Americans Discover Vacation: With an Agency Itinerary and a Guidebook in Hand

Like many other industries the travel business has been radically changed by the Web, by digital publishing and ecommerce in particular. Printed travel guides are on the decline as are storefront travel agencies. But these two travel businesses were for more than a century the way Americans planned and booked their vacations as well as the way they were guided through their eventual destinations.

Both the travel agent and the travel guide emerged in the second half of the 19th century, the time when the term vacation began to be spoken by more and more Americans.

(jlynne)

(jlynne)

The first travel agency in America was the British agency Thomas Cook. Cook started his business in the 1840’s shuffling temperance campaigners between various English cities via the rails. As the business expanded it began to sponsor overseas trips and in 1869 Cook himself led a small group of Brits on a rail excursion from New York to San Francisco. Cook opened a New York office in 1871 and continued to conduct trips to the West Coast.

The Raymond and Whitcomb Agency, opened in Boston in 1879, become the gold standard for luxury travel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Author Cindy S. Aron (Working at Play) notes that a Raymond and Whitcomb trip was going to involve private rail cars, first class service and luxury hotels. See America First author Marguerite S. Shaffer comments, “Early on tourist agencies such as Raymond and Whitcomb offered a sense of exclusivity and refinement, assuring elite tourists that they would circulate among people of their own social standing.”

Initially they booked trips to the White Mountains in New Hampshire and to Washington, D.C. and later added transcontinental voyages. Here are some sample Raymond and Whitcomb offerings:

  • 1887 Raymond’s Vacation Excursion to Washington, D.C. – leaves from Boston. “5 days in the national capital. Carriage ride to the public buildings and other points of interest. Visit to Mount Vernon.”
  • 1888 Raymond’s Yellowstone National Park Excursion – leaves from Boston, New York and Philadelphia “A grand excursion to the Yellowstone National Park with incremental trips to Chicago, Milwaukee, the Dells of the Wisconsin, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Niagara Falls, etc.”
  • 1906 Raymond and Whitcomb’s Tour of California – leaves from Boston, New York and Philadelphia. “Excursion to the Pacific Coast via the Santa Fe route. Through Pullman Vestibuled Cars to Los Angeles without change.”

By the 1920’s the agency was offering cruises to Latin America and the Mediterranean, around Africa and around the world.

While travel agencies emerged in the 1870’s, travel guides got an even earlier start. Appleton’s Travel Guides, originally targeted at European visitors, are cited by Shaffer as the first series of guides published in the U.S. Some early Appleton publications were:

  • 1848 – Appletons’ Railroad and Steamboat Companion: being a Travellers’ Guide through the United States of America.
  • 1849 – Appletons’ New York City and Vicinity Guide.
  • 1860 – Appletons’ Illustrated Hand-book of American Travel

picturesque americaIn addition to other city guides Appletons’ had an edition dedicated to fishing. Perhaps their most reknowned publication was the two-part Picturesque America, which included hundreds of engravings of the works of famous landscape painters. It was edited by William Cullen Bryant, the editor of the New York Evening Post.

One of the most lasting and highest quality series of travel guides was surprisingly published by the government. During the Depression, FDR established the Federal Writers Project in 1935 as a way to put unemployed writers to work. More than 6,000 persons were hired by the FWP and they included some of the best known writers of their generation including Saul Bellow, John Cheever, John Steinbeck, Studs Terkel and Richard Wright.

WPA guideOne of the products of the FWP was the American Guide Series which was more commonly referred to as the WPA (Works Progress Administration) Guides. The first guide, covering Idaho, was published in 1937, and the Oklahoma guide, published in 1942, completed the 48-state series. Each of the guides included some articles about the history of the state, photos and auto tours of the state. As automobile vacations grew in popularity after the Second World War, these guides were still current and used.

In an earlier post (Americans Discover Vacation: As Well As Discrimination and Bigotry), I noted that blacks and Jews built their own touring infrastructure as a way of circumventing discriminatory treatment. That included travel agencies and guide books. One example is The Negro Motorist Green Book, which was published from 1936-1966. The Green Book, as it was commonly known, was created by Victor Green, a former mailman who became a travel agent in New York. The information in the book included listings of hotels, camps, and restaurants that served blacks. Green himself expressed the hope that one day his guides would be unnecessary and eventually that was the case.

By the middle of the 20th century a vast number of Americans had the time and the wherewithal to vacation.  Many had a guide book along with a couple gas station maps in their glove compartment and before long there would be a travel agency in just about every town of any size.

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30 Responses to Americans Discover Vacation: With an Agency Itinerary and a Guidebook in Hand

  1. Donna Janke says:

    Interesting post about the history of guide books in America. I still occasionally get a guide book, but most of my research and planning for a trip is done online now.

    Like

    • Ken Dowell says:

      That’s pretty much the way things are going. Much easier to stay current online. On more than one occasion I headed out to a restaurant I found in a guidebook only to discover it was gone.

      Like

  2. Very interesting post about travel agencies and guidebooks. I traveled through Europe in 1980 using a book called, Europe on $15 a Day. Much more recently, I traveled through Chile and some other South American countries using Lonely Planet. I used to enjoy walking into a travel agency and having an agent help me plan a trip but it’s been a long time since I’ve done that.

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  3. It is amazing the affect that the web has had on so many areas of our way of life and business. Trips within the United States we definitely just do all our research and planning online and handle ourselves. Only for a trip abroad would we probably still use a travel agent.

