I’ll admit, when I had my choice of guide books to look at, I went immediately for the Philadelphia guide because that is the region I am most familiar with. Instead of reading about a new part of the country, I wanted to know how the Philly of 1937 compared to the city I know today, and the results were really interesting. I expected all the information in the book to be outdated, but the first few introductory pages mention the Mummers Parade
on New Year’s Day (my mom’s favorite part of the New Year) and another paragraph explains that in Pennsylvania alcohol is only sold in licensed restaurants or state-owned liquor stores,
which is still true. I know that Philadelphia, “the Nation’s Birthplace,” is proud of its history, but it’s surprising to see how attached to history we are when laws and traditions in practice in 1937 accurately describe life in Pennsylvania over 70 years later.
Beyond comparing the information in the book, I thought about how the format and language of this WPA guide to modern guide books. The information in the WPA guide reads more like a story book, a real portrait of Philadelphia and her history, while the tour books of today are more crafted for advertisement value. The official Philadelphia tourism website
is an arrangement of appealing photographs and lists of attractions and where to find them; there is little to no description of what life in Philadelphia is like or what kind of community exists there besides the most commercialized offerings. In contrast, the WPA guide describes the people
living in Philadelphia, not only the museums and theaters around them. In fact it specifically mentions that most Philadelphians have never been to said museums and theaters, but they take pride in their city’s culture nonetheless (9).
The WPA guide even goes so far as to detail the uninviting aspects of Philadelphia (and believe me, those still exist in 2011 too): “Philadelphia has its ‘tenderloin’ and its slums… Cheap restaurants and hot dog stands fill the air with odors that mingle with the reek of alcohol, the stench of uncollected garbage, and the smell of humanity unwashed… Even more odious are the city’s slums” (5). In a modern guide, the slums would be reduced to a demographic statistic or a greyed out area on the city map; Rick Steves
don’t like to talk about reeking alcohol and body odor, they recommend staying within the designated tourist-ready neighborhoods.
I think the WPA guides had to go into detail, though, because their audiences were relatively ignorant about regions beyond their own states or cities. We have grown up with television and movies and computers that show us so much about the world that any child could tell you something about New York City and point out its picture, even if he’s never been there in person. Today’s tourists don’t read guides to learn about a city, they use it as a resource for touring. The WPA guides were about knowledge and getting people to travel to the places they’ve learned about; today’s guide books already assume that you’re going, but you need help figuring out where to spend your money.