Collect History in “New Deal” Era Travel Guides

Idaho of the American Guide Series was the first of the travel series to be published by the Federal Writers Project in 1937. First editions are hard to come by since most were destroyed by fire. This 2nd edition copy sold for $99.95 in 2009.

The Great Depression turned the United States inward with a new president helping families through innovative government programs. The Federal Writers Project was just one.

Begun in 1935 with the intention of putting unemployed writers to work at the government’s behest, travel books were conceived as a way to provide a “self-portrait of America.” Nearly 6,000 writers of the Federal Writers Project created very detailed, well written quality tour books that emphasized not only historical places, but also more of the local cultural norms.

Known as WPA guides under the American Guide Series imprint, each series provided local charm and obscure history as it was in the 1930s. Each book is still considered a delightful curiosity some 70 years later – and still quite a resource.

Altogether there were 48 guides, one for each state at the time, along with Washington, D.C. (a tour book so detailed it weighs 4 pounds), the Alaska Territory (wasn’t a state until 1959) and Puerto Rico, a territory then as it is now. Curiously, Hawaii was never included in the series even though it was already a territory. The series lasted from 1935 (the first book, Idaho, came out in 1937) until it ended in 1941.

Each of the state guides had a specific format throughout. There was a detailed state history, essays on its culture, a detailed review of each major city, and a great automobile tour of major sites that included specific roadside attractions along the way and many black and white photographs. While the federal government paid the salaries, each of the states were responsible for publishing and distributing the books themselves.

New York City Guide was one of 40 large cities published, which included the 1939 World’s Fair. This one sold for $250 in 2016.

Apart from the collective states, about 40 large cities had their own guide such as New York City (which includes the 1939 World’s Fair); Princeton, NJ; Houston, TX; Philadelphia, PA; and others. There were also 17 regional guides such as US Route 1 from Maine to Florida, New England, Death Valley, Alaska, The Berkshires and more, 108 guides in all.

And the maps! Each of the guide books had a fold out map in such detail that it was undoubtedly difficult to get lost, but then there were no interstate highways until the 1950s and travel by automobile was more of a challenge. That’s why the guides included suggestions for local motels or hotels, eateries, and gas stations along the way. Each guide book is a snapshot of early 20th century rural and urban life with a total population of 137 million in 1935 – about one-third of the population of 310 million in 2018.

But how collectible are these historical gems?

An Alaska guide sold recently for $90 with all of its original dust jacket and its maps intact.

Most of the WPA Guides were printed in relatively limited quantities, so the first editions are quite sought after by collectors. The first edition of Idaho, the first one published in the series, for example, is the hardest to find as most were destroyed in a fire. However, a second edition of Idaho sold recently for $100 with some noticeable missing pieces of the dust jacket. The Dakotas were published in small quantities, so finding a first edition of either North or South Dakota is a challenge (a North Dakota, without dust jacket, sold recently for $120). A first edition Puerto Rico sold recently for $200, despite having some noticeable wear to its dust jacket. Oregon sold recently for $65 with its original dust cover and in fine condition overall, while Alaska sold recently for $90 with all of its original dust jacket and its maps intact. Most of the series, though, in original editions, are easily available for $15 to $50.

Curiously, though, while condition of books can generally determine value, the condition of these travel books isn’t the main consideration because they were intended to be used as you traveled, so some wear is expected.

Example of the map detail of the first edition Washington City and Capital of the American Guide Series published in 1937.

When buying original series, be sure to check which edition it is by the date of publication, and check that it has the original dust jacket along with any fold-in maps. Because the series is so well detailed and desirable for historians, travelers, writers, and collectors, reprints are being regularly published years after the original publication date as hardback, in paperback, and even as a PDF file for download online.

It’s been said that these travel guides are  “a keepsake of all that’s lost,” but history can easily be found again simply by collecting the guidebooks of a bygone era where interstate highways, chain restaurants, and corporate hotels did not yet exist.  But at least now you don’t have to wind up your car to get going.

Happy trails.

Tom Carrier is a General Worthologist with a specialty in Americana, political memorabilia and he has been the resident WorthPoint vexillologist (flags, seals and heraldry) since 2007. Tom is also a frequent contributor of articles to WorthPoint.

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