What I have learned from the retro travel guides I’ve been collecting for almost a decade


For almost a decade, I have collected old Ward, Lock & Co. travel guides at flea markets across Europe and Canada. The publisher no longer exists, but at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, Ward, Lock & Co., along with Baedeker, was the benchmark for illustrated guides intended for the English tourist. Their iconic red covers, colorful fold-out cards, and scrupulous attention to detail have made them very popular.

Since most of the guides predate WWII, they provide fascinating information on the evolution of travel. They detail how we once crossed borders, cite countries and currencies that no longer exist, contain curious advice that would be totally unnecessary today, and reveal the cultural prejudices of their time.

As a great traveler and ultra-nostalgic sidekick, the intersection of history and exploration has always fascinated me. The ability to hold in my hands a unique glimpse of a bygone era is addictive. Like vinyl records, plants or glasses of wine, it’s impossible for me to stop at just one. The details they contain are just too important to be forgotten over time.

For example, according to my 1904 guide to Paris, matches and playing cards were considered contraband, so foreigners had to hand them over when entering France. Due to the increase in amputations due to World War I, the 1927 London Guidebook advertises the best manufacturer of artificial legs, arms, hands and eyes in Britain. The 1907 advertisement for the Great Postcard competition with £ 6,666 in prizes was judged by none other than “Sherlock Holmes” author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

All guidebooks from around 1910 say that public baths are less and less popular because of the accommodations with their own toilets. What a novelty! There are also tips on how to send telegrams wirelessly.

Aside from the weird laws, vintage promotions, and outdated technology, the books also point to more discriminatory ways of thinking about tourism. The Brussels swimming pools in 1907, which were open every day every summer, only allowed women to swim twice a week. From the late 19th century to the early 20th century, most beaches and pools were separate, and women were penalized for wearing swimsuits that revealed skin below the knee. Given these restrictions, it seems that only men were truly allowed to enjoy the pleasures of sunny getaways and seaside resorts.

The 1921 Holland Guide warns that local trains are full of “gypsies”. Today we know that the Sinti Roma have been victims of immeasurable prejudice and discrimination in almost all countries. Guides like this had no concern for the suffering, only for the leisure of their rich target audience.

More xenophobic language can be found in the London guidebook of 1947, which says that the small number of police officers dealing with the crime is “sufficient to protect its inhabitants from the Ishmaelites whose hands are against all men.” The “Ishmaelites” are Arabs, like me. This entry, while disturbing in itself, reminded me of how little things have changed over the course of a century. Xenophobia against Arabs and Islamophobia still lead to hate crimes in Canada.

Like some of the darkest chapters of the 20th century, the two world wars leave a haunting mark on most guidebooks. As an example, the Paris guide of 1922 mentions the Zeppelins who bombed Paris during “The Great War”. The Belgian guide from 1907 insists that we visit the Ypres Cloth Market, a 13th-century room covering 15,000 square feet, once considered the most beautiful of its kind in Europe. I will never be able to visit what the book describes, at least not the original: it was destroyed by the bombing. (A different fabric market, constructed the same way, is now there.)

A fold-out map from Allied intelligence services of major buildings in Berlin, dated 1944 (when the war was still raging), shows which buildings were damaged by air raids. Ebertstraße, where the Jewish Holocaust Memorial is today, can be seen on the map, except it hauntingly bears its Nazi-era renaming: Hermann-Göring-straße. Göring, one of Hitler’s top officials, was subsequently tried for crimes against humanity.

The 1947 London guidebook details the damage suffered in WWII: “The scars are evident, especially in the area around St. Paul’s Cathedral, and in the many open spaces there were once many large commercial buildings. But while the loss of life was significant, cleaning up the debris opened up many vistas of beauty. It is impossible to read these passages and not think of all the splendor, the historical artifacts and the lives that have been lost.

While a lot has changed, some things remain true. With their clarity and depth, the pictures in the 1927 London Guidebook could have been shot yesterday. The Canadian government offices in Trafalgar Square, known today as Canada House, look alike except in the photo we see horse-drawn vehicles, men with brimmed hats and umbrellas, and journalists trying to sell the daily rags.

If we could magically move fast through time, leaving these people in their place in the photo, they would end up next to one of the greatest tourist attractions in the world today.


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