Category Archives: Memorabilia

Brochures, posters, postcards, luggage labels, ashtrays and every other kind of hotel memorabilia.

An American Express on the Nile

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Americans had been vacationing on the Nile since the mid 19th century but in the first years of the 20th they were coming in ever greater numbers. The Hamburg-American Line increased its sailings to Alexandria to accommodate the growth. Meanwhile, on the Nile new cruise companies were setting up to challenge the monopoly of the English-owned Thomas Cook & Son. I’ve written before about the Anglo-American, established in the mid 1890s, and this was joined ten years later by another new venture, the Express Nile Steamer Company.

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Boasting all-American management and operating on “the American plan”, it inaugurated services aboard its two purpose-built steamers, the America and the Virginia, in 1906. (The steamers, incidentally, were British built.) What the “American plan” was, I’m not sure, but the company’s particular selling point was speed. It claimed its boats were the fastest on the Nile, with an average speed upstream of 12 knots an hour. This enabled them to complete the journey to Aswan and back in eight days as opposed to Cook & Son’s standard twenty. In fact, by synchronising with the train that left Cairo at 6.30pm and arrived in Luxor at 9am the next morning, where a boat would leave at 10am arriving in Aswan at 11pm, the company could boast it could get the traveller from Cairo to Aswan in not much over 24 hours “and have a good view of some of the principal ruins on the way”.

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Except tearing up and back down the Nile at breakneck speed was not the experience most tourists in Egypt were looking for and it seems the Express Nile Steamer Company did not remain in business long because very little evidence of it exists. I found just one or two mentions in archive issues of the daily Egyptian Gazette. Until, that is, this brochure came up recently on ebay (scans above and below). I’ve never seen any other material relating to the company, which might explain why this item went for a price far beyond my each.

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If anybody has any more information about this company, I’d love to hear from you.

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More on the Anglo-American

Last March I was posting on this blog asking for information on the Anglo-American Nile Company, which for the first 40 years of the 20th century was Cook & Son’s main rival on the Nile. Despite the company’s longevity, I couldn’t discover too much about it. The most useful source of information I had was a pdf of the Anglo-American’s very first Nile brochure, kindly sent to me by Cornelius von Pilgrim of the Swiss Institut in Egypt. I have a couple of later brochures from the 1930s and between them, a few newspaper clippings and mentions in journals and travel accounts, I pieced together what I could.

In short – there’s much more detail in On the Nile – it was set up in 1896 and by 1900 had a fleet of three first-class steamers in the Mayflower, Puritan, and Victoria; three smaller steamers (the Columbia, Indiana, and Niagara); two small launches (Courlis and Witch) and a small fleet of dahabiyas. The bigger steamers had triple decks that sat on top of a hull that was little more than a floating platform, which gave them an appearance that was top-heavy going on outright ugly. But this arrangement did mean they had a shallower draft than the Cook boats and were less prone to running aground.

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Like Cook & Son, the Anglo-American was able to offer weekly departures from Cairo during the season, with connecting departures to the Second Cataract and through bookings to Khartoum. Its boats were less luxurious but they were also considerably cheaper. The Anglo-American also went head-to-head with Cook & Son in the land-based hospitality business, opening its own hotel, the Savoy, on the northern tip of Elephantine Island at Aswan.

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The company was strengthened in 1906 by amalgamation with the transatlantic Hamburg-American Line, becoming in the process the Hamburg and Anglo-American Nile Company. Investment came in the form of two new, large steamers, the Germania and Nubia. The fleet now flew the German flag in addition to the Stars and Stripes. This business arrangement was severed around the time Germany found itself at war with Britain and eventually America. The company failed to survive the Second World War.

Now, wouldn’t you know it, since the publication of the book earlier this year, there has been a flood of Anglo-American brochures hitting eBay. The prices have mostly carried them out of my reach but I have managed to screen-grab some of the covers, which are lovely things. The image at the top of this post, by the way, is an advertising poster rather than a brochure.

