Who would take along a 1930s guidebook on a cross-country road trip across the United States?
John Steinbeck, for one!
Steinbeck makes reference to a set of depression-era guidebooks in his well-known travelogue Travels with Charley: In Search of America, which is about his 1960 road trip around the U.S. with his French standard poodle Charley:
“If there had been room in Rocinante I would have packed the W.P.A.Guides to the States, all forty-eight of them. I have all of them, and some are very rare . . . the complete set comprises the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together, and nothing since it has ever approached it. It was compiled during the depression by the best writers in America, who were, if that is possible, more depressed than any other group while maintaining their inalienable instinct for eating.”
The books in the American Guide Series were produced by the Federal Writers Project (Works Progress Administration) as part of the New Deal during the Great Depression. Guides were written for the then 48 states and many regions, cities, and small towns across the United States in order to stimulate travel to bolster the economy and to foster pride in local histories and heritage. These guidebooks are packed with insights about the area’s social and cultural history, and they remain great reading about the lesser-known nooks and crannies of our country.
Today these guides are considered local treasures and are collectors’ items. Reading them can also give insight into the early writings of well-known authors Zora Neale Hurston, Studs Terkel, and Ralph Ellison.
Many of the guides have been reprinted with new introductions. In Washington State’s case, the original 1941 Washington guidebook was updated and turned into an interactive multimedia travel guide called Revisiting Washington: A Guide to the Evergreen State. The guidebook’s driving tours have been updated with current field notations and digital navigational tools as well as images and graphics along with historic audio and video selections.
The Seattle Public Library is pleased to have a large number of the guidebooks and reprints in our collection, and they are on display on Level 9 until the end of May.