One fascinating aspect of these guides rests in the contemporary accounts of the modern metropolis in progress. As examples, the first guide from 1857 points out the exciting plans for the new Central Park, the 1901 guide takes in the construction of St. John the Divine Cathedral, and the 1920 guide, as you will see, expresses confusion about the new subways. To help establish the cultural context for the guides, I have added a note with each title, indicating some notable novels published that same year.
Phelps' strangers and citizens' guide to New York City by Humphrey Phelps. Published by Gaylord Watson, 16 Beekman Street, N. Y. 1857.
New books of 1857: Herman Melville - The Confidence-Man, Gustave Flaubert - Madame Bovary, Charles Dickens - Little Dorrit.
The book begins with a fascinating section, "Advice to Strangers," a collection of warnings to visitors about such dangers as cheap lodging houses, the operation of pickpockets, offers of fake merchandise, and "mock auctions." Best line in this section - "there are some places where the morals of strangers or citizens will not be particularly improved by visiting, to say nothing of the bodily danger one incurs, especially in the evening and unattended."
• New York City Standard Guide - A New and Complete Handbook for Visitors to New York and for New Yorkers. The Standard Guide Series. 1901. New York: Foster & Reynolds.
New books of 1901: Henry James - The Fount, Joseph Conrad & Ford Madox Ford - The Inheritors, Frank Norris - The Octopus.
By the turn of the century, guide books pointed out many more attractions, especially in the financial sector of lower Manhattan and nearby in the newspaper district on Park Row and Printing House Square, then home to the New York Times and the Tribune. The guide describes the scene in Printing House Square in breathless detail: "Crowds gather about the bulletin boards; great rolls of paper are unloading for the cylinder presses; yellow delivery wagons are scurrying away with yellowed extras, and newsboys and newswomen obstruct the sidewalk and assail us with with their shrill but not unmusical cries." p. 41 The guide makes a great deal of fuss over the Brooklyn Bridge, a relatively new feature of the city, recommending a bridge walk in order to take in the views, and another forty-minute walk to take in the skyscrapers downtown.
Written during a time that especially highlighted the vast inequality of wealth, the guide notes the division between the rich and the poor on opposite sides of Washington Square Park. While the north side of the park sports houses that are "eminently respectable," the "purlieus south of the Square have for years harbored the vicious and depraved." The construction of the Mills Hotel on Bleecker Street, however, indicates the area "is rapidly becoming a business district." p. 81
New York City Standard Guide is illustrated with beautiful photographs, many showing off the city's flâneurs in their heyday. In fact, the guide seems tailor-made for the strolling class. Check out the guide's art feature on page 112 - "Twenty-five of the most popular pictures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Also of historical note, the guide looks forward to the construction of the massive Cathedral of St. John the Divine, surpassing "any ecclesiastical edifice in America," and the fancy new underground subway system.
• Rand McNally New York Guide to the City and Environs. New York, 1920
New books of 1920: F. Scott Fitzgerald - This Side of Paradise, Sinclair Lewis - Main Street, Edith Wharton - The Age of Innocence.
By 1920, the automobile and underground railways offered new means for getting around the city. The writers of the 1920 edition of the Rand McNally city guide seem particularly excited about the new subways - "the greatest transit development ever undertaken in any city of the world." Explaining the particulars of the new transportation system, however, seemed beyond them: "The full details of routes, connections, changes, etc., of the entire system, are very complicated and beyond the scope of this guide." p. 16.
The guide extols the monumental metropolis of gleaming white buildings such as Grand Central Terminal and Pennsylvania Station as well as the new skyscraper city, but like earlier guides, the Rand McNally edition emphasizes the parks and points of historical interest downtown. The guide briefly characterizes the immigrant districts, unfortunately relying on stereotypes: Chinatown, where "people maintain habits of personal cleanliness;" The Bowery, where "Americans have almost disappeared…giving way to the German and the Jew, who are good-natured and frugal in their amusements; and "Judea," the guide's name for the Lower East Side, home to "the hardest working part of the population."
Uptown, the guide recommends Grant's Tomb and the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument as must-see attractions, as well as the Zoological Garden in the Bronx. The guide also singles out several attractions now gone, like the "Speedway" in upper Harlem, a long drive where residents take their horses out for a fast trot, and the Claremont Restaurant, an elegant 1797 house with splendid gardens overlooking the Hudson near Riverside Drive and 125th Street. The guide also mentions the Morgue at Bellevue, a wooden building "designed to care for the unknown dead in the most approved manner." As with many of the early guides, Rand McNally recommends a visit to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, the "famous city of the dead."
Other New York guide books in the public domain are available online. Enter the phrase "New York City Guide Books" or something like it into the search bar on Google Books. An even better source for related material may be found through similar searches in the Internet Archive.
For the record, Walking Off the Big Apple lives on "the vicious and depraved" side of Washington Square Park.