During the mid-nineteenth century, appearances by returning travellers were a ubiquitous feature of the American popular lecture circuit. Attending such talks was one of the few means by which the majority of citizens acquired an insight into distant cultures. These ‘travel lectures’ became an idiom of an emerging mass entertainment culture, one of the period's more under-appreciated and idiosyncratic cultural practices. Drawing upon a range of archival materials, this essay explores the scope of the phenomenon during the period 1840–70, and argues that these oratorical events represented interpretive performances or ‘dramas of appraisal’ through which performers brought reformist themes to the platform. Focusing on the career of the poet, writer and diplomat Bayard Taylor–the archetypal ‘travel lecturer’ of the period–it reveals the ways in which he used the form to advance a moral vision of mid-century American cosmopolitanism.