The Baedeker Is Back…

5th January 2008

Many brands have made successful comebacks in Britain over the past decade… think Burberry, think the Mini, think Doctor Who. 2008 looks set to be no different, and the year starts with the return of Europe’s best-loved guidebook and, arguably, the oldest travel brand in existence: the Baedeker. Jill Glenn finds out more.

Those familiar with EM Forster’s A Room with a View may recall Eleanor Lavish’s horror at the thought of consulting a Baedeker when lost in Florence. ‘We will simply drift’, she declares. Without a Baedeker, ancient or modern, you may have to do the same.

Born in 1801, in the city of Essen on the Ruhr, then part of Prussia, the original Karl Baedeker was the son of a family of printers and publishers, and it was inevitable that he should follow a similar trade. It’s unlikely, though, that he or his parents could have predicted that his name would be forever associated with travel guides – the genre didn’t really exist when he began work.

Baedeker became its pioneer, setting the standard for the authoritative guidebook. He spotted a market niche, and set about exploiting it with trademark precision and thoroughness. It was a classic example of being in the right place (or places) at the right time. Before Baedeker there had been no call for the type of practical guidebook that he devised. The rich young men who made their way around Europe on The Grand Tour in the 17th and 18th centuries just didn’t need this sort of information. They had servants, or access to other people’s servants.

In the early 19th century, however, travel and travellers began to change. The Napoleonic wars were over; Europe felt safer (the roads were much improved!) and more interesting to more people than ever before. The public stagecoach began to make travel affordable and possible for those who couldn’t have considered it previously. Culture and landscape appealed in equal measure, and Baedeker addressed both.

He established his publishing company in 1827, in Koblenz. In the early 1830s he was lucky enough to buy up the stock of a bankrupt publishing house, amongst which was Rheinreise von Mainz bis Köln (Travels Along the Rhine from Mainz to Cologne). Baedeker revised this, added useful information on accommodation and transport, thus turning it from a simple account of the history and art of the area into a manual for the modern traveller, and reissued it. It caught the public imagination, going into three editions in just 12 years. Millions of travelers followed his advice; a fan club was born.

Baedeker wasn’t the only publisher to focus on this new market, of course. Englishman John Murray, an enthusiastic traveller, published A Hand Book for Travellers in Holland, Belgium, and along the Rhine, and throughout Northern Germany in 1836, and followed it up with guides to Southern Germany, Austria and Hungary in 1837, and to Switzerland in 1838. The two men corresponded with each other, shared information, and borrowed formats. Baedeker even stole back from Murray the word Handbook, which Murray had translated from the original German Handbuch, and applied it to all his guidebooks thereafter.

Baedeker appreciated the importance of maps, always including city plans, for example, and illustrations, and tried to steer a middle ground between providing little more than a basic list of sights and offering so much information that the traveller really didn’t need to make the trip themselves. It was he who introduced the ‘must see’ concept, indicating with varying numbers of asterisks particular attractions that simply should not be missed, or hotels and restaurants that he recommended. His opinions were personal, and occasionally quirky; he described the view from Mont Blanc as ‘unsatisfactory’ and gave it no asterisks at all.

His passionate attention to detail was legendary, and anecdotes about his thoroughness abound. In 1847, for example, he was observed to place a dried pea every 20 steps as he climbed the steps to the dome of Milan Cathedral (without which no trip to the city would be complete); on his way down he collected them all up again, so that he could verify his original count – a degree of accuracy that smacks of the obsessive.

After his early death (popularly attributed to overwork) in 1859, the company was successively controlled by his three sons Ernst, Karl and finally Fritz, who oversaw an explosive growth in their line of travel guides with that distinctive red leather binding and gold lettering. The first English edition, The Rhine‚ appeared in 1861, bringing to an end the informal agreement between Karl Baedeker and John Murray not to compete in each other’s languages. The relationship between the two publishing houses turned sour, especially as the word Baedeker was becoming synonymous with guidebook. So highly and widely regarded was the Baedeker, in fact, that it was included in the Collins and other English Dictionaries. ‘To baedeker’ was a generic verb meaning to travel to a country with the purpose of writing.

The company continued to expand its coverage: Greece, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Constantinople and Asia Minor, and still flourished into the 20th century, although a couple of lawsuits (by those objecting to comments they deemed libellous) made life more difficult. In any case, the world was changing, and the old certainties of culture and travel were less fixed.

In 1943, the Baedeker company premises in Leipzig were destroyed by a bomb. Nearly all of the files, books and archives were lost in the blaze. In 1948, Baedeker’s great grandson revived the company; in 1951 a second company, publishing guides for motorists was founded in Stuttgart. Both today belong to MairDumont Publishing House.

The distribution of Baedeker ceased in the UK a mere five years ago. The most rare original editions sell regularly for significant sums now. The first edition of the Baedeker Guide to Great Britain, for example, is currently available for £150. Those who would rather have their travel information up to date, however, can still buy in to the Baedeker heritage. A new series of guides is planned, with the first 12 titles due to hit the shelves on 7 January, some 180 years after the first appeared. According to the publisher the new-look full-colour Baedeker is aimed at the independent, well-educated traveller (‘the grown-up Lonely Planet traveller’), seeking trusty, well-written insights. Karl Baedeker’s aim, he once wrote, was to assist the traveler ‘in standing on his own feet, to render him independent, and to place him in a position from which he may receive his own impressions with clear eyes and lively heart’. It’s a good mission statement.

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