November 3rd – Karl Baedeker

“The traveller need have no scruple in limiting his donations to the smallest possible sums, as liberality frequently becomes a source of annoyance and embarrassment.”

Karl Baedeker

Karl Ludwig Johannes Baedeker (BAY-day-ker) was born on November 3rd, 1801, in Essen, in what was then the Kingdom of Prussia. His father and grandfather were booksellers and publishers. Baedeker grew up working in the book business before going to the University of Heidelberg to study humanities from 1819 to 1822.

He worked in his father’s business until 1827, when he left to start his own bookselling and publishing company. In 1832 his firm acquired the publishing house of Franz Friedrich Röhling in Koblenz, which had published an early travel book of the Rhine. Railways and steamboats had started to make travel more accessible to Europeans during this time. Baedeker decided to expand how travel guides were done, including routes and accommodations so travelers would not need to look outside their guidebook for anything on their journey. He traveled incognito through Europe, using only information he had seen firsthand in his guidebooks. 

He was inspired by publisher John Murry III to use star ratings for attractions worthy of note and the best accommodations and also to bind the books in bright red, which Baedeker did after 1856. His volumes were small enough to fit in a coat pocket and were the leading guidebooks for Germans and the British. They were known for their accuracy and their detailed maps. 

Although responsible for the modern guidebooks encouraging people to take a holiday – Baedeker himself died from ‘overwork’ in Koblenz on October 4th, 1859. He was only fifty-seven years old. 

After his death, his sons took over the business. The eldest, Ernst, was the head of the firm until he died in 1861 of sunstroke in Egypt. It was then transferred to Karl Baedeker II, who ran it until 1877, when he was put in an asylum for a mental condition. 

At the company’s height, just before the outbreak of WWI, they had published 992 editions of the guides covering Europe, Russia, North America, India, and the Middle East.

The youngest son of Karl Baedeker, Fritz, ran the company until 1925 when he transferred it to his son Hans, who ushered it through the Great Depression and WWII.

During WWII, a series of German air attacks on England in April and May 1942 was known as “Baedeker Raids.” These attacks targeted places such as Bath, Canterbury, and Norwich, singled out in the guides because of their beauty and architecture. In response, the Royal Air Force destroyed the Baedeker headquarters in Leipzig, Germany. 

The ‘Baedeker guides’ were also made famous in E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel A Room with a View when Lucey Honeychurch finds herself in Santa Croce without her Baedeker. 

Publication for the Baedeker guides remained in the Baedeker family until 1984 when the German publisher Langenscheidt acquired the firm.

In 2010 Michael Wild published a biography Baedekeriana about Baedeker guides, and Shapero Books in London also has extensive and interesting collecting information on them, like this blog.

Lesson from Baedeker:

Baedeker made work from travel. Because of his work others didn’t have to do the same when they ventured out. He created a legacy for generations of his family and a name for himself. 

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