Female Eyes on South America: Ida Pfeiffer (1797–1858)

November 2, 2017

Women traveler artists and naturalists who journeyed to Latin America and the Caribbean in the 17th to 19th centuries were more common than one might suppose. As with their male counterparts, the promise of adventure and discovery made their voyages compelling, and economic and social privilege eased the way, but the women who traveled were in some ways more intrepid and determined, as they needed to push against societal norms of what was appropriate behavior for their sex in order to gain the credence and freedom needed to do the work they chose for themselves. In a series of four texts, of which the last is published here, Dr. Katherine Manthorne sheds light on some of these women traveler artists who succeeded in following their vision.


Ida Pfeiffer photographed by Franz Hanfstaengl (1856)

How do we classify Ida Pfeiffer, nee Reyer (1797-1858)? She has been labeled a she-traveller, an “indefatigable tourist,” a “dedicated world traveler,” and discussed alongside the twentieth-century travel author Paul Theroux.[1] She was born and died in Vienna, so although she is sometimes referred to as German she was in fact Austrian. Her biography provides a forceful example of a woman who overcame the restrictions of her sex and relatively humble background to satisfy her urge to see the world. In 1820 she married her tutor, many years her senior, and remained wedded to him for twenty-two years. By the time she was forty-five her two sons had established their own homes and she felt sufficiently free of family obligations that she separated from her husband and set off on the first of many journeys. Interestingly she was not driven by a specific interest in geographic location or a burning desire to study a particular problem of natural history (like Maria Sibylla Merian’s interest in insect metamorphosis).  Unlike Maria Graham or Elizabeth Agassiz, she did not accompany a spouse on his career-related sojourns. Escaping a marriage she found limiting, she was eager to experience the freedom of travel, and see as much of the world as she could. She traveled alone, and at times endured grueling conditions. She covered an enormous amount of territory and did it on a shoestring budget. She profited from the huge vogue for travel literature in the 1840s and 1850s that allowed her to earn substantial profits from her published accounts that she then invested in subsequent trips. In an 1856 photograph she posed beside a globe, a reference to her dual round-the-world journeys. She mindfully projected her self-image as a she-traveler in this and other portraits, which alternated between her “emancipated” persona and this, her more respectable yet accomplished persona.

Ida Pfeiffer in Egypt, assisted by local guides, in her ascent of the Pyramid of Giza

Her experiences on the road became the basis of a succession of books.  Egypt and the Holy Land was her first goal, described in Visit to the Holy Land, Egypt and Italy (1843).  Selecting this region long associated with the Old Testament as her initial objective, she likely intended to fend off objections to her solo travels by couching them in the guise of a religious pilgrimage. Such motivation would have been far more acceptable to her objecting family and friends than the lust for escape and adventure that we cannot help feeling was what actually drove her. She sailed the Danube River to the Black Sea, visited Constantinople (now Istanbul), Jerusalem and then Cairo. There she encountered the Sphinx and the pyramids of Giza.

On the road she scribbled observations in her notebooks and when she returned home in 1843 she compiled the notes into a more readable narrative form and published it as a two-volume book. There she recounted her ride on the back of a camel, and her climb up the side of a pyramid with the help of local guides. An accompanying illustration shows the proper Victorian lady being hoisted up the side of the structure block by block by her hired guides, one of many demonstrations of her physical stamina and mental determination. This trip convinced her of the importance of being able to communicate directly with people she met, rather than relying on an interpreter. So she committed herself to learning other languages for future travel – primarily French and Italian.[2] With healthy sales, she realized that she was on to something. She used the profits from her book to finance further travel and more books.

