” Carter says. “They were able to get fine details that, [even] with digital printing, we can’t do.” Carter also enjoys how buttons were used as a communication device during the punk movement, saying, “They're important identifiers to a counter-culture movement, and they were not afraid to piss people off.”

Though the book covers buttons featuring celebrities, bands, and brands, many of the most popular ones come from the political arena and sports. Hake’s Auction just set the record for the most expensive pinback sold on September 23, 2020, with a 1916 Boston Red Sox World Series button that went for $62,980. “What makes it great is that every team member is on the button and up at 11 o’clock is one Babe Ruth. He was in his second year and was a pitcher back in those days,” Hake explains.

Even though there are buttons like the Babe Ruth ones that sell for thousands of dollars, it's still an accessible hobby for everyone. “You can start your button collection with just $10 and already have a good start. It is a good thing to collect if you don’t have much money or much space,” Carter explains.

The power of the political button eventually became fertile ground for satire in the '70s.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

Looking forward to the next 125 years, Carter hopes that buttons can become more eco-friendly by eliminating steel use and replacing it with recycled materials. “They haven’t changed that much in the last 125 years. They are pretty timeless in that way, and they are inexpensive, so whatever keeps them as inexpensive as possible as resources change in the next 100 years, they will probably change."

You can order Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons on Amazon or on the Princeton Architectural Press website.

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