The Year 1872 for Travelers

Christina Knight | December 26, 2021

A black man, white man, and white woman stand in 19-century dress with a steam engine directly behind them.

L to R: Ibrahim Koma (PASSEPARTOUT), David Tennant (PHILEAS FOGG) and Leonie Benesch (ABIGAIL “FIX” FORTESCUE) in Around the World in 80 Days.

Our virtual passport is wide open to impossible journeys in period dramas, but for the curious, here’s a snapshot of real events that might have piqued the interest of a Victorian-era world traveler – and adventure author Jules Verne, himself. Before we pack our trunks for Around the World in 80 Days, the PBS Masterpiece adaptation premiering January 2, let’s spare a minute to review what the world is like in 1872.

The eight-part series takes place 1872, the year Verne’s travel adventure was printed in serial form (Around the World in 80 Days was published as a novel in 1873). The TV series, shot on location in two continents, tracks a traveling party of three as they circumnavigate the world via ships, trains, balloons, camels, stagecoaches, and other means.

Historic Precedent to Adventure Tales

French author Jules Verne based his British character Phileas Fogg on the American world traveler William Perry Fogg. Fogg’s letters describing his journeys were published in a series by The Cleveland Leader newspaper, titled, “Round the World: Letters from Japan, China, India, and Egypt” (1872).

The father of modern tourism, Englishman Thomas Cook, organized the first around-the-world trip for tourists in 1872, which departed England in September and returned seven months later. The World Heritage Foundation has documented Cook’s remarks about the heritage sites his group visited.

The United States in 1872

A man in three-piece, 19th century suit strides forward in a dusty plaza with American wooden structures, including a Butcher shop and church or town hall

David Tennant (Phileas Fogg) in Around the World in 80 Days.

In the very year that Around the World in 80 Days is set – 1872 – an epidemic was raging, from Canada to Central America, which utterly crashed supply chains and more. It was the equine influenza, which affected a major source of transport for both people and goods, in countryside and city. In Smithsonian Magazine, Eric Freeberg writes about this horse epidemic – which also led to animal rights activism in New York City. This series does touch down in the Big Apple, but horses or epidemics don’t play a role.

The American Civil War has been over since 1865 and Black men have had the Constitutional right to vote for two years. The Amnesty Act of 1872 gives back full civil rights, including the right to hold office, to most of the 150,000 former Confederate officials and leaders who fought to secede from the United States. On Tuesday, November 5, 1872, incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant wins reelection.

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The First Transcontinental Railroad in the U.S. had been completed in 1869, thanks to many Chinese-Americans and Chinese immigrants whose labors cut down the cross-journey from months to under a week. In Western states and territories, robberies and shoot-outs are on the rise; and so is violence against Native Americans. In the 1870s, the fastest a train could travel was 80 mph, and only on a rare level, straightaway. Japan inaugurated its first railway in 1872, which connected Tokyo with the bayside city to the south, Yokohama (today, a 47-minute train ride). China did not support railway development until the 1880s.

Nearly all immigrants to the U.S. from Ireland, England and Europe are crossing the Atlantic Ocean by steamship in 1872, an approximately two-week journey.

Two enduring resources for appreciating the world, from its nature to its arts, launch in New York City: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the magazine Popular Science.

England and Elsewhere, 1872

TV set with adobe structures, possibly in Northern Africa, and men wearing turbans and robes. One woman walks with a white parasol.

Scene from Around the World in 80 Days.

Around the World characters Phileas Fogg and Abigail “Fix” Fortescue hail from England, where Queen Victoria remains on the English throne in 1872 (aspects of early reign are seen in the Masterpiece drama Victoria and reality show Victorian Slum House). Their travel buddy Passepartout is from Paris, France, where Emperor Napoleon III’s Second Empire ended in 1871 with France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. France’s new Third Republic is still recovering from the war and from clashes with the working class Paris Commune movement (we’ll see members early on in this Around the World).

Hot air balloon travel was nothing new in 1872 and the series protagonists will wing it. Balloonist Charles Green traveled 500 miles from England to Germany in 1836 for the adventure of it. Germans and the French used them for military scouting during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1871.

The Challenger expedition sets sail from England to establish the field of oceanography on a four year-journey that also discovers 4,700 species of marine life.

Camels in desert Around the World in 80 Days
An English Assyriologist makes the first translation of the oldest known work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh,  a poem from ancient Mesopotamia (the area of Iran, Syria, and Turkey, Kuwait) that includes a king’s journey to the underworld.

The Australian Overland Telegraph Line is established, creating the continent’s first telegraphic link to the rest of the world.

In 1873, just over a week after the travelers in Around the World in 80 Days hope to complete their journey, Europe and North America will fall into the The Panic of 1873, a financial depression once known as the Great Depression until 1929 rolled around. If the travelers make it back in time, they better use their $3 million dollar win wisely.

The eight-part drama Around the World in 80 Days airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on PBS, starting January 2, 2022. Read more about the series.