As we mentioned earlier, the National Geographic Museum in DC has just opened a wonderful free exhibit called “Kodachrome Culture: The American Tourist in Europe,” featuring big, luscious blowups of travel photos that appeared in the pages of National Geographic magazine (we call it NGM for short) in the 1950s and ’60s. I particularly liked this photo of feeding pigeons in St. Mark’s Square in Venice, dated 1957, by Ardean Miller III.
I was curious about the photo, so I pulled the second half of 1957 off our shelves (we keep the older magazines in leather-bound volumes), and found the picture on page 791, with the following caption (or legend, in NGM-speak):
“Finest Drawing Room in Europe,” Napoleon Called Venice’s Marbled Piazza
Gilded pinnacles and gem-bright mosaics give St. Mark’s Cathedral the look of an oriental palace, Built about 830 and several times reconstructed, it is graced by treasures won when the city reigned as Queen of the Adriatic.
The photo was part of a story by Norma Miller titled “Through Europe By Trailer Caravan,” and that’s Norma in the photo wearing the red-striped dress, and one of her sons. Her article is about an expedition mounted by Airstream inventor Wally Byam to ship 38 American families with their cars and their shiny silver trailers to Europe. Norma and her husband Ardean (who photographed the story) traveled with the group and brought along their three sons, Ardean IV, Bradley and Bruce.
Such an expedition required months of planning and, as you can imagine, created a sensation among Europeans, who had never seen anything like these futuristic, streamlined camper vans. Norma said the Germans thought the Airstreams looks like “shining Zeppelins pulled by bonbon-colored cars.”
The group “generally traveled in convoy at about 35 to 40 miles an hour, and aimed to cover no more than 150 miles a day.” (Slow travel pioneers!) Every family had duties, and they held a camp meeting every morning to decide on the details. “We were in short a vehicular American village, and rather proud of its capacity to handle its problems as they arose, in a democratic spirit.”
They assembled in Rotterdam and sailed to France where they camped in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, and on a champagne estate near Rheims, then on to Belgium, Luxembourg, through the Black Forest in Germany and into Switzerland and Italy. “The days merged into weeks, the weeks into months. We drove from chateau to chateau along the Loire, roamed the Riviera, and watched festal rockets burst over the esplanade in Nice. Then we swung back into the Alps to camp contentedly in Chamonix, with Mont Blanc rearing its resplendent head right in our front yard, and also tacked northwestward into the undulant pastures of Strasbourg.”
The Miller family ended their four-month trip in Denmark, but other carvanners continued into Norway, Sweden, Germany and back to Rotterdam. Norma describes the warm welcomes they received in many places where the memory of World War II was still very fresh. One pastry-shop owner in Graz declared: “We Austrians appreciate deeply what America has done for us. When you get back to the States, please tell Mr. Eisenhower that we will never forget how America fed us when we were starving. We shall be forever grateful.”
The National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., is open Mondays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. For information on the “Kodachrome Culture” exhibit, call (202) 857-7588 or visit www.ngmuseum.org.
Photos: From the Kodachrome Culture exhibit at the National Geographic Museum; photos from National Geographic Magazine, September 1957