Cover of The Great Metropolis, 1850, NYPL
The First Chapter
Tourists and strangers visiting New York City in the nineteenth-century had a few options for getting acclimated to the city. The luckiest visitors would have family or friends to show them around; for the others, street signs and maps would give a basic sense of direction. Perhaps the most helpful resources of all were pocket-sized guidebooks, complete with street directories, fold-out maps, illustrations, and guiding text.
Guidebooks would promise a unique experience in the city, so long as the visitor would heed their advice. The authors, typically native to the city, described New York in colorful and hyperbolic terms. The New York City of the nineteenth-century guidebooks is a bustling, amazing, intimidating, exhausting, and inspiring place of extremes. Authors would lure readers in with the propagation of the ideal city, and then establish a sense of trust by providing useful information.
This was most imperative, since all sales were dependent upon the perceived usefulness and credibility of the guidebook. Some authors were modest and admitted they didn't know everything, while others claimed to have information that had never seen the medium of print before.
William Hooker, Hooker's Pocket Plan of the City
of New York, 1838, NYPL
Although the development of the guidebooks as a genre was influenced by commercial forces, and although the authors often attempted to typify the ideal New York City within their text, everything still had a foundation in reality. The experience that visitors had was certainly real, and all the forces shaping guidebook production and distribution also shaped the impression tourists and strangers had while visiting, and after leaving, New York.