    Like

  4. Phoenicia says:

    What an interesting read. You have carried out extensive research!

    I love that Americans call their holidays, vacations!

    Like

  5. Lenie says:

    The Internet has changed the way we do a lot of things – I wonder if people are as happy with the final result as they used to be in making their travel plans on a personal level with a travel agent. I love the picture of the old Picturesque America book (where ever did you find that, wow) and the WPA guide to Montana was also pretty need – one of the depression era make work projects I guess.

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  6. jacquiegum says:

    SO interesting! I still have a shelf full of Fodor’s Guides to so many places. I miss the days of dealing with a travel agent, particularly for overseas travel, though the service is still available. It is one of the DIY things that I do NOT cherish! It tales so much research even for a trip within our own borders.

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    • Ken Dowell says:

      You can still go to a travel agent but if you don’t find one who really knows the destination you are going to, chances are they go online and do the same thing you would have done yourself.

      Like

  7. It’s true the internet has all the resources we need to book a great vacation. My problem is I get sidetracked and distracted with so much input. What happens is I wind up looking into a great week on the Figi Islands when all I wanted to do was go to Vegas.

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  8. I enjoyed your post and has learnt some things on travel business and its histor..

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  9. Kire Sdyor says:

    Ken, I still refer to travel guides whenever possible. Think they are a wealth of off-the-beaten-path knowledge. Fascinating history lesson. Thanks.

    Like

  10. Erica says:

    So very interesting. I used a travel agent that catered to students when in my early 20s and planning some time in Paris. I got a really cheap deal but I never looked up the hotel in any guide book. I got there and I was in a part of town where tourists don’t normally go. I kind of like the convenience of the internet where you get not only detailed information, but other tourist’s opinions. Needless to say, it is still fascinating to look back at history and remember how things used to be done. and realize how much has changed in such a short period of time.

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    • Ken Dowell says:

      I had that same experience in Chicago where I was booked by a travel agent into a hotel that had a security guard at the door who I think was armed. Travel agents could be a big help as long as they know something about the place you were going.

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  11. As much as I’m the first person to admit I love e-books and have been weeding the fiction off my shelves in an effort to downsize, there is still something I absolutely love about travel books. While I do a ton of planning online (and also share a OneNote with my husband so we can update our plans separately as needed) I still love leafing through guides and marking pages. I even remember the copy of Rick Steve’s big Europe book that I bought when I was working in Florida. I ripped that sucker apart and stapled sections just like he suggested. It was going to be a month of glory, but then I decided to go back to college instead. Now I have to do Europe little by little. The evolution of guidebooks is probably one of my favorite aspects of the publishing industry.

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  12. It’s amazing how much things have changed. I would never use a travel agent, but I still like looking at guidebooks before a trip. Carrying them in a backpack is another matter though! 🙂

    Like

  13. Tuhin says:

    Hello Ken,
    Good to know about the history of travel agencies. Time has changed a lot and with it this sector too has seen a lot of unavoidable changes.

    Reading this post gave a feel of travelling back in time…

    Like

  14. tuhinmech says:

    Hello Ken,
    Good to know about the history of travel agencies. Time has changed a lot and with it this sector too has seen a lot of unavoidable changes.

    Reading this post gave a feel of travelling back in time

    Like

  15. Thank God for the internet. It’s so easy to sit at the comfort of your home and arrange everything. Have done that all over the world. Thankfully what you outline is a thing of the past. Guide books though can come in handy in remote corners of the world. The best ones are published by Lonely Planet.

    Like

  16. andleeb says:

    Very nice post about history of travel guide books. I was wondering that British agency Thomas Cook was started a long time ago, is it in business now?
    I sometimes have a guide with me but as you said mostly we look for information online.

    Thank you Ken for such an informative post.

    Like

  17. Ken Dowell says:

    Thomas Cook is still very much in business. They still have “stores” all over the UK although I suspect much of their business has moved online.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Tim says:

    Fascinating stuff Ken. I have loved this whole series on the history of vacationing. It is amazing that an industry so gigantic these days can be traced back to its birth only a century and a half ago.

    Like

  19. Discovering vacations was a great find I think! Nowadays travel agencies are pretty much a thing of the past with the internet. My husband’s aunt used to own one but she lost so much business to the internet that she closed it.

    Like

  20. William Rusho says:

    What wonderful bit of printed history you provided. People do not realize, In Dracula, Braham Stoker copied a travel guide word for word in describing the Transylvania landscape and towns.

    Like

  21. Jason @ TheButlerJournal.com says:

    I am loving your vacation series. I hate the fact that travel guides are becoming extinct, Even though you can view travel info online, I still enjoy getting travel guides in the mail.

    Like

  22. Good read! Very interesting Ken, I really like this series. There is so much good history to learn and you telling some good stuff.

    Like

  23. patamsden says:

    I have used the Internet for most of my travel planning and for booking flights etc. but I used to love getting a Travel Writing book at Christmas. These are usually written by excellent writers and share their experiences while travelling. This is how I know that for many Hawaiins Spam is considered a staple of their diet and many restaurant serve, or did serve Spam or can picture myself in a large Mercedes travel bus travel long across the Sahara to the music of Pink Floyd. I find the blog posts you’re writing now fascinating.

    Like

  24. Pingback: Americans Discover Vacation: Book Reviews | off the leash

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