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.
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
In 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.
One 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.