Left: Rio de Janeiro. Right: Invasion of Ants. From the book "The Story of Ida Pfeiffer and Her Travels in Many Lands" (1869)

On May 1, 1846 Pfeiffer left Vienna for Hamburg, and then on to Rio de Janeiro. It was one of a number of South American stops on her itineraries that included Panama, Brazil, and the Andes of Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. Upon her return she published her account, translated into English in 1852 as A Woman’s Journey Round the World. In it she narrated her movements from Vienna to Brazil, Chile, Tahiti, China, Hindustan, Persia and Asia Minor.[3] Most authors wax poetic about their first sight of Rio de Janeiro’s beautiful harbor overshadowed by Sugarloaf Mountain. Pfeiffer, by contrast, looked at the country through unromantic lenses, admitting that the vegetation is rich and nature more verdant than elsewhere but asserting that such excesses can be tiring on the eye. The book illustrates a picturesque view looking across the harbor, but her narrative dwells little on the scenery that so impressed other travelers.

Instead the author highlights an insect invasion she witnessed during her visit there. The Story of Ida Pfeiffer—a summation of her travels published in 1869—also singles this out, and described the incident in text and image:

The Brazils suffer, too, from a plague of insects,—from mosquitoes, ants, baraten, and sand-fleas; against the attacks of which the traveller finds it difficult to defend himself. The ants often appear in trains of immeasurable length, and pursue their march over every obstacle that stands in their way. Madame Pfeiffer, during her residence at a friend’s house, beheld the advance of a swarm of this description. It was really interesting to see what a regular line they formed; nothing could make them deviate from the direction on which they had first determined. Madame Geiger, her friend, told her she was awakened one night by a terrible itching; she sprang out of bed immediately, and lo, a swarm of ants were passing over. There is no remedy for the infliction, except to wait, with as much patience as one can muster, for the end of the procession, which frequently lasts four to six hours. (p. 35)

To judge from her robust sales and good reviews, Pfeiffer’s readers found her down-to-earth approach and honest reporting of the challenges of travel refreshing. She was praised for her writing style: “at once simple, without pretension, but with great truth and force.”[4]

Ida Pfeiffer in South America wearing her bonnet

Her subsequent circumnavigation of the globe resulted in her book A Lady’s Second Journey around the World (1856) that was a highly popular best-seller of its day. This illustrated account recorded her journey, departing from London in late May 1851 on board a sailing vessel for the Cape of Good Hope and returning there three and a half years later. Let’s pick her up in the Molucca Islands, from which she headed for the Americas:

She was intending to push her way as far as New Guinea and afterwards to Australia but was prevented from visiting both those countries. When she was offered free passage to California on an American vessel she accepted that offer, sailing from Batavia in July 1853 and crossed the Pacific Ocean in sixty days, and arrived at that “execrable goldland,” as she styles it. After exploring California she sailed down the western coast of America, reached Lima in January last, went over a portion of Peru, visited the regions whence the Amazon takes its rise, crossed the Andes chain and went as far as the tableland of Quito, admiring the Chimborazo and Cotopaxi. Thence she returned to the coast by way of Guayaquil, was nearly drowned in the river near that place, sailed for Panama, and crossed the Isthmus to Aspinwall, and thence traversed the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans.”[5]

Her narrative puts emphasis on her personal responses—physical and emotional—to the lands and peoples she encounters. Her heart races, her breathing is difficult; detailed reports of her immediate physiological responses allow her readers to comprehend not just what she sees but how she feels as she looks upon the various sights. Armchair travelers appreciated this dimension of her writing which heightened their vicarious experiences of anything from high altitudes to threatening natives. But they contrasted markedly with official portraits of her as we see her here: a middle-aged, middle-class woman clad in the attire of a housewife with her modest bonnet framing her face. This became one aspect of her identity or personal brand, encouraging her female readers to identify with her.  

Ida Pfeiffer in her traveling costume with insect net and collecting bag. Lithograph by Adolph Dauthage, 1858

This portrait, which appeared in a contemporary fashion magazine, shows the alternate, unconventional side of this complex woman. It represents Pfeiffer in her travel uniform, which was made of gray-black checked linen. She acquired the hat in Bali, and wore it insulated with a banana leaf for coolness, supplemented by cloths wrapped around her head. Short pantaloons ended half way down her calf, over which she wore a skirt tucked up in the mornings and released at the end of the day’s trek. Her travels on horseback, fording streams and enduring rainstorms, made a long skirt completely impractical. Assuming the role of collector, she holds a net for catching butterflies and other insects in one hand with a bag for collecting slung over her shoulder. The net and bag highlight her efforts to gather specimens of flora and fauna during her travels, which she subsequently donated to European institutions.  Her most significant scientific achievement can be located in her extensive specimen collections that were gifted to museums.  Vienna’s Natural History Museum holds the mammal collection from Madagascar, while other artifacts can be found in London’s British Museum and elsewhere.

