Claude August Crommelin:

During the nineteenth century the United States of America was a kind of enigma for Europeans, a democracy in full swing, with all the supposed drawbacks of the popular vote, so much feared by most Europeans. The country was also a developing industrial giant, and at the same time a land of unsurpassed natural beauty, full of adventure for sporting gentlemen. In European eyes it was also a country of seemingly unlimited possibilities, where an enterprising man could improve himself unhindered by ossified autocratic regimes. Small wonder that quite a number of travelers from Europe crossed the Atlantic to see this American wonderland for themselves. Of course, mass tourism was still something of the future, but well-heeled travelers from the old continent could afford a couple of months of travel in the new country. Hunting expeditions were popular for a time for the more sporting kind of gentlemen, when deer and buffalo still roamed the prairies. On the other hand, literary lights like Dickens and Trollope also crossed over, met their American counterparts and their reading public and described their adventures and emotions at some length. It is clear that transatlantic travel in the 1860’s was still something unusual, out of the ordinary, something adventurous even, and not a thing to be undertaken lightly. It was fraught with acute discomfort, danger even, when one had to take a sailing vessel or a primitive steamship. Although there were regular shipping lines from British ports, and while Englishmen came in some numbers, few Dutchmen ventured across the seas. Dutch emigrants had indeed done so, both for religious and economic reasons, in the 1840’s and 1850’s, chiefly to Michigan and Iowa, but travel for pleasure or even for business was extremely rare. Small wonder that quite a few travelers were noting down their experiences. However, emigrants were chiefly interested in their economic survival and often not too well versed in their own language and more often than not unable to write more than simple letter to relatives at home. The better educated traveler generally did keep a diary of sorts, and some were published shortly after their return, but a real market in the Netherlands for this kind of literature came to exist only later in the 19th century.

Claude August Crommelin, the author of this diary, was a scion of an old-established French-Dutch family. The Crommelin family originated in the north of France and the south of present-day Belgium, and being protestants, emigrated to the North at the end of the sixteenth century and settled in Haarlem in the protestant Dutch Republic. A new wave of emigrants came after 1685, when King Louis XIV of France put an end to most rights of the French Huguenots to try to convert them forcibly to Catholicism. Other branches of the family remained in France, however, and became useful business contacts for the ‘Dutch’ Crommelins. At last one member of the family crossed the Atlantic and settled in British North America, again providing business contacts with the family at home in Holland. The Crommelins in Holland prospered and mingled with other French émigré families and with the families of the ruling classes of Holland. Daniel Crommelin (1707-1788), probably born in New York City where his father had settled, came back to Amsterdam where he founded a commodity business in 1737 that soon branched out into banking and shipping, with contacts in America and in Europe and operating under the name of Daniel Crommelin & Sons. They soon built up a good name as a well-respected, solid, old-fashioned house, especially with their American relations. The 1848 slump, however, meant a sharp downturn in the company’s profits and in 1854 Claude Daniel Crommelin (1795-1859), great grandson of the founder, announced his wish to end the partnership. By 1859 at the death of Claude Daniel, the firm’s books were closed for the last time. The financial operations were taken over by another Amsterdam firm, Tutein Nolthenius & De Haan. Claude August Crommelin, our author, born in Amsterdam of the first of March 1840, was the only surviving son of the last partner Claude Daniel. His mother, Alieda Maria Wolterbeek (1802-1862) was the widow of J.J. Weymar, and a daugther from this earlier marriage, Elisabeth (1825-1902), older stepsister of our Claude August, married Julius Hendrik Tutein Nolthenius (1824-1889). Their daughter Julie Elisabeth (1853-1939) we will meet again later in this story. Apparently Claude August had no wish to continue in the family business but opted instead for a career in law and public government. He studied law at the University of Utrecht and got his doctor’s degree there on June 28, 1865 on a thesis about land tax. It is a fairly small book, only three chapters and a total of 114 pages. He exclusively covers the taxation of landed property, not built-up real estate, and makes a lot of comparisons with other countries, mostly with those in Europe, but also including the United States. Apparently he had kept abreast of all recent developments in this field in other countries. In the mandatory propositions at the end of the thesis he elaborately discusses the rules concerning commercial transactions of several different kinds. Before his visit to the United States Crommelin must have traveled widely in Europe, not unusual for a son of a well-to-do family. From loose remarks in his diary it becomes clear that he had at least been in Brussels and London ? in 1856 ?, in Dresden, Vienna and Prague in 1863 , had seen a lot of museums and art collections and had even visited industrial establishments as well. He tells us, when visiting the Illinois Central shops in Chicago, that he didn’t see anything there that he hadn’t seen before elsewhere. However, more particulars about these early visits are sadly lacking.

