The Fabulous Whites

By early 20th century American standards, Frank, Mary, and Doris White were a remarkably adventurous family. In 1925, when less than .5 percent of the American population travelled overseas—and the majority of those who did travelled exclusively to Europe—the White family embarked on a grand tour of staggering proportions. Setting sail from San Francisco, they travelled by boat to Hawaii, Japan, Sri Lanka, India, the Middle East, and, finally, Italy. And all this when Doris was only ten years old.

Perhaps more important than the sheer novelty of the White family’s journey was the spirit in which they engaged with it. In our collection of the Doris White family papers, the Kislak Center is lucky enough to have not only extensive photo documentation of the trip (some with distinctive early colorization), but also Frank White’s careful notes on the reverse of each photograph, which demonstrate his keen interest in cultural habits. It’s hard to imagine the average American tourist of the time having an interest in the mealtime procedure of a boat crew outside Sri Lanka, for example, much less the kind of pragmatic (if slightly Eurocentric) assessment Frank White provides here. It’s true; using banana leaves saves on dishwashing!

IMG-1453

IMG-1454At other times, one can detect a note of confusion in Frank’s explanations, as with this description of riding around in a rickshaw. Perhaps, if given the choice, the Whites would have chosen other transportation accommodations? And yet the accompanying note is conciliatory enough. As one would expect from the rare American family travelling across Asia, the Whites were always willing to be accommodating.

IMG-1455

IMG-1456

As the journey wore on, however, a certain amount of travel fatigue began to set in. Frank White was less excited about riding a small donkey than he was about riding in a rickshaw, and he was less than happy about the sheer amount of beggars crowding the holy sites in Jerusalem. Perhaps, considering the unorthodox itinerary the Whites were pursuing, some burnout was to be expected.

IMG-1458IMG-1460

However, despite occasional misgivings at some of the less enjoyable parts of the journey, the White family seems to have maintained their interest in the people they met. Their guide in Egypt, Abdu Mohamed, asked for this posed picture, which Frank later sent to him, establishing a correspondence. Clearly the man had left an impression on Frank. “[H]e could look right through you and tell you all you did[…]”

IMG-1461

IMG-1462

Unfortunately, our collection here at Kislak contains no reflections by the family on the effect of this momentous trip—but it does contain photographic accounts of later trips by Doris White, the family daughter, who one imagines must have been inspired by this formative journey. Indeed, Doris enrolled in the Kansas City National Training School, which trained missionaries—and was, based on photographic evidence from the collection, a lively and popular student.

Later, when Doris set out on trips of her own, her family’s intrepid spirit and ability to slip easily into native custom were on full display in these photo albums of her trips through California and Mexico in the late 1940s. While North American travel was certainly much more common than the sort of trip she and her family had taken in the 1920s, the idea of an unmarried female traveler was still a novel one. It was one thing for Frank White to travel the globe with his family in tow, and another thing for his daughter to don a Sombrero and Mexican garb.

IMG-1465

Doris White wouldn’t stay single forever. Shortly after her trip to Mexico, she married Richard Ischinger. Is he the man she’s sitting with on this shot taken atop a rocky promontory? Not according to the back of the photo, which identifies him as “J. Whitman Evans.”

IMG-1467

Although marriage was in her future, Doris wasn’t waiting around for it to appear. She was 33 by the time she married, and—thanks to her family and to her own sense of adventure—had already experienced more of the world than most American women could have hoped to see.

Taken together, the White family were fascinating outliers: an example of early 20th century American travelers who stepped outside of their usual scripts, whether of gender, culture, or national origin, and participated in experiences totally foreign to most of their countrymen. And, as a result, these family photographs are a completely surprising series of documents, showing the limits of contemporary possibilities for American lives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s