Skip to main content

Three Guide Books to New York City: Online, but a Little Dusty

For fans of time travel, literary researchers investigating the mindset of a previous era, and for city residents who grow bored with the present metropolis, I have three books to recommend. The following guide books to New York City, originally published in the years 1857, 1901, and 1920, respectively, and now in the public domain, are available for online browsing. All three guides provide insight into the values and attitudes of their respective times, revealed in their choices of worthy points of interest, in words of caution to visitors, and in their often stereotypical attitudes about ethnicity and class. For present-day visitors, for example, visits to charitable institutions may not be a priority, but in the 19th century, a trip to New York City would not be complete without a visit to the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. As for the attitudes, the Rand McNally guide from 1920, for example, directs visitors toward the crowded streets of "Judea," a word often used interchangeably with "ghetto" in reference to the streets of the Lower East Side.

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."

The author recommends visits to the spire of Trinity Church for the sweeping views of the surrounding landscape, to the charitable institutions such as the Home for the Friendless on E. 30th St., the House of Refuge on Randall's Island, the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum between 115th and 120th Streets, and to several of the dispensaries handing out medicine to the poor. He's excited about the libraries and parks, especially the new Central Park: "when its walks and drives are completed, and trees and shrubbery planted, it will be the most extensive and beautiful public park on the continent." (p. 50)


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.

Comments

Anonymous said…
That's amazing! Thanks for sharing.
Anonymous said…
This is a great blog entry! Thanks for posting it!
Tinky said…
Just when I'm a little annoyed at the internet something like this comes along. Delightful post, delightful sources......
Unknown said…
oh oh just righy up my alley...
Thanks so much !
Teri Tynes said…
Thanks, everyone, for the nice comments. These old guide books tell us so much about historical perspectives on travel.

Popular posts from this blog

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings . Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours. UPDATED September 23, 2020 Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details. • The  Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  reopened to the public on  August 27 , with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.  on Mondays for MoMA members on ly. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this  new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum . •  New-York Historical Society  reopened on  August 14  with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine

Taking a Constitutional Walk

A long time ago individuals going out for a walk, especially to get fresh air and exercise, often referred to the activity as "taking a constitutional walk." The word "constitutional" refers to one's constitution or physical makeup, so a constitutional walk was considered beneficial to one's overall wellbeing. (Or, as some would prefer to call it, "wellness.") The phrase is more common in British literature than in American letters. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, many American commentators expressed concern that their countrymen were falling into lazy and unhealthy habits. Newspaper columnists and editorial writers urged their readers to take up the practice of the "constitutional" walk. One such essay, " Walking as an Exercise," originally printed in the Philadelphia Gazette and reprinted in New England Farmer , Volume 11, 1859, urges the people of farm areas to take up walking. City dwellers seemed to have the

25 Things to Do Near the American Museum of Natural History

After visiting the American Museum of Natural History, explore attractions on the Upper West Side or in Central Park. Visitors to New York often run around from one major tourist site to the next, sometimes from one side of the city to the other, and in the process, exhaust themselves thoroughly. Ambitious itineraries often include something like coffee in the Village in the morning, lunch near MoMA, a couple of hours in the museum, a ride on the Staten Island Ferry in the afternoon, cocktails at the midtown hotel, a quick dinner, and then a Broadway show. It's a wonder people don't pass out at the theater. While sitting on the steps of the American Museum of History, consider exploring the Upper West Side and nearby sites of interest in Central Park. There's a better way to plan a New York trip. Consider grouping attractions together geographically. Several posts on this site address this recommended approach. The Wild West of the Tecumseh Playground Groupin

25 Things to Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art

(updated) Sitting on the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those iconic things to do in New York City. On a sunny day, the wide steps can become crowded with the young and old, the tourist and the resident. It's tempting to stay awhile and soak in the sun and the sights. Everyone has reasons for lingering there, with one being the shared pleasure of people watching along this expansive stretch of Fifth Avenue, a painting come to life. Certainly, just getting off one's feet for a moment is welcome, especially if the previous hours involved walking through the entirety of art history from prehistoric to the contemporary. The entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue The Metropolitan Museum of Art should be a singular pilgrimage, uninterrupted by feeble attempts to take in more exhibitions along Museum Mile. Pity the poor visitor who tries "to do" multiple museum exhibitions in one day, albeit ambitious, noble, and uplift

