Guides to the World
I recently found an old copy of a Baedeker travel guidebook at a library
book sale. The book is in very good condition, considering that the
publishing date is 1869. What can you tell me about Baedeker guides?
Off all the travel guidebooks, Baedeker Guides are perhaps the best
known and the most collectible. Baedeker published over 6,000 editions
of its guides, making it possible for ordinary people to travel to all
parts of the world.
Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, travel was mainly for the rich. But
with the invention of the steam engine came the railroads which brought
the treasures of the world within the reach of the new middle class.
Wealthy gentlemen setting out on the Grand Tour could afford to hire
personal guides who made all the arrangements and spouted information
about historic sites along the way. But middle class travelers couldn’t
afford to do this and needed something they could take along. For most,
a Baedeker guide was all they needed.
Back then, there were. many travel memoirs, but few guidebooks
dispensing practical advice about hotels and routes. John Murray of
London was the most important publisher of travel guidebooks in the
early 19th century. Karl Baedeker, a German publisher, saw Murray’s
editions in the I820s and decided to publish his own series. Baedeker
published his first guidebooks, covering Austria, Germany, and
Switzerland, in German and French in 1854.
Though his company prospered, Baedeker died in 1859, leaving his son,
Fritz, to run the firm. The younger Baedeker began publishing English
editions of the guidebooks and increased coverage to remote destinations
like Egypt, Russia, and the U.S. He continued publishing them with red
cloth covers with gold lettering, making them easily recognizable.
Baedeker printed the text of guidebooks in small type on thin paper, for
which people found fault. One reviewer noted that it would be difficult
to read the guides to Palestine and Syria, published in 1876, "on
horseback in bright sunlight," which was, after all, "as it must very
often be read." Baedeker Guides also included maps, city plans, and
Book collectors like Baedeker guides for their period charm, with text
as satisfying to read as many old novels. Phrasing is witty, so that in
the Baedeker world, "prices generally have upward tendency." Italy was
the subject of this pithy observation: Persons in search of adventure
and excitement will now miss many of the characteristic elements of
former Italian travel."
During the second half of the 19th century, Baedeker Guides became
common among travelers. These guidebooks represented German thoroughness
and attention to detail.
At the same time, "Baedeker" became a synonym for any sort of travel
book. There were lots of imitators, but none could come close to the
accuracy of a real Baedeker. Other travel guides offered pithy portraits
of innkeepers, funny stories about the natives, and literary anecdotes.
In short, they were entertaining but, unlike the real Baedekers, they
didn’t contain information about where to stay or what time the museums
The critics, however, found Baedeker guidebooks a bit heavy handed. With
their emphasis on history and art, Baedeker Guides saw travel as
education and for many middle class travelers, this just wasn’t the
case. Academic specialists wrote much of the background information
which included the latest excavations.
of the most famous Baedeker references can be found in E. M. Forester's
A Room with a View, published in 1908 and made into a movie by Merchant
Ivory in 1985. In the novel, the heroine Lucy Honeychurch tours Italy
with her aunt, Charlotte Bartlett. In Florence, the two ladies stay at
the Pensione Bertolini, where they meet the unconventional Mr. Emerson
and his son, George.
In the novel, "Baedeker" becomes a synonym for the pedantic sightseeing
that Forester portrayed as typical of the English touring Italy. Early
in the story, Lucy studies Baedeker's Guidebook to Northern Italy and
commits "to memory the most important dates of Florentine history."
Later, she meets an eccentric lady novelist: who disapproves of such
solemnity. She tells Lucy, "No, you are not, not to look at your
Baedeker. We will simply drift."
Baedeker Guidebooks to Italy were some of the most popular and
frequently revised. Prices for the early 20th-century editions of
Northern Italy range from $50 to $100. Their contents throw light on the
social life of English and American tourists in, Florence at the turn of
the century. The books contain listings for Protestant churches, social
clubs, and pensions, similar to the Pensione Bertolini. For those making
a long stay, there was information about hiring a portrait painter or
taking music lessons. The Guides also included information on daytrips
outside the city. George Emerson kissed Lucy in Fiesole, which her
Baedeker described as a "town of no importance," though the view was
recommended with an asterisk.
most collectible Baedekers came out before World War I. During the war
and in the years following, the Baedeker Publishing House was the
subject of anti-German sentiment. One critic said it was unlikely that
any traveler would seek out a post-war edition of the firm’s guidebooks
to places like Northern France, Belgium, and Holland. Indeed, the
company cut back on the frequency of new English editions during the
1920s and 1930s. During World War II, German air raids on historically
and culturally important towns in Great Britain became known as
Nonetheless, Baedeker published some collectible editions that were
published during these years. A German-language guidebook to Madeira
(1934) with a decorative printed cover sells for $1,200. Less expensive
is the guidebook to Holland, published 1927. A copy with a rare dust
jacket sells for $175.
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