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If anyone has any more Anglo-American images and/or information, please do get in touch. There’s always the second printing.

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The Thomas Cook archive

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The new book On the Nile is a history of travellers and tourists on the river in Egypt. It starts with dahabiyas and quickly moves into the era of the steamboat. The first steamboat on the Nile was, as far as I can ascertain, l’Egyptienne, built at the request of Muhammad Ali by Laird, Son & Co of Birkenhead, England and delivered to Egypt in 1837. But it wasn’t until 1851 that Abbas, grandson of Muhammad Ali, inaugurated a government-run monthly service of passenger steamers between Cairo and Aswan. This was reportedly unreliable which is maybe why it doesn’t seem to have been much used by travellers. The change didn’t come until 1870, when Thomas Cook & Son took over the running of the steamers and not only made them run to schedule but made them popular thanks to extensive marketing through its offices around the globe. The company enjoyed a monopoly on the Nile for close on the next 30 years until it had to share navigation rights with a handful of rival new steamer companies including the Anglo-American Nile Steamer and Hotel Company, the Tewfikiya Nile Navigation Company and the Express Nile Navigation Company. Even so, On the Nile comes close to being a history of the company of Thomas Cook & Son in Egypt, for which there is a very simple reason. History may be written by victors but it’s also shaped by those with the best archives – and the Thomas Cook archive is fabulous.

It’s kept at the company’s industrial park HQ on the outskirts of the unlovely town of Peterborough, 75 miles north of London. I made over a dozen trips up there in 2013 and 2014 while researching On the Nile, and so extensive is the archive I still didn’t manage to look at everything relating to Egypt, never mind the stuff concerning the company’s operations around the rest of the world (which includes everything from contracts and minutes of meetings to porters’ costumes and a couple of glass panels by Lalique from the Orient Express).

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A particularly brilliant resource for any travel historians is a complete run of The Excursionist, which is a sort of proto travel magazine, published by Thomas Cook from 1851 and which featured details of Cook’s tours, as well as general travel news and articles, book reviews and a wonderful selection of advertising.

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Even more useful, as far as my book was concerned, are the Egypt & the Nile brochures that were put out almost every year from around 1880 through until the 1930s, and which included timetables, descriptions of the ever-changing Nile fleet and tour itineraries.

There were also diaries (more of which in a future post) and letters – notably an entertaining sequence of correspondence between John Mason Cook and his son Bert, who ran the Nile service operations, with Cook senior getting splenetic over the wrong soap being placed in the boats’ bathrooms and “some mean skunk” stealing all the pieces from the boardgames in the lounges.

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Then there are the albums of photographs, the cups, glasses and cutlery, the menus and printed passenger lists, the vintage guidebooks, blueprints, the genuine 3000-year-old piece of ancient Egyptian statuary…

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Unfortunately, almost none of this material is laid out for public view, instead it is all housed in a garage-like storage unit from where it has to be retrieved by the company’s full-time archivist Paul Smith. Fortunately, he’s an amiable man who was willing to make endless trips back and forth across the car park to deliver up boxes of the raw material out of which my book was shaped. On the Nile could not have happened without the Thomas Cook archive or the assistance of its archivist. Thank you Paul.

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Panorama of the past

I was doing some research on the Compagnie des Wagons-Lits this week, the outfit best known for operating the Orient Express and other luxury train services. Less well known is that in 1894 the directors set up a subsidiary, the Compagnie Internationale des Grands Hotels, through which they began operating luxury hotels around the world. In Egypt, they took up the lease on what had been one of Ismail’s numerous palaces until it had been seized following his abdication in 1879. The CIGH had the former khedivial residence remodeled, refitted and opened to paying guests in October 1894 as the Gezira Palace Hotel—or Gheezireh Palace Hotel, as in those days the more letters in a word the more authentically foreign it was thought to be.

