Shop Etsy

Why I Collect Vintage Travel Guides

Sep 20, 2017

by Ashlea Halpern

In 2016, I spent more than nine months road-tripping across the United States. By the end of my run, I’d put more than 22,000 miles on my little red hatchback and stacked it to the roof with glorious vintage finds, including a two-tone 1950s Philco television set from Oklahoma City, a mid-century metal bingo cage from Mesa, Arizona, and a delightfully ugly latch-hook Elvis rug from Louisville, Kentucky. I adore each of these unusual pieces. But my favorite things to rummage for when I’m on the road—which is most of the year, given my job as a travel writer—are vintage travel guides.

The author’s car on the day she began her 2016 cross-country road trip.

I love them because they’re chockablock with colorful maps, quirky illustrations, throwback photos, and illuminating content. The books often reveal as much about the tourists they target as the destinations they cover. They showcase the fashions of the day, social norms and customs, and cultural etiquette. Read closer and the fears and reservations of the intended audience often shine through. Will anyone speak English? Is the food going to be terrible? What if I get robbed?

Some authors worked hard to demystify cultural differences and debunk stereotypes; others perpetuated them. I once stumbled upon an Australian guidebook from the 1920s that spoke of the country’s Aboriginal people in a vile and degrading way. The entry was painful to read, especially since anti-Aboriginal attitudes persist to this day. Passages like these function both as a snapshot in time and a barometer for how far—or not far enough—a society has evolved on issues of race and inequality.

Yellowstone National Park.

Vintage 1920s Yellowstone National Park guide from REDSTONEVINTAGE, $45

Enjoying uncrowded paths at Utah’s Red Canyon.

The Grand Canyon’s North Rim at sunset.

And so, one of my first stops in any new town is a great used bookstore. You know the kind: dog-eared titles stacked to ceiling, curmudgeons in tatty cardigans hunched over the register, a musty smell that practically knocks you off your feet when you walk in the door. These stores often have terrific travel sections, as well as local/regional history shelves. Looking through these old tomes, you start to get a sense of how certain neighborhoods, cities, and sometimes entire countries evolve over time—for better or for worse. (Take a look at a 1960s travel guide from Afghanistan to see what I mean.) Sometimes the books I buy are as heartbreaking as they are eye-opening.

Other titles are quite humorous. Fodor’s Woman’s Guide to Europe from 1956 was “written by women for women.” It includes a big, pink, pull-out shopping map (of course) and advice on dating Frenchmen and buying perfume.

Lake Michigan as seen from Sleeping Bear Dunes State Park.

Vintage 1960s Minnesota and Wisconsin travel brochures from Ethelus Vintage, five pieces for $7 

The swimming pool at Balmorhea State Park in West Texas.

Kayakers in New Orleans’ City Park.

One of my greatest scores, unearthed at Mid Mod Collective in Knoxville, Tennessee, was a trio of cool Vista Series guidebooks from the late 1950s and early 1960s. The books covered Denmark, Germany, and Morocco, but there were no hotel listings or pithy café blurbs—only frank assessments of the history and politics of each place, with a little noir-ish art thrown in for good measure. (It’s hard to imagine a travel guide today publishing a full-page photo of Sophie Scholl, a White Rose resistance worker beheaded by Hitler at age 22, as this 1959 German edition does.)

Far less dark—but damning in a different way—the Danish text waxes lyrically about “the flabby corpulence which characterizes so many middle-aged men and women in Denmark,” laying blame on “the orgy of cream which drowns the smallest cakes or sweets” and “177 different kinds of thickly buttered ‘sandwiches’ heaped with caviar, shrimps, lobster smoked salmon, and so on.” (Sounds delicious!) The “Practical Information” section at the back of each book was anything but, relaying macabre statistics on suicide, divorce, and drug addiction.

A meal at Austin hotspot LA Barbecue (courtesy @thereluctanttraveler).

A vintage cookbook by midcentury cookbook editor Myra Waldo, acquired while on the road (photo courtesy @thereluctanttraveler).

A beer tasting flight at Ratio Beerworks in Denver, CO.

Patio 7’s Navajo fry bread tacos in Page, AZ (photo courtesy @thereluctanttraveler).

Not surprisingly, some of the most intriguing guidebooks for domestic travelers back in the day were sponsored by advertisers (think AAA, Michelin, or Standard Oil of Ohio). The idea being: Get people on the road exploring their country and they’ll burn more gas and rubber! Airlines were also keen to introduce consumers to new destinations. Some of the finest “guidebooks” from the ’50s and ’60s were issued by airlines like TWA and Delta. Cruise handbooks are another goldmine. Up through the ’80s, mega cruise lines issued guidebooks to new passengers. They detailed ship amenities and offered sightseeing tips for the forthcoming ports of call.

A vibrant mural in downtown Buffalo, NY.

Vintage 1939 New York World’s Fair postcard from Rosie247, $4

Cadillac Ranch, a public art installation in Amarillo, TX.

Denver street art by Molly Bounds.

