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I LOVE Baedeker’s handbooks, especially those published during their glory years of 1900 to the onset of World War I. Pocket sized—provided one’s coat has generous pockets—these little red guidebooks with embossed gold titles are a treasure to peruse at home and even more entertaining to use in travel today.
What was worthy in 1910 and still extant is all the more worth seeing today.
Karl Baedeker founded a publishing house in 1827, with his first official handbook for travelers, Die Rhinelande, appearing in German only in 1839. The idea of calling it a “handbook” came from publisher John Murray III, whose English handbooks for Holland, Belgium and Northern Germany had appeared two years earlier. In fact, from the start Murray’s had the red and gold format. Baedeker’s first handbooks were tan with garishly illustrated covers.
Baedeker’s French Le Rhin followed in 1846. Ten years later, the Murray look of gold title on plain red covers was adopted. Baedeker’s first effort in English, The Rhineland, appeared in 1861. Thereafter, most of the new handbooks and revised editions were published in all three languages, German, French and English.
In A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain has fun with his Baedeker’s Switzerland. “…as Mr. Baedeker requests all tourists to call his attention to any errors which they may find in his guide-books, I dropped him a line to inform him that when he said the foot-journey from Weggis to the summit was only three hours and a quarter, he missed it by just about three days.”
Humor aside, the English editions (which were not simply straight translations from the German) became known for their conciseness and clarity. Bertrand Russell, English philosopher, mathematician and social critic, said he had two models of writing style: poet John Milton’s and Baedeker’s.
So ubiquitous were these handbooks that the term “Baedeker” became synonymous with the genre. My 1914 Baedeker of the Argentine Republic isn’t a Baedeker at all. But it sure looks like one.
During World War II, because of their detailed and accurate maps Baedekers became valuable tools. Lamentably enough, they also gave rise to the term “Baedeker Raids,” when, in the spring of 1942, Nazi bombers concentrated their attacks on notable sites in the English cities of Exeter, Bath, Norwich and Canterbury.
There was a charming tale in The New Yorker, September 22, 1975, about Baedeker’s 1908 edition of The Mediterranean. In assembling data for Algeria they found that no printed plan existed for the city of Oran, so a Baedeker researcher was sent there. He discovered a faded, fuzzy map of the city on one of the walls in the town hall, and he secretly photographed it. Back at the office, a sharp-edged modern map was developed from this.
Shortly after The Mediterranean was published, Baedeker received a letter from the mayor of Oran. “If it is possible, I should like to have a copy of your wonderful plan of our city,” he wrote. “At the present time, we have nothing half as good—just an old hand-drawn map.”
“Albergo Verbano, Isola dei Pescatori” at http://wp.me/p2ETap-6i is an example of one of my own Baedeker adventures. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2012