skip to Main Content

The First Female Travel Writer Ida Pfeiffer (1797–1858)

The First Female Travel Writer Ida Pfeiffer
Celebrate The First Female Travel Writer, Ida Pfeiffer

If we are talking Femspiration, look no further than Ida Pfeiffer. It would be hard to imagine a more inspiring and astute woman to reflect upon.

Ida Pfeiffer was a daring adventurer from the nineteenth century. Unlike most ladies of her time, she travelled to distant lands and arduous locations from around 1842 until just before her death in 1858.

She documented the details of her travels which offered both amusement and wisdom to innumerable readers. She was well-liked by the public and was highly regarded by scientists and geographers, and she was the first woman to be elected as an honorary member of the Berlin and Paris geographical society. But more on that later.

Ida’s Early Life

In 1797, Ida Pfeiffer was born Ida Laura Reyer into a bourgeois Viennese family. Her childhood was filled with activity, as she had six brothers and one sister. Her manufacturer father, Aloys Reyer, was committed to raising all his children in an equal fashion and believed that Ida would only benefit from competing with her brothers by playing their sports, mucking about in roughneck fashion.

Sadly for Ida and her siblings, after the death of her father in 1806 , the middle-class amenities of her life, including magnificent meals, were a distant memory. Their new way of life was Spartan, however, as with many curses that turn out to be blessings, this would be useful to Ida in her future travels.

However, an additional change after her father’s death she had to endure her mother’s intention for her to become heiratsfähig (marriageable). She was forced to become more feminine by wearing gowns, learning to play the piano, and knitting. Her aversion to the piano and knitting was so intense that she cut her fingertips with a knife to prevent herself from having to do it.

She also fought different attempts at her “feminization” for several years. At one point her tutor, Joseph Franz Emil Trimmel, was to be in charge of her proper education. While Trimmel did educate in the traditional sense the 13-year-old, he also made travel books available to her, which revealed to her a world of exotic destinations and Romantic adventure.

Ida subsequently fell in love with her tutor, however, her mother did not approve of the match as she deemed that he was unsuitable due to his lower class ‘poverty’. Trimmel was immediately fired after Ida’s mother became aware of the amorous nature of their relationship, but Ida would never forget her first love, or the world he had shown her.

Ida Pfeiffer, Marriage and Family

In May 1820, Ida married Mark Anton Pfeiffer, a Lemberg solicitor from what is now modern-day Lviv, Ukraine. He was 24 years her senior but despite this he was though to be a good mate. Following their wedding in Vienna, the couple relocated to Lemberg, where Pfeiffer gave birth to two sons and a daughter who sadly died 18 hours after delivery.

Her spouse was a hardworking but unlucky lawyer. His law practise was boycotted and economically stifled when he exposed a severe case of official corruption. Ida supplemented the family’s income and put food on the table by surreptitiously teaching music and drawing lessons to more affluent members of the bourgeoisie.

Not one to be fenced in, Ida was unofficially separated from Mark by the late 1820s. Following this, Ida’s mother died in 1831, leaving her a little estate, which she judiciously saved in order to pay tuition for her two sons. Two years later, she divorced her spouse, who she referred to as a guy who “only lived in illusions,” and moved back to her hometown of Vienna with her two sons.

Despite her poor financial situation, she began to plan short getaways to appease the wanderlust in her soul. the first was a trip to Trieste, which was at that time an Austrian-ruled harbour on the Adriatic Sea. This journey piqued her interest as she witnessed the majesty of the salt water and ships for the first time in her life.

Pfeiffer’s diaries, which provided the foundation for her many trip novels, were unusually candid, characterising herself as impoverished, unattractive, and old, with no pretensions to literary aptitude or intellect. She did acknowledge, though, that her maturity, courage, and a sense of independence resulting from a difficult past had worked in her favour.

Ida’s Adventures Begin

By the time Pfeiffer’s sons were grown by the early 1840s, she felt liberated to pursue long-held ambitions. When a priest informed her that a trip to the Holy Land would cost approximately 600 Austrian gulden, she began a rigorous savings drive.

With the requisite cash in hand, she set out from Vienna through the Danube on March 22, 1842, for the first of five major excursions, including two around the world trips. Pfeiffer’s diaries, which provided the foundation for her many trip novels, were unusually candid, characterising herself as impoverished, unattractive, and old, with no pretensions to literary aptitude or intellect. She did acknowledge, though, that her maturity, courage, and a sense of independence resulting from a difficult past had worked in her favour.