Soon after obtaining his doctor’s degree, Crommelin set out for America. The purpose of his visit is not quite clear, but several reasons are to be gleaned from the diary that he kept faithfully right from the beginning of his journey. Of course, no wonder when his family connections are kept in mind, he is interested in the investment business in America. The firm of Daniel Crommelin & Sons had been active in this field in the early years of the 19th century, so Claude August must have known about this. Several American railroads were largely financed from Holland, and he is looking into other opportunities for Dutch investment. And the other way round, the board of the Illinois Central Railroad invites him to take part in their annual inspection tour to show him the way the Dutch dollars had been spent. The nascent oil industry in Pennsylvania is also a reason for a visit, again to probe the possibilities for Dutch investment. He may have had some kind of commission to look into this business, although he himself had no direct connection with the successors of the firm of Daniel Crommelin & Sons. But that was certainly not the only reason for his visit. Things that seem to have interested him more in the United States were public education, the prison system, the government system in general and the role of democracy. But he is also keen on visiting the South and studying the plantation system after the abolition of slavery there and talking with plantation owners and their families. Interest in technology and industrial enterprises are another facet of this bropad-minded young man with so many facets. He once mentions a congress as one of the reasons for his journey, but he doesn’t mention what and where. In the end he did not attend that congress, so it is hard to be sure of what he is talking about. For what reasons Crommelin kept his diary is unclear. It may have been just personal, a help for his own memory, noting down the names of people he met, and of institutions and industries he visited. On the other hand, he may have done it, as so many of his contemporaries did, for possible publication when back home. After all, in those years a stay of almost a whole year in the United States was still the exception, even for affluent Dutchmen. However this may have been, his diary never materialized in print, apart from a small section about his visit to St.Paul, Minnesota. Other Dutch travelers – not very many ? had indeed gone before him, but generally also without publishing their experiences. A market for this kind of book didn’t exist yet in the Netherlands on any scale. Transatlantic travel in his time was not something lightly undertaken, and it often involved acute discomfort and sometimes even real danger. Crommelin was fortunate that he could afford a cabin in a modern Cunard liner, the Java, but less well-to-do travellers had to make do with cramped and often overcrowded quarters in steerage. And the hundreds of Dutch emigrants who, in the 1840’s and 1850’s, had settled for religious and economic reasons in Michigan and Iowa, were chiefly interested in their survival and had no time and often enough no ability to write anything but the most simple letters to relatives home.

A pleasant young man such as our diary writer, fluent in English, well-connected, and with plenty of money at hand, was a welcome guest almost everywhere. Although he complains about his shyness, he mingles easily with some of the leading families in New York City, in Boston, in Newport, in Washington and in Charleston. And there are relatives in many places: in New York the Verplancks and the Ludlows, the De Bruyn Kops family, the Huydecopers, and of course, he meets many old business acquaintances of his father’s firm. He had a lot of letters of introduction and with these in hand all doors, of schools, of prisons, of locomotive works or other large industries were opened. This also reflects his almost universal interest in everything American. He also encounters the new jetset of the Jeromes and Vanderbilts, but never gets really acquainted with them, nor with the leading older New York families such as the Astors. His interests are more literary and educational, not so much in the world of the self-styled ‘aristocrats’ of New York City. But he does get invited to Newport, Rhode Island, then already a fashionable coastal resort for the rich, and he seems to have enjoyed the easygoing style of living among the young men and women of the upper classes there. On the other hand, he also meets literary lights like Longfellow, Dana and Norton and has serious discussions with them about politics and other topics. He is a good observer though, and a good listener, with a sharp wit and his descriptions of persons and situations are always well thought over and sometimes even funny.

After his return to the home country in 1867, Crommelin settled down to a career in law as a sollicitor. He also became – in 1868 ? a member of the City Council of Amsterdam and of the Provincial Government of North Holland. He was a liberal, but little is known about possible other functions or duties. He never married, although he was certainly very much interested in the fair sex, as proven by several entries in his diary. He almost lost his heart to a young teacher in one of the New York Schools, as he confesses himself. He died fairly young in Amsterdam on November 5th of 1874. He lived in an enormous stately house on one of Amsterdam’s best canals, Heerengracht 132, a house dating back to 1614 and originally named “De Profeet Jonas”. He collected watercolours, a new art form that became very much en vogue in the 19th century, and his collection was probably of some importance, as a British art collector, Lord Ronald Gower, included Crommelin’s collection in his 1875 publication Handbook to the art galleries, public and private, of Belgium and Holland. Even before Gower published his handbook, however, Crommelin had died and his collection was bequeathed to his cousin Robert Daniel Crommelin (1841-1907), a naval officer later turned banker, and his wife Julie Elisabeth Tutein Nolthenius, whom we have met before. The later whereabouts of this collection are unknown. Possibly as a way to posthumously thank their cousin, the son of this couple, born in 1878, was named Claude August Crommelin (†1965). This young Claude August was educated at Leiden University as a scientist, where he studied under the supervision of Professor H. Kamerlingh Onnes. Kamerlingh Onnes was the one who, in 1908, for the first time ever reached the absolute zero, helped in no small way by Crommelin, who was a master in the design and fabrication of the necessary very complicated laboratory equipment.