Alexander François Loemans, Chimborazo, Queen of the Andes (c. 1850). Oil on canvas. 45.1 x 70.5 cm

Some travelers – men as well as women – were in quest of the sublime and the rush of fear and exhilaration that accompanied danger faced and risks taken. In her account of an 1845 expedition to Iceland (translated into English in 1852) Pfeiffer described one such experience when she spent a night alone in a tent awaiting the eruption of the Great Geyser. Feats like this earned her fame as an intrepid female traveler, and she continued to perform and report similar exploits in other locales. In 1855 she was in Ecuador, where she toured Quito, Guaya,  Savanetta, the Tambos, the Camino Real, Guaranda, the Passage of the Chimborazo, the Elevated Plains of Ambato, and Latacunga, and witnessed an eruption of the volcano Cotopaxi. During her exploration of the grand Cordilleras she resolved to ascend Chimborazo, a lofty peak depicted by the traveler artist Alexander Loemans about the time of Pfeiffer’s visit. Then considered the highest mountain in the world, it had thwarted the attempts of many men to scale its heights including her idol Humboldt. She suffered thinning atmosphere, extreme swings in the weather, lack of shelter and sheer fear of death.[6] She even used the Peruvian word “veta” in her account to convey the ecstatic state of mind she experienced due to high altitude.[7] But despite these adversities Pfeiffer traversed the stony path nearly 16,000 feet farther above sea level to reach the summit. At the pinnacle of this mountain she placed a stone, in memory of an Englishman who was murdered in the journey to the apex of Chimborazo, on a pile of stones left by travelers who had reached this point before her. In doing so, Ida Pfeiffer left a tangible reminder of her presence as one of the first women to climb the Andes Mountains.

"Eine Dame aus Lima," frontispiece of Ida Pfeiffer's "Meine Zweite Weltreisse" (1856)

Pfeiffer received praised for her attention to aspects of life in far-off places that most male authors neglected, especially the domestic realm of women and children.  In Lima beginning in Spanish Colonial times women promenaded the streets in a distinctive style of dress that attracted the curiosity of every visitor to the city. This woman was known as la Tapada limeña, identified by her famous dress that included the saya and the manto. The skirt outlined the hips while the mantle veiled the head and face in such a way that only one eye was visible. This attire allowed the women to traverse the urban center in complete anonymity while giving them a flirtatious, seductive air. Many written descriptions played on the idea that the observer had no way of knowing who was underneath that disguise; it could be a toothless old woman or a beautiful, sexy young woman.  Pfeiffer’s book Meine Zweite Weltreisse published in 1856 featured as the frontispiece illustration the figure of the tapada, labeled as “Eine Dame aus Lima” (a woman of Lima). Women continued wearing this ensemble into the independence era, but by the time of Pfeiffer’s visit its usage began to drop off. At that point it became a pictorial icon of Lima society, an enduring emblem in fine art and travel illustration.

Unidentified artist, Lima and the Port of Callao (n.d.). Watercolor on paper. 22.8 x 43.2 cm

Lima and its associated port of Callao became major stopping points for ships rounding Cape Horn. During Pfeiffer’s stay there in 1854 she became well aware of the varied contingent of international travelers passing through, from ship’s crews to potential settlers. Observations she made about the potential threats they posed to life in Peru were quoted in an article on “Yellow Fever in Peruvian Andes,” that appeared in Transactions of the Epidemiological Society of London in 1863:

