80 Days: Packing Light

Nellie Bly

I’m a sucker for packing lists, so when I got to Nellie Bly’s packing list in Matthew Goodman’s Eighty Days, I had to post it. Nellie Bly was one of two pioneering American women journalists who raced each other around the world in opposite directions in 1889–1890. Her rather reluctant opponent was Elizabeth Bisland, a southern belle whose natural habitat was the literary salon. Both were ambitious and had fought their way in to male-dominated world of publishing, as much by necessity as by inclination. It was Bly’s idea to try to beat Phileas Fogg’s fictional record trip around the world, and Bisland, who was helping to support her family, had little choice but to go along with her publisher’s request to join the race.

Fashionable Bisland took a typical amount of luggage for a lady, a trunk and valise, despite only have a couple of hours to pack. Bly, on the other hand, had been dreaming about this scheme for months and had decided that by packing light she could avoid delays from the transfer or loss of her baggage. She determined to take only one bag, and a small bag at that, a little leather “gripsack,” which you can see in her photo. Yes, that’s all she took.

For her trip, Elizabeth Bisland wore her new black dress, newmarket coat, and black sailor’s cap. Into her trunk and valise she packed:

  • 2 cloth dresses
  • half a dozen light bodices
  • silk evening dress
  • hairpins
  • shoes
  • gloves
  • silk underwear
  • nightdress
  • dressing gown
  • slippers
  • toiletries
  • sewing kit
  • travelling inkstand
  • books
  • paper
  • wool overcoat
  • travel rug
  • rubber overshoes
  • umbrella

That’s not an unreasonable amount of kit, especially for a round-the-world trip, and it is only the bulk of Victorian women’s clothing (not to mention the travel blanket) that would have made it impossible to carry.

Bly’s outfit consisted of a purpose-made broadcloth travelling dress lined with camel’s hair, a check Scotch ulster overcoat, and the deerstalker cap she usually wore while on assignment. She also carried a “silk waterproof,” which I gather is a kind of rain poncho. In her teeny tiny bag she carried:

  • 2 travelling caps (perhaps that includes the one she wore)
  • 3 veils
  • slippers
  • toiletries
  • inkstand
  • paper
  • pens
  • pencils
  • pins
  • needle and thread
  • dressing gown
  • tennis blazer
  • small flask
  • drinking cup
  • underwear
  • handkerchiefs
  • ruchings (gathered lace or cloth worn at the cuffs and collar)
  • jar of cold cream

That’s right, she didn’t take a single change of clothing. She writes in her memoir that “After-experience showed me that I had taken too much rather than too little baggage.” Rick Steves would be so proud. I just hope the airlines don’t get wind of this or they will drastically cut their carry-on luggage allowances!

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4 comments on “80 Days: Packing Light

  1. Stefanie says:

    Wow, that’s all Bly took? I don;t think I could have done it. I would want at least one change of clothes that I could wear while the other got washed. It’s pretty funny that Bisland felt the need to pack a silk evening dress.

    • Sylvia says:

      I know, even the Pope’s bag is bigger! I think Bly was counting on overnight laundry services being available. Wool and silk clothes don’t need much laundering so she could probably go a long time with only rinsing out her underthings once in a while.

  2. marsar2 says:

    Wow, she did pack light! I’ve been meaning to read Goodman’s book for several months -and Nellie’s memoirs, for that matter- but now I know I must do it at once! I want to know more about this fascinating woman!

    • Sylvia says:

      She really is a fascinating woman. Among other daring exploits, she went undercover in a women’s mental institution in order to expose the mistreatment and misdiagnosis of patients there. The book is very well written and gives a lot of the background of the time, especially the conditions of working women. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

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