25 Things To Do Near the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

(updated 2016) The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at 11 W. 53rd Street is near many other New York City attractions, so before or after a trip to the museum, a short walk in any direction could easily take in additional experiences. Drawing a square on a map with the museum at the center, a shape bounded by 58th Street to the north and 48th Street to the south, with 7th Avenue to the west and Park Avenue to the east, proves the point of the area's cultural richness. (A map follows the list below.) While well-known sightseeing stops fall with these boundaries, most notably Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the great swath of famous Fifth Avenue stores, cultural visitors may also want to check out places such as the Austrian Cultural Forum, the 57th Street galleries, the Onassis Cultural Center, and the Municipal Art Society. The image above shows an intriguing glimpse of the tops of two Beaux-Arts buildings through an opening of the wall inside MoMA's scu

From Penn Station to New York Landmarks: Measuring Walking Distance and Time in Manhattan

(revised 2017) How long does it take to walk from Penn Station/Madison Square Garden to well-known destinations in Manhattan? What are the best walking routes ? What if I don't want to see anything in particular but just want to walk around? In addition to the thousands of working commuters from the surrounding area, especially from New Jersey and Long Island who arrive at Penn Station via New Jersey Transit or the Long Island Rail Road, many people arrive at the station just to spend time in The City. Some have questions. Furthermore, a sporting event may have brought you to Madison Square Garden (above Penn Station), and you want to check out what the city offers near the event. This post if for you.  The map below should help you measure walking distances and times from the station to well-known destinations in Manhattan - Bryant Park , the Metropolitan Museum of Art , the Empire State Building , Times Square , Rockefeller Center , Washington Square Park , the High Line

14 Useful Mobile Apps for Walking New York City

Texting and walking at the same time is wrong. Talking on the phone while strolling down the street is wrong. Leaving the sidewalk to stop and consult the information on a cellphone, preferably while alone, is OK. What's on Walking Off the Big Apple's iPhone: A List Walkmeter GPS Walking Stopwatch for Fitness and Weight Loss . While out walking, Walkmeter tracks routes, time, speed, and elevation. This is an excellent app for recording improvised or impromptu strolls, especially with many unplanned detours. The GPS function maps out the actual route. The app keeps a running tally of calories burned while walking, useful for weight loss goals. Another welcome feature is the ability to switch over to other modes of activity, including cycling. An indispensable app for city walkers. $4.99  New York City Compass , designed by Francesco Bertelli, is an elegant compass calibrated for Manhattan, with indications for Uptown, East Side, Downtown, and West Side. While facing a cert

An Architectural Guide to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Route

The 85th Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on Thursday, November 24, 2011 beginning at 9 a.m. will follow a path from Central Park West at 77th Street down to Columbus Circle , then take a quick jog east on Central Park South before heading down 7th Avenue to 42nd Street. Here the parade takes another little jog east to 6th Avenue and then continues south to 34th Street. The finale moves one block west on 34th to Herald Square, the location of Macy's . Balloons from an earlier year try to pump themselves up the night before the big parade.

Visiting New York on a Monday

Mondays are OK. Let's have a look at some of the museums open Mondays - • American Museum of Natural History • Jewish Museum • Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) • National Museum of the American Indian • Neue Galerie • Guggenheim Museum • South Street Seaport Museum Any of these museums could be paired with a nearby restaurant or bar, making a complete full afternoon or day in New York. Monday is especially good for a museum visit, because the crowds tend to be thinner, and restaurants, too, tend to be less busy than on a weekend. A fun museum and bistro walk on the Upper West Side would be a combination of the American Museum of Natural History and the nearby Cafe Lalo on W. 83rd St. I also would suggest a pairing of the Neue Galerie with a nearby cafe, but the two cafes inside the musuem are so good, why go anywhere else? Image above: The Guggenheim on left and Beaux-Arts townhouse on right. View from E. 88th St. by Walking Off the Big Apple.

The High Line and Chelsea Market: A Good Pairing for a Walk

(revised 2017) The advent of spring, with its signs of growth and rebirth, is apparent both on the High Line , where volunteers are cutting away the old growth to reveal fresh blooms, and inside the Chelsea Market, where new tenants are revitalizing the space. A walk to take in both can become an exploration of bounty and surprise, a sensual walk of adventure and sustenance. A good pairing for a walk: The High Line and Chelsea Market Walking the High Line for a round trip from Gansevoort to W. 30th and then back again adds up to a healthy 2-mile walk. Regular walkers of the elevated park look for an excuse to go there. Especially delightful is showing off the park, a model of its kind, to visitors from out of town. A stroll through Chelsea Market. Time check. If you haven't stopped into Chelsea Market lately, you may want to take a detour from the High Line at the stairs on W. 16th St. and walk through the market for a quick assessment or a sampling. Among the sampli