Mad In Pursuit Notebook

Postcards from Viola

One of my ebay customers -- Sophie -- spent the time to look through the postcards in our online store and found two from the same woman Viola -- one from Egypt, one from Cuba. I pointed out to Sophie that there was a third. She bought it immediately and wrote:

I'm so glad you let me know about the Ceylon card! I was captivated by the idea of a woman of that era seeing the world and writing home to tell her family of her adventures. She seemed so at ease and self-assured. This was obviously not her first time abroad. Just from those three little cards, a fascinating 'life' developed in my imagination. I've found a small old suitcase and pictures of an adventurous-looking young woman to display with the cards in my 'Viola' corner. Now I just need to find some travel stickers for the case. 8-]

Sophie's interest got me interested too. If the ones she found were discards from Jim's postcard collection, maybe there were more. Sure enough... 12 more, along the route in the map below. [3 more found in 2013.] The 1930s messages are simple, like postcard messages usually are. Not much room for philosophizing and no place for complaining. The clues tell me that Viola was on a round-the-world cruise on the Empress of Britain (see photo to right or below). But she must have also signed up for one of those "supplemental" tours heading far into the Indian sub-continent to see the Taj Majal in Agra and to press far into the Himalayan mountains to Darjeeling -- in rainy early spring. She also went inland in China and Japan. She was a trouper.

(If the map below doesn't show the span of her travels from Cuba to Japan, use the zoom buttons to zoom out or, with the open-hand pointer, click-drag the map to the left. Zoom in to see closer views of the geography.)

View Viola 1935 in a larger map

The Postcards

Viola set out from New York City in January, crossing the Atlantic to Southhampton, England, then down to Cairo.

Click on each postcard thumbnail to see an enlarged version of each postcard.


cairo 1935

Feb 4 [no year] - Cairo - This is the costume you see on the majority of native women in Cairo - the married women have that little brass piece on nose that joins upper and lower veil, the unmarried don't have the brass piece. Went to Pyramids this afternoon & rode a camel. Love, Viola [Postmarked Cairo] Color postcard published by Lehnert and Landrock, Cairo, Egypt: "2062 Cairo, Native Woman."

From Cairo, the ship traveled to the port at Bombay, where Viola must have caught a train inland.


taj majal 1935

[Feb 13, 1935] This is one of the places [Taj Majal, Agra] I visit on the long trip through India. It is a wealthy English city. I know I am going to enjoy everything. Viola [Postmarked 13 Feb 1935, Bombay Foreign] Real Photo postcard, copyright Will F Taylor: "J1. Agra, Taj Majal." The cruise notice confirms that the port of call was Bombay [now Mumbai], so it is likely she took a train taking upwards of 20 hours to get to Agra.

taj majal 1935

Feb 16 Agra, India. Visited Taj Mahal this morning and it was most impressive. I don't know when I saw anything as beautiful. Enjoying everything. Love, Viola [postmarked 16 Feb 1935, Agra, India]. Real Photo postcard by Gevorst [?]


darjeeling photo 1935

Feb 19 [no year] - Dear Norma - Arrived at Darjeeling at eleven. It was raining hard but went in rickshaws from train to hotel. I am looking for sunshine tomorrow. Enjoying trip to India so far. Love Viola. Real Photo postcard, hand colored, signed by J Singh & Co. "General View of Darjeeling." From Agra to Darjeeling is another 24-hour train ride.

darjeeling photo 1935

Feb 19, 1935- Dear Evelyn - This is a view I am expecting to see tomorrow. It rained when we arrived at Mt. Everest hotel today but good weather is predicted for tomorrow. Here's hoping. Love, Viola Real Photo postcard, hand colored, signed by J Singh & Co., Darjeeling, "Sunrise from Tiger Hill."

Viola would have traveled back to Bombay over the course of days. Next port was Colombo, Ceylon [Sri Lanka]



[no date] Ceylon is really a gem. It is noted for being a place to buy precious stones. But is has luxurious vegetation, quite a contrast to India. This washing scene is common in India & Ceylon. Feeling fine. Love, Viola. [postmarked in Penang] Color photo copyright by Plate, Ceylon: "#4 Dhobies work at Colombo Lake, Ceylon."


madora temple photo 1935

Mar 1, 1935 - This is a picture of Madora Temple, one of the largest and most interesting in India. It covers 50 acres and the natives come and pray everyday before breakfast. Enjoyed trip to India very much, not as strenuous as pictured and talked about. Arrive at Penang tonight. Love, Viola Real Photo postcard. [Postmarked Paquebot, Penang, 2 Mar 1935] This may have been a side trip from Colombo back into India. "Madora Temple" turns out to be the Madurai temple (aka Meenakshi Amman Temple), way in the south of India. Another possibility is that they might have taken the train from Darjeeling down south and met the boat in Ceylon. Either way... long overland haul.

Now on to Indonesia.


borobudur temple java 1935 photo

[No date] I am enjoying the trip through Java very much. The boat could not land at Serang so we are going to Surabaya. Viola. Real Photo postcard: Borobudur Temple, Java

bali rice fields 1935 photo

[No date] Rice Plantation, Bali. Real Photo postcard.


Mch 22/35- My first observation of China. No doubt I will have many interesting moments. The sea is rough again but we get there tomorrow. Love, Viola [Postmarked Hong, Kong] On a Canadian Pacific Round the World Cruise "Memogram" postcard,* "China: Roofs Heavy with Design."