Pfeiffer took full use of the substantial freedom that advanced age afforded a lady in the mid-nineteenth century in her travels. In communities centred on traditional gender norms, older women were frequently viewed as less important than younger ones, and hence were subject to far less male control. She didn’t have to worry about her physical looks, and now that she had more leeway in her actions and beliefs, she found it rather easy to be forthright in discussing a variety of topics, including sexuality.

Pfeiffer, despite being a keen observer during her ten-month travel to the Middle East, reinforced some old European preconceptions when she portrayed local women as uneducated and indolent. She also mentioned that they were often kind and trusting, and that they might be happier overall than their European counterparts.

A Career in Travel and Writing

Pfeiffer’s friends in Vienna were so delighted with her tales of adventure that they encouraged her to find a publisher for her vast journals. Her book, Eine Reise einer Wienerin in das Heilige Land (Travels of a Vienna Woman in the Holy Land), was a blockbuster when it was published in 1844, and Pfeiffer was confident she had finally found her vocation. She was 47 years old.

In 1845, Ida Pfeiffer travelled to Scandinavia and Iceland, which resulted in the production of another popular book, but on May 1, 1846 Pfeiffer set out on her most ambitious expedition to yet: a cruise around the world.

By June, she was on her way to Brazil on a small Danish cargo ship. She was shrewd and always concerned about her money, so she found this to be an acceptably cost-effective, and entertaining, way to travel. She spotted the glowing marine critters her ship encountered in South Atlantic waters with her usually keen eye.

The atrocities of slavery left their impact on her sense of social justice in Rio de Janeiro, but she also compared the plight of slaves favourably to that of many European peasants and Egyptian fellahs. For the rest of her journey, Pfeiffer would frequently comment on the dismal circumstances of those at the bottom of the social pyramid, notably women and children. Her fury at injustice runs through all of her travelogues, as does her affection for lower-class women. She believed that in her region of the world, the majority of the gains of women’s freedom would go to women who were already well-off. Her periodic absences from Europe would only strengthen this stance.

Ida’s Magnum Opus, A Lady’s Trip Around the World

After Pfeiffer returned to Vienna from her round-the-world journey in November 1848, she arranged her journals and published a three-volume chronicle of her adventures called Eine Frauenfahrt um die Welt (A Lady’s Trip Around the World) in 1850.

Her work was once again a huge hit with the reading audience. By May 1851, the constantly restless Pfeiffer was on her second trip around the world, circumnavigating the Cape of Good Hope across the Indian Ocean. Her venture would result in significant acquisitions for the Vienna Museum of Natural History.

A Politically Minded Ida Pfeiffer

Among her many experiences was a meeting with the Dyak cannibals of Borneo, whom she persuaded that her flesh, like that of a dried-out old white European lady, would not be tasty. Pfeiffer was always on the lookout for problems beneath the surface. When she described the Taj Mahal in India, she reminded her readers of the human cost in work and riches of the magnificent building.

She also made astute observations about the grounds behind Asian antipathy and indifference towards Western missionary activities, which she believed had little chance of success because most missionaries made no effort to adjust their form of clothing or way of life to local realities. Most importantly, she observed, they avoided interaction with the poor masses, preferring to live in isolation with other missionaries in the wealthier portions of communities.

Pfeiffer would later object to her fellow Europeans’ revulsion at the ritual of head-hunting, claiming an unsettling parallel between this culture and the gruesome realities of European conflicts. Later, on a visit to Versailles, she was horrified by paintings praising warfare, which she equated to the Dyaks’ practise of displaying shrunken heads. In fact, Pfeiffer admired the Dyaks: “I wished I had spent more time with the free Dyaks since I found them to be honest, good-natured, and modest in their manner. In these regards, I would rank them higher than any other race I have ever encountered.”

It is very possible that Pfeiffer was not physically attacked as a despised Englishwoman while in China because she was a weak and elderly white woman. As a result, she was able to disavow culpability in European imperialism’s drive for conquest and exploitation during her travels. Because of her age and status as an older woman, the indigenous peoples with whom Pfeiffer came into contact did not perceive her as an aggressor or spy, allowing her to survive situations that would have been lethal for a European male.

The First Female Travel Writer Ida Pfeiffer

Pfeiffer was visiting California in 1853, when the state was still engulfed in gold fever. She made several observations while there about the devastating consequences of that state’s racial bigotry against its Native American peoples.

