Baedekers

Time Travel: The History of Baedeker guidebooks

Long before mobile travel apps there was the Baedeker Guide, indispensable for helping thousands of well-to-do travellers brave the perils of abroad. Designed to be carried around in a pocket and available for handy reference by the tourist while walking about the streets of a foreign city, or hiking up a mountain, they were small, robust and easy to carry.

We’re giving away a Baedeker guide worth under £100 every month to one lucky new subscriber to our newsletter — browse the guides.

What’s in a name? The start of a publishing legend

Karl Baedeker founded the famous “Baedeker” house in 1827. He and four generations  of Baedekers after him achieved something quite extraordinary by creating a tri-lingual set of travel guides spanning 180 years and covering some forty countries in forty continents.

Born in Essen in 1801, both Karl Baedeker’s father and grandfather had been booksellers and publisher. In those days it was common practice to engage in both trades at the same time.

The Golden Age of Travel 

Mass travel and tourism started to take off in 1827 with the launch of the first passenger steamboat service on the Rhine between Coblence and Mayence and Karl published his first guidebook in 1832: Rheinreise von Mainz bis Koln.  It was successful and he proceeded to publish a second edition in 1835 and the Baedeker guides were born and continued for the next 180 years.

Switzerland-Baedeker

Ultimate Guidebook for Victorian Tourists

The first English edition appeared in 1861 with the Rhine, followed by Switzerland in 1863 and Paris in 1865. With their distinctive red covers, diligently updated information and state-of-the-art maps, Baedekers grew to become an essential tool for civilised travel everywhere.

Karl Baedeker travelled extensively to collect all the data and information for his travel guides, starting  the famous “star” system by marking important sights with an asterisk.  In 1859 his enterprising career was cut short by his sudden death. His three sons had followed him into the firm and took over the booming Baedeker business.

Pre-war success and a small law suit

In 1872 Baedekers moved to Leipzig. The firm continued to enjoy success. The reputation of the handbooks was high, not just for the information but also the quality of the maps was second to none. The company had a few hiccups along the way but they always survived.

There was a famous lawsuit in the 1890s brought by Howard ( a hotel owner in Jaffa and Jerusalem) against Baedeker with reference to some disparaging remarks in the Palestine and Syria edition in 1894 about his hotels. Howard won the lawsuit and Baedekers were ordered to remove the critical comments. However in the next edition in 1898 Howard’s hotels were omitted and his business suffered greatly as a result.  Baedekers reached their zenith in the decade before World War I and by 1914 were publishing in total 78 titles ( 29 in German, 27 in English and 22 in French).

Baeldeker-syria
Generalgouvernement-Baedeker

Tourism in Nazi‐occupied Poland

World War II virtually stopped publication of all guides except for Elsass and  the infamous  Generalgouvernement  in 1943. This handbook covered those parts of occupied Poland that were not annexed by Greater Germany.

The name of the Territory derived from the old name under Czarist Russia before World War I (“General Gouvernement  of Warsaw”) and used by the Germans after they had captured the region from Russia. The Governor-General Reichsminster Dr Hans Frank, invited Baedekers to publish a handbook for the region. The result was a history of Poland as seen through official Nazi-German eyes. Robert Harris used this Baedeker to help him research and write his bestselling Fatherland.

Post-War Editions

In 1943, Baedeker’s premises were hit in an air raid and practically all was lost including the extensive archives and stocks. The only things that survived were human talent, devotion and the firm’s high reputation. Miraculously the firm managed to resurrect itself after the War and it published Leipzig in 1948 and promptly ran into trouble with the Russian authorities in Eastern Germany. However they survived and eventually the firm and its name was bought by MairDumont, which successfully continues to publish the famous Baedeker travel guides to this day.

A Lasting legacy

The handbooks have undergone considerable changes over the last 180 years but some basic qualities and aims set by Karl Baedeker himself and adhered to by his successors- accuracy, reliability, lucidity, “not too much, not too little, handy size, good clear plans and maps and sufficient information to render the traveller as “independent as possible of the services of guides, commissionaires and innkeepers.”

In Santa Croce with no Baedeker

Today, many people know of Baedeker through reading or watching the film adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View that made entertaining use of the Northern Italy Baedeker.


Collecting Baedekers

With their distinctive red covers Baedekers are beautiful objects as well as time capsules to another era, sought after by collectors.

Shapero Rare Books is probably the leading international specialist in antiquarian travel guide books. We stock an extensive range from the eighteenth century onwards.

Browse all Baedeker Guidebooks

Contact our travel specialist Lucinda Boyle for more information.

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