Navigating New York City With a Guidebook From 1899

In the 19th century, travelers knew the best way to explore new places was with the help of a Baedeker guide. They contained some history, maps, sights to see, and recommendations and reviews for hotels, restaurants, and entertainment. A vintage edition can highlight the changes a city has gone through. With that in mind, Luke Spencer made a trip to New York City with an 1899 edition of Baedeker guide for the United States. Could he visit some of the same places that the guide recommended? And would they live up to their printed reviews? Let’s follow along as he reports on his visit.  

Working up from Newspaper Row, next on the Baedeker must-see list was a visit to Five Points and the Bowery, which the guide said was “full of drinking saloons, dime museums, small theatres and huckster’s stalls, and presents one of the most crowded and characteristic scenes in New York.” On an early Saturday morning in 2015, the Bowery remained full of drinking saloons, but perhaps not quite as salubrious as in 1899.

Gentrification has stripped these neighbourhoods of much of their grit, but it is interesting to note that this process was already in place when my guide was written: “The Five Points once bore the reputation of being the most evil district in New York,” said the Baedeker. “It has however of late been wonderfully improved by the ... invasion of commerce.”

But there were still seamier delights to be had as I followed the guide to Mott Street and “one of the opium joints” Baedeker recommended going to “in the company of a detective.” Despite my desire to conduct thorough research, the prospect of approaching a police officer and asking him to accompany me into what used to be an opium den didn’t seem particularly wise.

I was surprised by how many of the places in the guide are actually still there! Read the rest of Spencer’s adventures in New York at Atlas Obscura.

(Image credit: Luke Spencer)


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You really imagine the saloons of today are "not quite as salubrious" as those of the 1890s? Before modern health regs? Before electrical refrigeration? Before commercial food and beverage handling, preparation and preservation standards? Granted, it'd be fun to go back in time and visit Old New York---but I'm not sure I'd make a habit of dining out!
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