During the months of January and February 1854, when yellow fever raged in Lima, Madame Ida Pfeiffer visited that city and was the guest of M. Rodewald, the Hamburgh Consul. We may therefore reasonably infer that it was not without the most direct and reliable information received at the consulate that this truthful lady states in vol. 2, pp. 135-6 of her Second Journey Round the World that about two years previously not less than 200 German emigrants were induced to leave their native land at the invitation of the government of Peru. “But the ships were overcrowded, the food and water bad, they were treated like slaves brought from Africa, and more than half of the unfortunate creatures died on the voyage.”[8]

A footnote to the article states: “About this time Mr. R. was the importer of German emigrants into Lima.”[9] This passage tells us several things: first, that Pfeiffer used German diplomatic network to help her in the cities where she traveled, as did other European women traveling abroad; and second, that her accounts were deemed sufficiently reliable that they would be quoted in scientific journals.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party (1979). Brooklyn Museum. "Ida Pfieffer" [sic] appears on the floor tile

To conclude, then, there seem to be at least five solid reasons for considering Ida Pfeiffer a proto-feminist heroine.

1) Leading nineteenth-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt advised her on her global travels, and nominated her to scientific societies for her contributions, while Carl Ritter praised her efforts.

2) She was one of the first female explorers whose popular books were translated into multiple languages. In her case they originally appeared in German and were translated into English, French, and other languages.

3) Her books were reprinted in popular series such as the New York based Putnam’s Semi-Monthly Library for Travelers and the Fireside. Charlotte Fenimore Cooper—daughter of the well-known author James Fenimore Cooper—translated her Journey to Iceland and Travels in Sweden and Norway, for example, in preparation for its publication in the series in 1852.

4) Her observations carried authority with other subsequent explorers who followed in her footsteps and quoted her remarks. Friedrich Hassaurek, U.S. Minister to Ecuador and author of Four Years Among Spanish Americans (1867) described Pfeiffer’s experiences at the Continental Divide (or Great Divide) in the Andes:

Here, too, is the dividing line of the waters; and Ida Pfeiffer, following the example of Baron von Tschudi on Pasco de Cerro, ‘climbed down the western side of the mountain till she came to water, drank a little, and poured the rest into a stream that fell down on the eastern side, and then reversing the operation, carried some thence to the western, amusing herself with the thought of having sent to the Atlantic some of the water that was destined to flow into the Pacific, and vice versa.’ (pp. 54-55)

As Hassaurek point out, in performing this action she is following the early traveler Tschudi. By means of mentioning this anecdote he inserted her into a linked chain of explorers and therefore into the tradition of Andean travel writing.

5) When feminist artist Judy Chicago created her installation entitled The Dinner Party in 1979 it featured place settings for thirty-nine mythical and historical women. To this she added 999 more women who are represented on the floor tiles. Among them is “Ida Pfieffer” (spelled incorrectly, as it appears in the work), a testament to the status she held for the Women’s Movement of the 1970s.

[1] Jennifer Speake, Literature of Travel and Exploration: An Encyclopedia (NY and London: Routledge, 2003), p. viii.


[2] Jennifer Michaels, “An Unusual Traveler: Ida Pfeiffer’s Visit to the Holy Land in 1842,” in Travels to the ‘Holy Land’ in Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History (2013), on-line, no page # and note 84.


[3] Ida Pfeiffer, A Woman’s Journey Round the World c. 1852 London: Peter Duff and Co. 2nd Edition. This is an unabridged translation from the German of Ida Pfeiffer Illustrated with ten Tinted Engravings [although the source of engravings is not identified].


[4] The Sydney [Australia] Morning Herald, 10 April 1855, p. 8.


[5] Ibid. This was a reprint of a review by A. Peterman that had appeared in the London Athenaeum.


[6] Marjorie Agosin, ed. Magical Sites: Women Travelers in 19th C. Latin America (White Pine Press, 2010), pp. 191-206 on Pfeiffer.


[7] Pfeiffer uses this term in chapter 5 of A Lady’s Second Journey Round the World, vol. 2, p. 167.


[8] “Yellow Fever in Peruvian Andes,” that appeared in Transactions of the Epidemiological Society of London vol. 1 (1863): 285-86


[9] Ibid, p. 285, unnumbered note at the bottom of the page.