She commented bitterly after witnessing California’s fast declining Native population: “Men willingly flee to this desert in the hope of finding a nugget of gold! What must a place be if it only has this attraction to keep the avaricious whites away?” She remarked with admiration for Native Americans: “They comprehend only basket plaiting. They have, however, reached remarkable mastery in this technique; they know how to make their baskets totally airtight, and they can even boil their fish in them.” Pfeiffer went on to say:

These Indians are represented as treacherous, cowardly, and revengeful, and only attacking the whites when they find one alone. But, after all, what other means of attack have they against well-armed whites—the domineering race from which they have had so much to suffer. Revenge is really natural to man; and if the whites had suffered as many wrongs from them as they from the whites, I rather think they too would have felt the desire of revenge.

Ida Pfeiffer

Pfeiffer returned to Vienna in May 1855, and her description of the voyage was published the following year. The four-volume compilation, simply titled Meine zweite Weltreise (My Second Trip Around the World), was quickly snatched up by her devoted readership.

The Last Travels of Ida Pfeiffer

Pfeiffer was off on another adventure by 1857 and this time she chose to visit the then-unknown island of Madagascar, off the coast of south-eastern Africa. It would result to be her final expedition.

There, she unknowingly became embroiled in a conflict between Madagascar’s fiercely proud queen, Queen Ranavalona I, and French adventurers plotting to turn the island into a French colonial colony. Enraged by these attacks on her country’s sovereignty, Ranavalona took extraordinary measures to deport the hostile outsiders.

Pfeiffer was imprisoned due to her involvement in these conspiracies through no fault of her own. She had no alternative but to flee danger by going through a disease-ridden jungle, which seriously harmed her health.

Pfeiffer briefly pondered migrating to Australia after finding safety on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. But she became very ill with a tropical fever that was destroying her liver and had to cancel these plans. She was at this time 60 years old.

Illness and Death of Ida Pfeiffer

She came home, hoping that new medical procedures may yet cure her. Despite her rapidly deteriorating health, Pfeiffer was to achieve one more victory. Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Ritter, two unquestionable contemporary giants of scientific geography, spent several hours with the frail but feisty Pfeiffer just before her death.

She had already been named an honorary member of the Berlin and Paris geographical societies. (The British Royal Geographical Society declined to admit her because its statutes prohibited women from membership.)

Ida Pfeiffer died during the early hours of October 28, 1858, at her home in Vienna. Posthumously, her son Oscar edited and released her final book The Last Travels of Ida Pfeiffer: Inclusive of a Visit to Madagascar, describing her ill-fated voyage to Madagascar.

Ida Pfeiffer’s Contribution to Feminism, Science and Travel

A more unique and heart-warming story would be hard to find. The life and achievements of Ida Pfeiffer are an astounding celebration of female capability and confidence. She seemed compelled by an inner force to explore and impart her experiences through her writing.

The legacy that she has left to us has been under appreciated and celebrated according to this writer. A woman after my own heart, she refused to confirm from the very beginning of her life, which was ultimately her defining feature. At the age of 47 Ida’s real life began. Her life as an adventurer. And fascinatingly, it was due to her age, not despite it, that she was afforded all the opportunities that she embraced. She was logical, methodical, practical and shrewd as well as, obviously, being as brave as any male explorer before or hence.

It has been a rare delight researching and writing this account of Ida Pfeiffer’s life and story and I sincerely hope that she speaks to you from beyond the grave as much as she has spoken to me.

Let’s Keep in Touch

If you are enjoying the content brought to you Donc, Voilà Quoi please comment & share and don’t forget follow me on Instagram, Twitter and Pintrest. Small gestures like this will help me to grow the site and keep brining quality content to you.

Please also be sure to watch my YouTube channel, and listen to my Mind Your Language Podcast which is all about my love of language.

Please also note that some of my posts contain affiliate links. If you click on an affiliate link and later make a purchase, I may receive a small commission.  Clicking on an affiliate link may earn a commission does NOT result in additional charges to you or cost you anything extra but it helps to support me to keep bringing you honest content.

Amazon has graciously invited me to take part in their Amazon Influencer Program. As such I now have a Storefront on Amazon. Don’t forget to check it out here Donc Voilà Quoi on Amazon for all my favourite products.

Avatar photo

I foundered Donc Voilà Quoi while living in Tours, France in 2015 when I fell in love with the phrase! I have a longstanding love of language and words are my superpower. When I'm not talking or writing, you'll find me out and about in nature, watching a classic whodunit or cooking up a storm. For press enquiries, please email me on

This Post Has 3 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top