Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 22, 2022
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Rough guide

How the world's oldest guidebook rates Canada

The bubble-wrapped package finally dropped in my mailbox along with the day’s junk mail. A couple of weeks earlier, I had been the only eBay bidder for a 1907 copy of Baedeker’s Canada,

and I was curious to see what my $25 had bought.

Nowadays travellers have hundreds of general and specialized guides to choose from but, in 1907, when leisure travel was for a select few, Baedeker guides were often the only books available.

Karl Baedeker once observed that most 19th-century guidebooks either offered bare lists of landmarks without any practical advice or historical context, or “they provided such detailed and evocative accounts of anything worth seeing, and the emotions to be felt on seeing it, that the traveller was effectively spared the trouble of going to see it for himself.”

Baedeker’s approach was to give travellers precise information, enabling them to find their own way cheaply and conveniently, and enough context to appreciate what they saw. He left his readers to draw their own impressions.

But, as Edward Mendelson of Columbia University says, Baedeker did more than guide the way for his readers: “(he) comforted the timid and encouraged the daring, taught the proper response to courtesy or cunning, combined moral probity with practical wisdom, and even while warning his readers away from unseemly pleasures let slip the knowledge of where they might be found.”

It’s fascinating to see how Baedeker influenced guidebooks that were to follow. I have a 1965 Blue Guide to England that follows almost exactly the same format as the 1907 Baedeker: an introductory section dealing with practical information followed by descriptions of the main features and places of interest.

Indeed, the resemblance is almost uncanny, so closely does the Blue Guide follow the Baedeker approach. Even the fold out maps are similar. No wonder the word “Baedeker” soon became a synonym for any travel guidebook.

I also have a dozen well-worn Michelin Green Guides on my bookshelf, and, again, the format is similar. Michelin took the Baedeker method of marking special places with an asterisk and made it a hallmark of their guides. Michelin then took it one step further in rating attractions: three stars for “Worth the Journey,” two stars for “Worth the Detour” and one for “Interesting.”

The Wild Frontier

The first edition of Baedeker’s Canada was published in 1894, just three years after the death of Sir John A. Macdonald and nine years after the completion of the CPR. Canada was home to nearly five million people and the Klondike Gold Rush was still two years in the future.

My 1907 copy was a third edition of the guide. The population had grown by 1.5 million, Alberta and Saskatchewan had become provinces two years before, Montreal had a population of 350,000 and World War I was still seven years away.

Baedeker’s Canada was written by a foreigner, James Muirhead, for foreigners — and adventurous ones at that — willing to put up with the rigours of travel in an immense country still in its infancy. One gets the impression that the author considered his European readers to be distinctly more civilized than most of the people they might encounter in Canada. At times it’s as though the author has stumbled on some wild, untamed land and is surprised to find anything approaching European standards. Of course, for much of Canada in 1907, that wasn’t far from the truth.

There was a musty old-book aroma when I opened the package. The gold embossed red cloth cover was badly stained, and the spine had darkened from years on a shelf. I carefully unfolded the fragile street plans of Canada’s major cities, each a tiny work of art in itself. It’s somewhat shocking today to see terms like Poor Asylum, Lunatic Asylum and Home for Incurables on maps of the time, but such institutions seemed to have been quite common in 1907.

Here is Halifax, before the harbour explosion of World War I dominated, as it still is, by the Citadel. Toronto has not yet begun the major landfills that would change the form of its waterfront, and I looked in vain for Manitoba’s Provincial Legislature in Winnipeg — but it would not break ground for another six years. Vancouver’s Stanley Park bears the apt inscription “big trees,” and Victoria shows a convent on the site of the Empress Hotel that, in the mind’s eye, seems to have been there for ever.

The guide’s 330 close-packed pages form a fascinating snapshot of Canada in 1907, as seen through English eyes — but I can’t help thinking that eight pages of small print explaining the Canadian constitution would have persuaded most prospective visitors to head for the south of France instead.

Time Capsule

But then Baedeker gets down to the practical information that tells so much about the country a hundred years ago. For example, in 1905, Canada’s railways carried over 24 million passengers, and trains rarely exceeded 40 kilometres per hour. Some long-distance trains had emigrant cars, and second-class cars were not recommended. The writer, while commenting that food in the dining cars was better than that served at the stations, must have had trouble deciphering the Canadian accent, as he admits that “the brakeman, whose duty it is to announce each station as the train reaches it, is apt to be entirely unintelligible.”

The 1907 traveller is advised, where possible: “to exchange the hot and dusty railway for the cheaper and cooler method of locomotion by water” on Canada’s extensive system of lakes, navigable rivers and canals. The writer was clearly impressed by the CPR steamers on the Great Lakes, ranking them with the finest passenger steamers in the world. However, travel by coach — and horses, that is — was not recommended:

The ordinary tourist will seldom require to avail himself of the coach-lines of Canada, for which he may be thankful as the roads are generally rough, the vehicles uncomfortable, and the time slow.

The author finds hotel charges considerably less than in the United States, and the number of Canadian hotels that charge as much as $5 a day “can be numbered on one’s fingers.”

These included Montreal’s Windsor Hotel, Toronto’s King Edward Hotel and the Banff Springs Hotel. As for the young settlements of Calgary and Edmonton, the best bed in town went for two bucks a night. The Baedeker guide makes it clear that “when ladies are of the party, it is advisable to frequent the best hotels only.”

The book is also careful to ensure that visitors are aware of local customs so that they escape embarrassment. For example, while generally complimentary about the quality of food and service in Canada: “restaurants which solicit the patronage of ‘gents’ should be avoided.” And furthermore: “wine or beer is much less frequently drunk at meals than in Europe and the visitor is not expected to order liquor for the good of the house.”

This little book is a gold mine of trivia about the Canada of 100 years ago, and I’ve been discovering new nuggets, but after a few days of thumbing through it, the spine finally parted with the cover and pieces of the fragile maps broke off.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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