Baedeker history

The start of a publishing legend - The sons of Karl Baedeker - Pre-war success - The end of the "classical" Baedeker era

The history of the Baedeker publishing firm is to a great extent also that of the Baedeker family. The family could trace its publishing credentials back to Dietrich Baedeker, born in Bremen in 1660, who became a printer in Bielefeld. But the man who made the family name synonymous with good guide books (to the extent that, to this day, certain types of guides to all kinds of subjects are frequently described as “a Baedeker of” something or other – including “decadence”, “the soul”, “the fantastical”, “vegetables” and “commercial polymer blends” to mention just the first five to come up on Google), was Karl Baedeker.

Karl was born in Essen on 3 November 1801 into this bookselling and –publishing family. In 1817, he left home to go to Heidelberg for a university education but also to work as an apprentice in the books trade. He also spent some time for this purpose in Berlin.

The start of a publishing legend

On 1 July 1827, still only 25 years of age, he set up his own firm in Coblence (Koblenz) at the confluence (which is how the city got its name from the Romans) of the Mosel and the Rhine. In 1832, Baedeker took over the stock and business of another dealer called Friedrich Röhling. One of Röhling’s bestsellers was a tourist guide to the most attractive stretch of the Rhine by a Professor J. A. Klein, which he had first published in 1828. This book, “Rheinreise von Mainz bis Köln”, although not actually published by Baedeker, is the first edition listed on as it set in motion Baedeker’s guide-book empire. In 1832, a French translation of this book (“Voyage du Rhin de Mayence à Coblence”) was published by Baedeker, and that was the first guide-book actually published by the firm.

Although during the 1830’s Baedeker published many other kinds of books, it seems that he became increasingly interested in guide books. After further editions of the Rheinreise, Baedeker followed the pattern of the London publisher John Murray who had started a series of “Handbooks for Travellers” somewhat earlier.

By 1850, Baedeker had added a companion to the Rheinreise in the form of a guidebook for travellers on or along the Mosel, appropriately called Mosel-Reise, as well as the most specific of all Baedekers: “Bad Bertrich”, detailing a small spa town in the Eifel mountains above the Mosel valley. (This guide only appeared in one edition, in 1847, and the town thus shares with London, Paris, Berlin and Athens the honour of having a special Baedeker guide devoted to it alone.) But there were also guides to Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and a big, one-volume guide to Germany and Austria. The publishing venture had found its niche and was rapidly building up its range.

At the end of the 50’s, the Germany and Austria guide had been split into five, a book on Paris had been added and the range of guides in French had been increased too, with editions on Belgium and Holland, and on Switzerland. But then, on 4 October 1859 Karl suddenly died, not yet 58 years old.

The sons of Karl Baedeker

Karl Baedeker had three sons, and the oldest, Ernst (born 26 October 1833) now took over the business. In 1861, he launched the first English-language guidebook, “The Rhine” – taking the competition with Murray onto his linguistic home ground. Also, Ernst launched the first volumes on Italy “Ober-Italien” and its French-language counterpart “Italie Septentrionale”. Then – an even greater shock than his father’s early death – Ernst died before having reached his 28th birthday (on 23 July 1861).

The second son, Karl junior, three years younger than Ernst (he was born 25 January 1837) now became the head of the publishing firm. The range expanded further. By 1869, the whole of Italy was covered in three volumes, a new guide to London had been published in German and French and, apart from London and the guides to Germany and Austria, all of the books were available in German, English and French. The third son, Fritz, now became a junior partner in the firm. The publishing business was so successful in its own right that it was decided to drop the retail book-selling activities, and they were sold off on 1 Feb 1870.

Next, in late 1872, the business moved from Coblence to Leipzig, which had become the centre for German publishing. By 1878, the range had been expanded to the Near East, with volumes on Palestine and Syria, and Egypt. At this time, too, English seems to have overtaken French as the second most important language to the Baedeker business. At a guess this may have been because (a) there were more English-speaking tourists and (b) the terrible Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 probably made books of German origin less popular in France.

Unfortunately, the stress of it all became too much for Karl jr, who retired from the business. (His mental affliction later developed to such an extent that he had to go to an asylum in 1884, where he died in 1911.)

Pre-war success

Fritz, who was born on 4 December 1844, took over the business, and under his leadership, the firm developed to become the non plus ultra of guidebook publishers. The competition from Murray was seen off. Guides to new regions appeared almost yearly, and the existing series were regularly overhauled, with new editions appearing every other year on average. By the end of the 19th century, 640 of the 992 editions covered on this site had already been published, and the years between 1900 and 1914 saw another 233 appearing so that, at the outbreak of World War I, the output of the firm covered all of Europe, plus Russia, North America, the Near East and, the crowning achievement, “Indien” which covered not just the Indian subcontinent but also large parts of South-East Asia. There were 30 travel guides in German, 26 in English and 22 in French, and practically all of them had been revised in 1910 or later.

Fritz’s three sons Hans (b. 29 July 1874), Ernst (b. 6 June 1878) and Dietrich (b. 3 October 1886) had also joined the firm by 1914 (Dietrich becoming a full partner in 1922).

The economic catastrophe in Germany after the end of the war of course led to hardship for the Baedeker firm. The revision periods became longer and very few new editions were published in French (just 10, the last being “Allemagne – le Rail et la Route” in 1936). In 1920 and 1921, when the publishing activities were started again, some editions appeared with an advertising supplement, in order to help with the publishing costs – something which had until then been unthinkable. (The advertising was soon dropped again.)

There was also more of a focus on the home market, with a series of German regional guides first appearing during the 1920’s. In the depressed post-war economy, overseas travel had become almost impossible for everybody except the very rich.

The end of the "classical" Baedeker era

In 1925, Fritz Baedeker died and the his sons took over the management of the business. As times got better, more editions could be overhauled and the late 20’s and early 30’s saw the firm recovering – but then Germany’s descent into totalitarianism started having a direct impact even on the independently minded Baedekers, and the state began to request specific new editions (“Madeira” and, later, “Generalgouvernement” are examples of this). The texts and maps also sometimes had to be revised to suit the preferences of those in power.

The outbreak of World War II stopped all activities for a while, but then, in 1942 and 1943 a few more editions appeared. And then, on the night of 3-4 December 1943, the RAF obliterated large parts of Leipzig, and with it, all the stocks and practically all the records of the Baedeker publishing house.

This is where this site’s coverage ends, but it would be wrong not to mention the dedication and energy of Karl Friedrich Baedeker (1910-1979), grandson of Fritz, who managed to re-start the firm in 1948. Eventually, the firm and its name was bought by Mairs Geographischer Verlag, which successfully continues to publish the famous Baedeker travel guides to this day.

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