Guidebooks 7 mins read

The lost history of travel guidebooks

By September 23, 2019 No Comments
This history of vacation rental guidebooks

If you walked into a vacation rental today, there’s a good chance you’d feel off if there wasn’t a guidebook waiting for you. Well, there was a time when guidebooks weren’t widespread.

Imagine that: arriving someplace new and not knowing where to grab a decent meal. This was a problem that one entrepreneurial salesman set out to solve almost 100 years ago. And, it all started with cakes—but more on that later.

Let’s take a closer look at the fascinating history of the guidebook and local recommendations.

It all started with Duncan Hines

Okay, so the connection between travel guidebooks and sweet treats begins and ends with the name behind both.

While some may track guidebooks back to the early travel literature of China’s Song Dynasty, the earliest form of mass-published and widely available guidebooks dates to about 100 years ago.

It was a different time. The stale scent of cigarettes permeated restaurants, men never left home without their fedoras and enjoying a libation meant breaking the law. While rowdy men and women enjoyed the roaring 1920s, entrepreneurs like Duncan Hines were out earning a living as a traveling salesman.

Duncan Hines and the lost history of travel guidebooks

A dilemma on the open road

Selling letter openers and other office supplies across the country, it wasn’t always easy for Hines to find a decent place to eat. This was before smartphones, so all restaurant recommendations came from word of mouth. Traveling along newly formed highways, Hines found himself in a sea of dingy eateries unregulated by food safety standards.

So, Hines did what any frustrated and hungry businessman would do—he started cataloging the best restaurants he visited. If he’d be back in the same town again, he’d know where to eat.

A good meal for all

Hine’s notes were obsessively detailed. It wasn’t just whether the meal was decent or not. Hours of operation, precise location, cleanliness of the kitchen, service quality, just to name a few categories.

When word circulated on his notes, it spread like wildfire. He started to receive postcards requesting his recommendations from all over the country. Everyone from salespeople to newlyweds asked for his help to find suitable eateries. Without meaning to, Hines started to make a name for himself.

The first travel guidebook wasn’t even a book!

Before Hines started receiving postcards from strangers, he inadvertently created what many may consider the first vacation rental guidebook. The thing is, it wasn’t even a book!

As Hines’ list of restaurants grew, family members and friends pushed to see it. It got to a point where the traveling salesman grew tired of being pestered and caved. So, for Christmas of 1935, he included a blue pamphlet that listed 167 restaurants across 33 states in his cards.

Duncan Hines and the lost history of travel guidebooks

It was a practical, heartfelt, unique, and personal gift. You know, the kind we all struggle to come up with at that time of the year. What he likely didn’t expect was the attention it would receive.

And so, the 1935 Christmas season was the catalyst for the first travel guidebook. It put the name “Duncan Hines” in the public eye as his famed notes gained a reputation. Within a year of his Christmas pamphlet, Hines answered countless postcards and requests with a universal, more accessible option: a bound document.

The guidebook industry is born

To go from traveling salesman to the pioneer of modern travel guidebooks, Hines had to produce something for the public. In 1936, knowing he couldn’t ignore the pile of restaurant requests from strangers, he self-published his first bound pamphlet of notes and titled it “Voila.”

Following the booklet, he crafted a more extensive collection and placed it into his first book – “Adventures in Good Eating.” For $1 each, the public could skim through the 475 restaurant locations included in the guide to enjoy “Hines-approved eateries.”

Despite the lack of modern conveniences like the internet, “Adventures in Good Eating” sold out via word of mouth. In 1937, Hines raised the price by $.50, which is where it stayed for the next 25 years, regardless of how popular the book became.

Duncan Hines and the lost history of travel guidebooks

Making annual updates

“Adventures in Good Eating” couldn’t keep listing the same 475 restaurants, especially as some diminished in quality over the years. So Hines continued to pull and add restaurants with each new edition. He stuck to his original criteria to ensure his readers only saw the best the nation had to offer.

If a restaurant refused access to the kitchen or couldn’t deliver a quality meal, they were stricken from the guide. Though it would have increased profits, Hines refused to let restaurants advertise or endorse his book in exchange for positive reviews. He preferred to keep his integrity; no one could question whether his positive reviews were bought.

The gold standard in dining and more

It was this honesty that kept people coming to him. It also earned him the recognition as the gold standard in dining. Metal signs touting “Recommended by Duncan Hines” could be found hanging in restaurants across the nation, but Hines had since expanded his focus beyond eateries.

By the late 1930s, he had started to compile lists of hotels, which he published in “Lodging for a Night.” Those who owned both “Lodging for a Night” and “Adventures in Good Eating” could be considered the early adopters of hard copy travel guidebooks.

Short history of local recommendations and travel guidebooks

As technology advanced and competitors added to the original idea, Hines’ concept received an overhaul that led to what we know as the modern travel guidebook.

Side note: the cake mix connection

As Hine’s name grew in popularity, he shortly got involved in baked goods sales. Eventually, Hines sold the rights to use his name to an entrepreneur. From there, the name Duncan Hines was licensed to various food-related businesses, the longest-lasting of which is the famous cake mix.

The modern travel guidebook

Flip or scroll through a current travel guidebook and compare it to Hines’ original model. You’re not going to find much of a difference. Both list a brief description, hours of operation, and the average price as the essential information.

It’s a format that’s held up over decades. Even in the digital age, Hines’ format is the tried and true method of delivering a comprehensive guidebook. What has changed are the things Hines couldn’t feasibly incorporate or even have dreamed of.

Now, digital guidebooks have interactive maps and updated pictures of the venue, but still retain what made Hines’ books so famous.

How the vacation rental industry took the concept one step further

Fast forward to the digital age, and we get services like Airbnb and Vrbo. As competition began to grow in the vacation rental industry, clever hosts started leaving printouts of local spots guests could visit.

These were hyper-specific compliments to the traditional variety most travelers bring with them on vacation. It made getting 5-star reviews easier and increased the odds guests return to the rental.

Short history of modern travel guidebooks — Digital guidebook

A digital spin on the whole thing

Just like the vacation rental industry upset hotelling, it redefined the guidebook experience for travelers. As localized vacation rental guidebooks gained in momentum, Silicon Valley came in and fixed the irks and pains of creating, printing and updating physical guidebooks.

Websites like Hostfully allow hosts to expand on the grizzled traveling salesman’s original concept. Hines could never have imagined a day when guidebook platforms have fully integrated functions like:

  • Weather forecast
  • Directions to the rental from major landmarks
  • Check-in and out instructions
  • Facilitating the rental of strollers once at the destination

And that’s just to name a few!

Had Hines known the future potential for his original guidebooks and its effect on hospitality, there’s little doubt he’d be proud of what they turned into.

Wrapping up

From frustrated traveler, to guidebook pioneer and food brand, Duncan Hines gave us what we now know as the modern guidebook.

Who would have thought something as simple-sounding as a travel guidebook could have such a rich history? It’s one that, as workers in the travel industry, we should be familiar with as we move into the next 100 years.