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The image above is part of a CIGH advertising poster and it is one of the most unique and beguiling views of Cairo I’ve ever seen. It must date from the very last years of the 19th century, soon after the CIGH acquired the Palace, which is at the centre of the panorama. If you don’t yet recognize it, the Gezira Palace would eventually – after a long spell as a private home – become the Cairo Marriott, and the island is what’s now Zamalek. The bridge in picture is Qasr el-Nil. It’s as though the artist is hovering above the east side of 26th of July Bridge.

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Behind the U-shaped building are the extensive khedivial gardens with twin lakes overlooked by the Kiosque, a large free-standing pavilion that was originally used as guest accommodation, but later became function rooms and a casino. South of the ornamental gardens, the Khedive’s private park has already became a sports and recreation ground, for polo and horse riding – it’s now the Gezira Club. Missing is the 6th October flyover that now cuts across its middle. Beyond, the west bank is largely desert, apart from the thread of greenery that indicates the road running straight to the Pyramids on the horizon.

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I love the detail, like the dahabiya just setting off from the moorings at Bulaq bound for Upper Egypt, and the lions at the end of the bridge. So many feluccas too – it looks more like Aswan than Cairo.

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Just as the card says

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Mena House 1900(ish)

The images below come from a small advertising booklet issued by the Mena House some time soon after 1900, which was when the electric tram, mentioned on one of its pages, first starting running on Pyramids Road. Note, in addition to horses, donkeys and camels, the hotel keeps its own herd of cows to supply guests with nutritious milk – how many hotels can boast that these days?

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A Burger and a fancy dress invitation

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Another piece by the prolific Willy Burger, whose postcards and Egyptian Hotels Ltd brochure I’ve posted previously. In this case, it’s a single-sheet brochure for the Continental-Savoy dating from the late/early ’30s. The dealer I bought it from also threw in his’n’hers party invitations for a fancy dress ball at the hotel for the evening of 30 January 1932.

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Ann Lees, former guest at Shepheard’s

My cousin Anthony, who lives on Alderney, called me recently to say that he’d lent his copy of Grand Hotels of Egypt to a friend of his on the island and that this person wanted to talk to me. I called her at the weekend. Her name is Ann Lees and I think she is possibly in her 80s. Her husband served in the Indian police until independence in 1947, and then went on to work as a British agent in Baghdad and Tehran. In 1949, Ann told me, they travelled out from the UK to the Middle East on the SS Canton, disembarking at Port Said and spent some time in Egypt. They stayed at Shepheard’s. Sixty-four years later Ann doesn’t really remember much about it except the bathrooms, which she says were “so big”, and also that there were numerous large vitrines in the corridors containing jewellery and objets d’art for sale. Her husband bought her a necklace, which she still has. She visited the Semiramis for dinner, where King Zog of Albania was in residence, and also the Mena House and Heliopolis Palace. Ann is only the second person I have spoken with who actually stayed at the original Shepheard’s – there can’t be too many people who did that are still around. Amazingly, Ann still has several mementoes of her Egypt trip (in addition to the necklace), which Anthony kindly photographed and which I’m posting below.

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It’s for you

A bunch of envelopes posted from the Mena House: the first is from 1891, just five years after the hotel opened, the second from 1894, then two from 1901 and the last is from 1939.

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On Shepheard’s balcony

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Old timers may get tired of Shepheard’s Hotel, and find more repose and quieter pleasures at the Savoy, the Semiramis, or the latest architectural wonder, The Heliopolis, but it still remains the most popular hotel in the country. No tourist to Egypt fails to pay a visit to this old-established home. Americans are particularly attracted to it, and would just as soon cut out of their programme the Sphinx or Pyramids, as return home without having put in at least one night there. The balcony is a great feature of the hotel. Every afternoon in the season it is packed with people taking tea and enjoying the passing show. Nothing more interesting or amusing can be imagined than this strange medley of the East and West; nothing more fascinating than studying the picturesque types of the East as they move along the roadway in a ceaseless stream.

From ‘A Series of 10 Egyptian Sketches by Lance Thackeray’, a Players Navy Cut Cigarettes card, issued by John Player & Sons of Nottingham, England, in 1910 or thereabouts

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