Mch 30, 1935 - We are enroute to Peking from Shanghai and the weather is getting colder every minute. When you are having spring, we will be having winter as northern China is very cold. Love, Viola. On a Canadian Pacific Round the World Cruise "Memogram" postcard,* "China: Laden Junks Go Gliding By."

beijing china 1935 photo

Wed, Apr 3 - Greetings from Pekin. This is the high spot in China. I walked up the great wall today. Yesterday visited the Summer Palace and saw the marble boat on the other side. Love, Viola [Postmarked 26 April 26 1935 from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada] Real Photo postcard from Hartung's, Peking. In Viola's handwriting: "Marble Boat at Summer Palace, Peiping"

April 13 [no year]- En route to Yokahama - We have had lots of rain here but I have enjoyed Kyoto and Nara. Arrive in Yokahama tomorrow. Best Wishes, Viola [Postmarked Yokohama] On a Canadian Pacific Round the World Cruise "Memogram" postcard,* "Picture Book Japan."


nikko japan 1935

April 16 - I am now in Nikko a most beautiful spot, but a little too early for the cherry blossoms as it is colder over 2000 ft. above sea level. The Cryptomeria trees are most beautiful. Love, Viola [Postmarked 4/13/1935, Japan] 4-color screened postcard, "Ice skating on the Lake Placid, Kanaya Hotel, Nikko."

From Japan, the ship went to Honolulu and on to San Francisco and Los Angeles.


morro castle

[no date] San Francisco is a beautiful city with wide streets and beautiful buildings. It is comparatively new having been rebuilt since the earthquake. Best Wishes to all. Viola. [Postmarked May 4, 1935, Terminal Island, California] 4-color linen postcard by Californians, Inc. Photo 2A-H770. "San Francisco's Skyscrapers Overlooking Bay Toward Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda Shore 16"

morro castle

May 2, 1935. In San Francisco. I think it is a beautiful city, but I never realized it was so hilly. We had a perfect day, the sun shining all the time. Only spent one day here. There are hundreads of seals on these rocks. Love Viola. [Postmarked May 4, 1935, Terminal Island, California] 4-color linen postcard by Californians, Inc. Photo 2A-H801. "Cliff House and Seal Rocks, San Francisco, Calif. 94"

morro castle

[no date] Here is where we had our luncheon. It is a beautiful spot, looks just like a real cocoanut grove, but it was a private party & we didn't see movie stars. Love, Viola. [no postal markings] 4-color screen postcard by the TV All Co, LA. "World Famous Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, where stars of the motion picture and theatrical world mingle with Southern California's smart set nightly."

From here they traveled through the Panama Canal.


morro castle

May 16, 1935. Received your letter also one from Evelyn & LeRoy. Enjoyed them very much. Havana is the same as last spring but am taking included sightseeing just the same. See you soon. Love, Viola [postmarked 16 May 1935, Habana Cuba] Color postcard published by C Jordi, Havana Cuba, Made in USA. "Entrance To Morro Castle."

Back to New York.

Who was Viola?

Was Viola a young adventuress looking for a husband? A spinster aunt? A widow? Was she changed forever by her journey? Or did she skim along the surface as a well-pampered tourist? Although it's hard to imagine too much pampering on the road to mountainous Darjeeling in 1935. We do know that she was good-natured and not deterred by rain.

On 2/4/07 I got an e-mail from a PhD student at Columbia. He found the information I'd posted about Viola and wrote:

Do you still have these postcards?... The reason I am interested in these postcards is because they were written by Viola Wertheim Bernard, who was traveling at the time with her husband, Theos Bernard, who is the subject of my dissertation here at Columbia University.

Bernard was an early traveller into Tibet and a pioneer of Indian and Tibetan studies at Columbia University. Interesting.

My Columbia University correspondent was concerned that I had misread the dates somehow, since Viola Wertheim Bernard had made the journey along this route in 1936.

Was Viola really the wife of this dashing romantic figure? I decided to dig in.

And I learned that Viola was... Viola Schaefer, high school teacher, Buffalo NY.

Yep. On 2/7/07, I took a stab at finding Viola in Since she wrote her postcards to Arthur, Evelyn and Norma Schaefer on Linwood Avenue in Buffalo NY, I took a giant leap of logic that my Viola was also a Schaefer.

And there she was, in both the 1920 and 1930 census data.

Viola Schaefer was born 1887 (some discrepancies in birth dates given) and lived with her family on Linwood Avenue. She and her two younger sisters Evelyn and Norma were all high school teachers, unmarried. Her brother Arthur was a physician. Her brother LeRoy (mentioned in her Cuba postcard) worked in the steel industry. (A relative of hers wrote me in 2012 to say that, no, Viola never married.)

So she took her 'round-the-world adventure when she was 48 years old — a single woman and mature educator. I wrote to Sophie to tell her and she was thrilled to get the whole story.

Assuming I found the correct Social Security Record, her official dates are 8 Aug 1887 - May 1982 — a good long life. Jim probably bought the cards about that time -- when the family belongings were all being dispersed to estate sales and paper dealers.

20 April 2005 (revised 7 Feb 2007, 24 May 2008, 8 May 2013)

Detective Work

Canadian Pacific Cruise announcement

Above notice from Google's newspaper archive.

Empress of Britain

RMS Empress of Britain (Wikipedia). Above: Photographer: Stewart Bale, Liverpool Source: Canadian Pacific Archives Date: 1931

*Canadian Pacific Memogram Postcards: According to Erick R. Middleton at the Toronto Postcard Club site, these postcards originated with the cruise artists Flora and Martin DeMuth on board the Empress of Britain. They were produced on board and given free to passengers on a day-to-day basis. Their signature on the ones here is a capital D.