Our Crommelin’s fellow traveler Meder is difficult to place. He was not yet of the party in England, but apparently they met in New York. In America he is mentioned occasionally as companion, but his relationship with Crommelin remains unclear. Probably this Meder was Jacques Hessel Meder (born 1829), who emigrated to America in 1855 and is listed as a merchant. He may well have been a business contact of Daniel Crommelin & Sons or their successors, Tutein Nolthenius & De Haan, which would explain the relation between the two men. However this may be, it is obvious that in America the two men often went their own ways, Crommelin sometimes in the company of Hendrik de Marez Oyens, a young man from another Amsterdam business and financial family, with a lot of contacts in America.

The manuscript as found in the Minnesota Historical Society consists of 91 typewritten pages in A4 format, with a heading in ink: “Reis naar N. Amerika door Mr. Claude August Crommelin, Amsterdam geb. 1 m.t 1840, † 4 nov. 1874” The provenance is unclear and it is not known who typed out the original manuscript, as written down by Crommelin himself. There were no typewriters in Crommelin’s days. The person who typed out the text had a fairly good knowledge of Dutch, but he (or she) had problems now and then with the handwriting, and some names and words are garbled or have been left blank. There are emendations and additions in ink to be found in the margins of the text, unknown by whom, but probably not by the same person who typed out the text. The last or the last few pages of the original diary were already missing when the typescript was made, but it cannot have been much as Crommelin is already packing up for his return trip in the last sentences of the remaining pages.

A carbon copy of this typescript is to be found in the Rotterdam City Archives, the same – incomplete ? text and the same early typescript. But here we have at least an indication where this particular copy of the typescript comes from. In that Rotterdam copy is found a letter from a Claude A. Crommelin to a Mr. Dutilh, dated February 6, 1979, and written from 750 Mount Paran Road NW, Atlanta, Georgia 30327. This third C.A. Crommelin (1919-1985), son of the Claude August Crommelin of Leiden University, mentioned above, writes Dutilh that he found a typewritten copy of the diary when going through his father’s papers after the latter’s death in 1965. No one seemed to be interested in it, so the younger Crommelin sends it to Dutilh, who already has heard about it through a common relative, a Mrs. De Kanter. Who this Dutilh was remains unclear, but the Dutilh family is well known in Rotterdam banking and shipping circles. That Dutilh has actually read the typescript becomes clear from the small pencilled crosses in the margin of the Rotterdam copy wherever Crommelin mentions the Dutilhs he met in New York. And another pencilled note on the first page, not present in the Minnesota copy, may give us an indication where the original handwritten diary must have ended up. This note says: “compared with the original” and signed “RTN.” Now this RTN is undoubtedly the Amsterdam engineer and financier Rudolph P.J. Tutein Nolthenius, scion of the Tutein Nolthenius family ? related to the Crommelin’s ? , who under the name of Tutein Nolthenius & De Haan had taken over de assets of Daniel Crommelin and Sons when that firm was wound up in 1859. And in the Amsterdam City Archives is a faded carboncopy of the same typewritten text, kept among the papers of the firm of Daniel Crommelin & Sons, and bound in a volume of other papers by this same R.P.J. Tutein Nolthenius, who was himself much involved in American railroads, foremost of all in Arthur Stilwell’s Kansas City Pittsburg & Gulf, in the late 1890’s. Apparently when Rudolph Tutein Nolthenius saw the typescript, he still had access to the original diary, hence his remark “compared with the original” in the Rotterdam copy. But here some problems remain. In the Amsterdam carboncopy is another pencilled note by this same R.P.J. Tutein Nolthenius, written at La Tour de Peilz, Vaud , and dated March 1930, saying that the original, consisting of six exercise books, is now in the hands of Dr. C.A. Crommelin, keeper of the Natural Science Cabinet of Leiden University, undoubtedly the same Crommelin of absolute zero fame, mentioned above. But how and where Rudolph Tutein Nolthenius has seen the original is nowhere mentioned by him, so some mystery remains. It might be possible that the original exercise books ended up in the hands of the C.A. Crommelin of Atlanta, son of the scientist, who wrote to Mr. Dutilh of Rotterdam in 1979, although in his letter he only refers to the carboncopy, not to the original diary.

Endnotes introduction.

(Click to enlarge)