In addition to traditional guidebooks, I also seek out old road maps, vintage atlases, pamphlets issued by tourism boards, and travel magazines (the more niche, the better). I even collect vintage children’s books about travel. At Retro Ranch in Phoenix, Arizona, I snapped up a stack of 1960s/1970s soft-cover travel booklets issued by the American Geographical Society. The covers were illustrated in happy pastels; inside, the books were packed with maps, pictures, factoids, and stickers. There were dozens in the series, including Surinam (1969), Wales (1970), and Indonesia (1973). At Starrlight Books in Flagstaff, Arizona, I found a pristine copy of Richard Halliburton’s Second Book of Marvels: The Orient, published in 1938. I love it because it’s packed with dreamy snapshots of Hindu temples, Egyptian tombs, and untamed Asian jungles. It makes great fodder for bedtime stories, no matter what your age.

Souvenir travel magnets purchased in bulk at the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama.

Vintage wares at Oklahoma City shop retrOKC.

A favorite vintage find at Starrlight Books in Flagstaff, AZ.

Merch for sale at Ginger 13, an indie boutique in Honolulu’s Chinatown neighborhood.

Serapes for sale at Del Sol in Tularosa, NM.

On that first road trip across the States, I reckon I picked up three dozen vintage travel guides. There are more in my immediate future. I recently started a new cross-country adventure—New York to Seattle and back—with bookstore pitstops planned in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Sioux Falls, Fargo, Bozeman, Yakima, Boise, Omaha, Des Moines, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and more. Clearly, I’ll need a bigger car.

All location photos by Ashlea Halpern/Cartogramme unless otherwise noted. 

What do you collect? Tell us in the comments. 

37 comments

  • uccvintageclothing

    UCC Vintage from UCCVintage said 60 days ago

    Great article, so much info to be found about the past from items we pick up! We love vintage cookbooks for the same reason, especially local cookbooks. History is preserved in the items we keep, I hope you continue collecting!

  • mrsakarn

    cindy Q. from mrsakarn said 60 days ago

    Reading your article remined me of looking through Encyclopedias as a child growing up, so many pictures, and information . I remember just sitting and reading and trying to envision the words that I was reading. Pretty amazing! Thank you for sharing your passion with us! For me, I love anything vintage... purses, hats,gloves, clothes..really anything vintage, that has history. I loved it and as far back in my mind as I can remember. It makes me so happy to purchase something old and give it life again!!!! CQ

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 59 days ago

    How cool! I collect seaglass and love anything VW or camper related.

  • msbijouxbeads

    Cathy from msbijouxbeads said 59 days ago

    Thanks for sharing your passion, I had to read this article twice to see the colorful photos and read about the unusual content of the old travel guides. I love road trips esp across the USA. Seattle has lots of 2nd hand bookstores tucked around the outskirts. Happy travels!

  • DecoUno

    DeUno from DeUno said 59 days ago

    Great collection! Very interesting! Thank you for sharing!

  • thriftyvicki

    Vicki A from thriftyvicki said 59 days ago

    Love this article. I have some of those travel booklets "somewhere" and I love magnets (collect also)....love to travel....reminds me that I need to get to Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo (I live in Texas). What a great life traveling around, something I have always wanted to do. A HS friend (now deceased) wanted us to do that in the 70's together, I so wish I had....

  • rellyh

    Relly from RelsFindsNapaValley said 59 days ago

    Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful collection of Travel America. Ashlea, thanks for sharing your travel experiences.

  • TreasuredMemoryLane

    TreasuredMemoryLane from TreasuredMemoryLane said 59 days ago

    Interesting to find what fun and unique items one can collect while on the road. Thank for sharing your travel experience! It is very educational and inspirational for me.

  • StyleGraphicDesign

    Maria from StyleGraphicDesign said 59 days ago

    Really intresting collection!:)

  • GTDesigns

    renee and gerardo from GTDesigns said 59 days ago

    Fantastic article!! TFS!!!

  • acharasilver

    Achara Patthong from AcharaSilver said 58 days ago

    Great !

  • gardenmis

    Priscilla from Gardenmis said 58 days ago

    This is a feast for the eyes! Thanks for sharing your passion :)

  • FluffyFlowers

    FluffyFlowers from FluffyFlowers said 58 days ago

    What an amazing adventure. Road trips are the best. Thanks so much for featuring vintage!

  • Angiezilla

    Angie Sandoval from BunnyFindsVintage said 58 days ago

    This was such a visually stimulating article and a fun read!

  • RandMhandmade

    Renee from RandMhandmade said 58 days ago

    Thank you for sharing!!

  • FieldsOfVintage

    Fields Of Vintage from FieldsOfVintage said 58 days ago

    I love this article. I also collect maps and antique illustrated paper

  • PS1002

    PS1002 from HealthyHemisphere said 58 days ago

    Very neat to see geographically! This is great!

  • aressa

    aressa from OriginalBridalHanger said 57 days ago

    Wow! How awesome...I only collect funky necklaces when I travel or go to a craft show...Nice way to preserve history!

