I wrote this for Forbes-FYI around 1994.
Born to serve a steam-and-railway age of travel, the 1100-odd Baedeker Guides issued in English, French, and German between 1832 and 1934 remain the most thorough, detailed, and useful series of travel handbooks ever written. Bound in red cloth, these out-of-print volumes the size of your hand—a museum ticket or pressed flower of a previous owner wedged, perhaps, into a foldout map—still turn up by the dozens in secondhand bookshops. Let other men waste their time on this year’s guidebooks with their up-to-the-minute information; I consult a century-old Baedeker.
That redoubtable publishing firm was founded by Karl Baedeker (1801-59) near Cologne as a kind of Germanic answer to the John Murray guides published in England at the time. More encyclopedic and less stylized and imperial, they were carried on by Baedeker’s sons, who moved the firm to Leipzig, where it flourished until its premises got destroyed during an air raid in WWII. The firm revived after the war, but its modern guides cannot equal their predecessors.
By the time of the first World War the founding Baedeker’s grandsons had expanded their list to 78 titles in three languages. These ranged from, say, Transylvania, the Azores, Constantinople, and India to Canada, Corsica, Russia, and the Black Forest. Sometimes the guides followed great rivers (The Rhine from Rotterdam to Constance, 1873) or mountain ranges (Tyrol and the Dolomites including the Bavarian Alps, 1927). Sometimes they sensibly and neatly divided countries into several volumes, like Italy, or lumped them together into one, like the United States, Mexico, Cuba, PortoRico, and Alaska. The French Riviera received its own volume.
The language was by turns declamatory (“Over all the movements of the pedestrian the weather holds sway”), philosophical (“The traveller’s ambition often exceeds his powers of endurance”), out-of-date (“The traveller is cautioned against sleeping in chalets”) or helpful (“Care must be taken... for should the overhanging masses of snow give way, the traveller would be precipitated to a depth of 3000-4000’.”) Those remarks are from an 1899 Guide to Switzerland.
On every page of every volume the author took it for granted his reader was an educated person who could follow every turn of phrase and allusion while sharing his assumptions and judgments. In three northern tongues, Baedeker cast a cold eye southward on all that seemed immoral, from the “disgracefully insolent” clowns in Egypt to the innkeepers in Naples: “The traveller is often tempted to doubt whether such a thing as honesty is known here.”
An old Baedeker can serve as a good barometer for how much the world has changed. A 1900 guide to Paris, with the Metro in its first stages, or to London with its underground only half finished, seems quaint today, but in countries where the attractions and the streetcar lines have changed little over the last century, Baedeker simply cannot be equalled. A visitor to Cairo need look no further than the 1929 Egypt and the Sudan. As Hans Koning put it, despite the “pseudoscientific racism... Baedeker’s completeness is baffling. I can only visualize squadrons of German professors swarming out over Egypt, sleeping in every bed, and sketching every pillar.”
Certain advice may make us uneasy. One section of the 1906 Palestine and Syria guide entitled Intercourse With Orientals warns: “Familiarity should always be avoided. True friendship is rare in the East....” But who can argue with the rest? “The custom of scattering small coins for the sake of amusement furnished by the consequent scramble is an insult to poverty that no right-minded traveller will offer.”
In an age where speed is taken for granted, these old guides remind us that tourism began as a leisurely, improving activity. Every Baedeker educates us and slows us down. Better than a time machine, not only do they offer us the world as it actually was; they show us, more miraculously, how much of that world still remains, and what our century has added, for better or worse.