Monthly Archives: March 2013

Louis Vuitton’s labels


A couple of years back the Musée Carnavalet in Paris hosted an exhibition dedicated to the iconic travel baggage of Louis Vuitton, which I was lucky enough to visit. The incredible vintage pieces on show included trunks that doubled as camp beds and wardrobes, one made for a maharajah to transport his silver tea sets and another custom-built to hold 36 pairs of shoes. There was a lavish catalogue that went with the show, which came in an LV-monogrammed slipcase adorned with vintage luggage labels.


Hand-tooled leather trunks and luggage labels belong to the same world, so no surprise that legendary trunkmaker Gaston-Louis Vuitton (grandson of the original Louis Vuitton) should turn out to be a label collector. A compulsive voyager, after every trip he would carefully remove the labels from his trunks and place them in albums. He added to his collection by writing to printers and hotels. He amassed around 3,000 labels, which these days form part of the LV archive. A selection of 900 of them are reproduced in World Tour: Vintage Luggage Labels from the Collection of Gaston-Louis Vuitton, just published (in its English version) by Abrams of New York.

The book itself is a piece of art, with its embossed leather cover, tipped-in postcards and page edges printed with the names of far-flung destinations. Some of the vintage photography is gorgeous, and there’s an informative essay on the history of luggage labels by Joao-Manuel Mimoso, who’s probably the world’s leading expert on the subject (he was also kind enough to provide me with images of some of his labels to reproduce in Grand Hotels of Egypt). The rest of the text (by travel writer Francisca Mattéoli), a grand world tour, is as deep and meaningful as a holiday postcard but then nobody’s buying this book for the words.







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Then and now: the Savoy


For the brief 16 years it was open to guests, the Savoy was Cairo’s most aristocratic hotel. It was a third venture for the indefatigable George Nungovich, the earliest of Cairo’s hotel czars (who I’ve blogged about earlier, here).

A palace belonging to Prince Djemil Toussoun didn’t meet requirements and the building and its grounds were bought up by Nungovich. The site was at the heart of the new Ismailia quarter, on Qasr al-Nil Street, overlooking the Rond Point Qasr al-Nil (see map below). Nungovich had the palace pulled down and replaced with a grand new building of three stories topped by a rotunda.

Hotel du Nil 01 map

This he named the Savoy Hotel and it opened on 28 November 1898. It was described at the time as being remarkably modern with a large dining room and smaller restaurant, spacious lounges, smoking rooms, a reading room in ornamental Egyptian style, electric lift and a wide terrace overlooking Qasr al-Nil Street. Each bedroom had a fireplace and new furniture from Waring and Gillow of Oxford Street, London, and there were suites with private bath and toilet on each floor.


It was aimed at the class of people who might find Shepheard’s and the Grand Continental, then Cairo’s leading hotels, a bit vulgar. High society checking in at the Savoy in its early years included a young Winston Churchill, fresh from his adventures as a war correspondent in South Africa, Sir Benjamin Baker and Sir John Aird, the architect and contractor of the Aswan Dam, then under construction, and African colonialist Cecil Rhodes. When General Kitchener and his officers arrived in Cairo triumphant after victory at the Battle of Omdurman in September 1899, they were honored with a grand banquet on the Savoy’s terrace.

Flags were flown over the hotel whenever a royal was staying. First to be hoisted was the white elephant on red, in respect of the visit of the King of Siam. King Albert of Belgium, however, objected to the practice and demanded the flag be removed or he’d leave. In 1905, when the white-haired, 80-year-old ex-empress Eugénie returned to Egypt 36 years after opening the Suez Canal, she took rooms at the Savoy. King George V and Queen Mary, then Prince and Princess of Wales, stayed on their way back from India a couple of years later.

The Crown Prince of Germany being greeted by the manager of the Savoy, Auguste Wild

The Crown Prince of Germany being greeted by the manager of the Savoy, Auguste Wild

Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, in October 1914, the hotel was taken over by the British Army – as I noted in a previous post, TE Lawrence worked out of an office here from December of that year. When the war ended, the British Government elected to hold on to the hotel and it became a business address for British-owned companies. In 1924 it was sold to Charles Baehler, chief shareholder of Egyptian Hotels Ltd, who tore the building down. He replaced it with a grand commercial and apartment complex that still stands today facing onto what’s now Talaat Harb Square. Ironically, the Baehler Buildings, as they’re known, have themselves now become a totem of modern Downtown’s architectural heritage, cherished by conservationists, who are possibly unaware that the buildings in fact took the place of an establishment of far greater pedigree.

The Baehler Buildings on Talaat Harb Square now occupy the site of the former Savoy

The Baehler Buildings on Talaat Harb Square now occupy the site of the former Savoy


Filed under Hotels then and now

Thackeray at the hotels

Back last August, I blogged about the artist Lance Thackeray and promised to post more examples of his work. It’s a taken a while, but here we go – these sketches, all of which deal with hotel life, are taken from his 1908 book The Light Side of Egypt, along with the accompanying text.



The Vultures
No one in Egypt gives you a more hearty welcome than the dragoman. He remembers his old friends, and beams upon the newcomers with childlike simplicity; he speaks English, and other languages, also American – sure! Put yourself in his hands and he will see you through. If you have money to burn he will fan the flame. His favourite hobby is collecting baksheesh, which includes a ten per cent commission on everything you purchase while in his company. This accounts for his passion for the bazaars.



Cairo Curios, or the Shepheard’s Flock
No one could desire a more delightful way of spending an hour than to sit on the balcony of Shepheard’s Hotel and watch the curious crowd of natives who decorate the front in every imaginable costume. Millions of piastres must have passed through its balcony railings in exchange for the various articles which the natives hawk in the street below. Shawls, beads, scarabs, fly-whisks, stuffed snakes and crocodiles, and many other charms and horrors, are here bargained for and bought to decorate or disfigure our Western homes.



Romeo and Juliet, or the Balcony Scene at Shepheard’s Hotel
The balcony of this famous hotel still remains the happy hunting ground of the tourist. It has been the scene of many delightful comedies, and more than one tragedy. The beginning of many a love story, and also the end. The arrival of some new beauty will send a flutter through the hearts of the male portion of the visitors, and arouse the susceptibilities of the resident soldier; she will be come the Juliet of the balcony, but with more than one Romeo; and when she at last boards her train at the station, a sigh of relief goes up from the mothers of rival daughters, and the pulse of the Turf Club returns to normal.



The Parting Guest
Any lack of attention which may have shown itself during your stay at the hotel in this country is thoroughly made up for by the extraordinary amount of it which is wasted on you during the day of your departure. You will, no doubt, have provided yourself with a good handful of loose change for those servants who have become familiar obstacles; but you are not prepared for the sudden attack of civility which greets you around the hotel entrance. It is no use looking over their heads, or putting on a far-away expression, as they are sure to trip you up. So pay up and try to look pleasant.



Globe Trotters
It is the hour of the departure. Men and women, from all quarters of the globe, are busy shaking hands, exchanging cards, and pressing cordial invitations upon each other to distant and impossible parts of the earth. The American blonde walks down to her ’bus with a supreme air of indifference and importance, holding fast to her bag, leaving along line of males guessing their chances of meeting on the steamer. The hotel manager stands deferentially by receiving the congratulations and au revoirs of his best customers, and the keen-eyed dragomans rush in for a farewell handshake with their old clients.

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Filed under Art and artists, Memorabilia