  • tocamix90

    Angela Santos from RibbonsEdge said 57 days ago

    Very cool! I think you find a very common delight among all collectors of vintage, the history of pieces can be so revealing! And the hunt... ahhhh the hunt. You have a great passion, Ashlea!

  • 1StopSteampunkShoppe

    One Stop Steampunk Shoppe from OneStopSteamShoppe said 56 days ago

    Great article! Vintage travel is such an interesting theme to collect! Thank you for sharing your collection with us! : )

  • dlevenson36

    Daniel Levenson from InInkIThink said 56 days ago

    Great piece and I love the photos. Each of these guides clearly reflect the times, places and cultures in which they were created, as well as the choices made by the writers and editors to highlight particular aspects of these locations. It's amazing how many of these images are at once both nostalgic and forward-looking, capturing a quintessential American tension between a desire to bathe ourselves in the glow of an imagined, mythic past, and the compulsion to explore, embrace the future and break new ground. I also really like the design elements in the guidebooks and your photos - although my own art is abstract, I'm also inspired by the rugged beauty of the American landscape as well as the aesthetics of American design, from art deco to pop art. Thanks again for sharing this.

  • islandgirldesigns9

    Island Chick Designs from IslandChickDesigns said 56 days ago

    I didn't know I wanted to road trip across America until I read your article. Loved it! Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  • HeyChica

    Hey Chica from HeyChica said 56 days ago

    Great snapshots and finds, road trips are the best! I have some interesting 60s travel guides in my personal collection. Happy trails!

  • HabitNationUSA

    Rebecca and Daniel from HabitNationUSA said 55 days ago

    I'm really digging this post. This is something I would enjoy collecting since traveling is my favorite pasttime. Postcards are also fun.

  • infinitlit

    Farideh Nouri from FlairPaintings said 54 days ago

    Wonderful article. Good luck with your shop :)

  • christopherdina

    Christopher Dina from ChristopherDina said 53 days ago

    Its true these books are tiny time capsules. Beautiful covers! Thanks for sharing.

  • SouvenirAndSalvage

    Mary Jo and Rachael from SouvenirAndSalvage said 53 days ago

    I collect a variety of vintage items, including noise makers, Halloween decor, pennants, souvenir plates, and strange art work. Treasures gathered through travels are the best kinds of treasures! Each one is totally unique but they work cohesively to build a bright collection in my studio. Loved learning about your journey :-) - Rachael

  • tmelson

    Terri Melson said 52 days ago

    Clearly :-) you will need a bigger car, but good on fuel....right. Sure like all you have shared in this Blog of Travel Guides(Vintage). I love to travel (road trips) some on the spare....But most are well organized and prepare for anything out of the ordinary :-) My next (hope-filled) journey is possibly more extensive than any ever taken. ...INTERNATIONAL..... i' will get back w/ya on more of that . Thanks!

  • PokutniaAnna

    Anna from FairyToysWorld said 52 days ago

    Oh, so great! Very nice story) I love your collection. I like traveling very much and I always buy magnet in new city. My collection is about 50 travel magnets)

  • lapetitenina

    Marina Palovaara from LaPetiteNina said 52 days ago

    Quite interesting to discover places today through aged perspectives. It surely reviles secrets that and history that might not surface today, unless we look for it..

  • susanapplegate2

    Susan Applegate said 50 days ago

    I have always loved travel related items. My biggest collection is of beaded belts that have names of places on them, the first one I bought was at the top of the Seattle Space Needle in 1985. It's gotten harder to find them at actual tourist destinations, but I have such fond memories of finding them "new" on the Mohawk Trail, at the Wisconsin Dells, and in the Poconos. Also found belts for Cincinnati, my home town, at a now long shuttered J.J Newbury 5&10. I also have plenty of ephemera and now have a nice collection of green and white state plates. I can't imagine how much fun it would be to do a road trip with these goodies to be found! You go girl!

  • PolarPenPal

    Laura from PolarPenPal said 47 days ago

    What a great trip down memory lane! Love the collection <3

  • foofoogal54

    foofoogal54 from GracefulVtgClothing said 45 days ago

    Same reason I love and have collected Vintage postcards since 9 yrs. of age. Loads of history can be gleaned. Love it.

  • JewelMeShop

    Georgia from JewelMeShop said 38 days ago

    Nice article! Thank you!

  • tupsjmla

    Magic Ant from magicantshirts said 37 days ago

    Great collection, I love it ;)

  • petersonhelen

    Helen Broom from vintagepoetic said 32 days ago

    Love it! Sounds like some of our road trips. We just went from mid Michigan to Montana and back this summer. We love old maps and have a collection hanging on our living room wall, including road maps, subway maps, and historical maps. What doesn't fit on the wall goes in the Etsy shop, it's a win win!

  • shelleyesposito

    Shelley Esposito from shelleyesposito said 30 days ago

    I love love your pictures and love maps of any kind. If in your travels you find maps in California or Alaska I would be very interested in purchasing them. Shelley

Sign in to add your own