Travel by way of Cherbourg in 1931

My recent visit to Cherbourg, France, has reminded me of a minor mystery in my family’s past, namely my father’s eleven-week trip to Europe in 1931.

He was 26 at the time, single, living in Chicago and working for a wholesale costume jewelry company called Morris, Mann & Reilly Inc. He had been in the United States for three years, so he was a resident but not yet a citizen.

To visit Europe, he first had to go to the Czechoslovakian consulate in Chicago, where he was issued passport # 43, valid for travel to Germany, France, the United States and Czechoslovakia. A month later, he went back and paid an extra 50 Korun to get it validated for Switzerland, Austria and Hungary, as well.

The Republic of Czechoslovakia had been in existence for thirteen years by that time, so if we divide 43 by 13 we get the result that their Chicago consulate issued an average of 3.3 passports per year.

Although the world in 1931 was in the depths of the Great Depression, not everyone was bankrupt or unemployed. The wholesale costume jewelry business, for instance, was still thriving — so much so that Morris, Mann & Reilly Inc. could afford to send a whole team of buyers over to Europe, to negotiate with suppliers and place orders for large consignments of European costume jewelry. My father was apparently a member of this team, which meant he could travel over to Europe and back at company expense.

The first page of his 1931 travel notebook

He bought a small notebook entitled “A record of the travels of …” and started writing down where he went and what he did each day, but soon he lost interest and made notes only sporadically.

He did not feel the need to note down his expenses, as he had on his first voyage three years before. His notes were mostly in German, but occasionally in English or French.

He left Chicago by train (in a Pullman sleeping car) on the evening of April 7, 1931 and arrived in New York the next morning.

Later the same day (after a visit to Brooklyn, apparently), he boarded the S.S. Bremen, an ocean liner belonging to a company called the North German Lloyd.

A few of the passengers on the SS Bremen, 1931

The slogan on the barrel is “No prohibition here”, referring to the fact that American laws did not apply on the high seas. Prohibition had been established in the United States in 1920 by the 18th amendment to the constitution, and did not end until 1933 with the ratification of the 21st amendment. So in 1931 it was still illegal to produce, import, transport or sell alcoholic beverages — but ships like the SS Bremen could still stock up on them in Europe and start serving them as soon as they left the coastal waters of the United States.

On the SS Bremen, 1931

The crossing took five-and-a-half days, during which he noted things like:

Sunshine. Cold. Chess. Good food.
From one end of the ship to the other: elevators, cinema, gym, music.
Good concert daily. Farewell dance. Farewell meal. Sunshine daily.

Cherbourg harbor, 1931

He arrived in Cherbourg on April 14th and took the first train to Paris, where he paid brief visits to the company where he had previously worked and to his former hosts in Bois-Colombes. Then he noted: “Printemps cadeaux”, meaning apparently that he went to the up-market Au Printemps department store to buy presents for his relatives in Gablonz.

He spent the night in Paris at the Hôtel du Brésil (possibly the same one where I stayed 85 years later), and on the evening of April 15th he took an overnight train to Prague, where he spent the evening before catching another train to Gablonz, his home town, arriving there around midnight on the 16th.

After this, the chronology becomes somewhat hard to follow, but he seems to have spent several days in Gablonz catching up with relatives — especially his aunt Ida and his cousin Idl, both of whom I met many years later in Bavaria, where they had re-settled after the disruptions of the Second World War.

Entry into France at Strasbourg

A stamp in my father’s passport has him crossing back into France on April 24, 1931, and he mentions meeting up with Mr. Morris (the CEO of Morris, Mann & Reilly Inc) and several other men in Paris on the 24th or 25th.

They all seem to have had a working meal together at the Claridge, which at that time was a large, luxurious hotel at number 74 on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées (not identical with the current Hôtel Claridge Paris, which is nearby but smaller; the old Claridge is now an apartment hotel called Fraser Suites Le Claridge Champs-Elysées).

One of the men in this group was a certain Alfred Neff, who was leaving for Pforzheim the next morning. This would be logical because Pforzheim (in the Black Forest in Germany) was an important center for jewelry manufacturing.

Gablonz, Czechoslovakia, 1931

By April 27th my father was back in Gablonz or in nearby Reichenberg, where he also had relatives.

For May 6th he noted: “Prag, Mr. Morris.”

And for the week of May 7th to 12th: “Work with Mr. Morris in Gablonz.”

I interpret this to mean that my father was supposed to use his family and business connections to help Mr. Morris find new suppliers among the many jewelry manufacturing companies in Gablonz and vicinity. This must have been quite successful, considering that the two of them continued to work closely together for many years.

At this point in my research, I was getting quite curious about Mr. Morris, as my father always called him. So I googled him (always our first reflex, in the 21st century) and among thousands of irrelevancies found his obituary from the Chicago Tribune dated March 24, 1951:

Harry Morris, 77, died Thursday. Mr. Morris was a founder of the wholesale and importing firm of Morris, Mann & Reilly and had been connected with it for more than 50 years. The widow, Iva, survives.

So he was born around 1874, which places him squarely in the generation of my grandparents. He was 31 years older than my father.

And then I found this query, dated January 31, 2016, in an internet forum that has something to do with the silver-plating business:

I am a descendant of Harry Morris. He became a patriarch of my family by way of some wild circumstances. Things in Chicago really haven’t changed that much . . .
I am most interested in any material you may have, or know of, regarding Harry (who died in March of 1951) and/or MM&R. The second M was John F. Mann, a poobah of the Chicago business community, traveling all over the country pumping the city, and the R was Reilly, not a Chicago guy, a New York City guy. They all tolerated each other.
I’d be interested in anything you might know. Every scrap helps.
Thanks. JT

There were several responses to this, but none of them were really about Harry Morris, more about the company’s factory in Rhode Island and about its six-story building at the corner of Monroe and Wells Streets in Chicago.

Like “JT” in the forum, I would be very interested in anything anybody might know about Harry Morris, since he seems to have been my father’s mentor and benefactor for his first two decades in the United States.

By the way, I had to look up the word poobah, which means a person holding many public or private offices, or a person in high position or of great influence. It turns out that this word comes from a character called Pooh-Bah in Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera The Mikado (1885). This is a baritone role, described in the cast list as “Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Else” to distinguish him from “Ko-Ko, The Lord High Executioner of Titipu”.

Budapest, Hungary, 1931

After finishing his work with Mr. Morris in Gablonz, my father went to Budapest, Hungary, to visit his older sister and her Hungarian husband. He stayed with them, apparently, from the 14th to the 22nd of May, 1931, and then returned to Gablonz by way of Vienna and Prague.

He seems to have stayed in Gablonz for ten days this time, though he made no further notes until June 8th, when he left for Berlin. On June 11th he took a train from Berlin to Paris.

Two of his photos of the Colonial Exhibition in Paris, 1931

He stayed in Paris for two nights this time, and I used to think this was when he visited the notorious Colonial Exhibition in the Forest of Vincennes. Here he took at least ten photos of the pavilions, which were temporary buildings intended to show the architectural styles in French colonies in various parts of the world. But since there are no leaves on the trees in these photos, I now think he must have taken them in April rather than in June.

On June 13 he took a train to Cherbourg and embarked there on the SS Europa, the sister ship of the SS Bremen. Both of these ships belonged to the North German Lloyd and were among the world’s fastest at the time. They crossed the North Atlantic between Bremerhaven and New York via Cherbourg in only five-and-a-half days, which allowed the company to offer weekly service using only two ships instead of three.

The last stamp in his passport

This stamp on the last page of his Czechoslovakian passport reads:
“Admitted at NEW YORK on JUN 18 1931, upon presentation of Reentry Permit No. 685018.”

Most of the photos in this post were taken by my father in 1931.
I wrote the text in 2021.

See more posts about Cherbourg, France.
See more posts about my family history.
See also: Palais de la Porte Dorée in Paris, about a building that was originally
part of the Colonial Exhibition of 1931 and is now the home of the
National Museum of the History of Immigration.

19 thoughts on “Travel by way of Cherbourg in 1931”

    1. Yes, but my memories have a tendency to be slightly inaccurate (especially things I was told as a child), so I like to check them if possible against primary sources such as passports, notebooks and photo albums. In the case of this trip, I used to think it was in 1933, but it was actually in 1931.

  1. Hi Don. Fascinating. So nice your father didn’t throw away his old passports and journals. That’s a treasure.

    We’re wandering in Bretagne right now and finally got our Pass Sanitaire yesterday. Not going to Paris on this trip but will spend a few weeks in Normandie later.

    1. That’s strange. There have been lots of ‘likes’ today from other people. I notice you are commenting from ‘gravatar.com/swo8’ instead of from your wordpress account, so perhaps that is the reason. (Gravatar also belongs to Automattic, but seems to be their neglected stepchild; it isn’t even secure.)

    1. Thanks for your visit and comment. Actually, my father’s life for the rest of the 1930s was not particularly exciting. He had no more European travel, after this one trip, mainly because of the depression but also because of the Nazis seizing power in Germany. In fact, his next visit to Europe was not until around 1968 — thirty-seven years later.

  2. What a fascinating slice of family and social history! It’s great that your father was able to combine a business trip with visiting relatives as I doubt he would have been able to afford to travel to see them at his own expense?

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