My first big job as a 24-year-old freelance writer was to rewrite the Fodor's travel guide to Washington. I went to a lot of museums and made a lot of phone calls. I also read a lot of other travel guides, that being the first thing any newly minted guide-writer does.
Which is probably why all travel guides sound a little samey (mine included, I confess).
But if you want a glimpse of a different kind of D.C. travel guide, all you have to do is go back in time.
Travel guide authors in the olden days were obsessed with facts and figures: how much things weighed (the Senate's bronze door: 14,000 pounds), how much things cost (statue of John Hancock in Capitol: $5,500), which things were fireproof (Library of Congress? Yes, with shelves and walls of iron).
There was a lot of manifest-destiny boosterism, too, as in the 1875 "Kern's Illustrated Handbook" to Washington, which states, "The Capitol of the United States, as now completed, is unquestionably the finest and largest building of the kind on the face of the earth."
You'd be hard-pressed to visit many of the attractions recommended to readers of yesteryear. They've either been put off-limits by terrorism fears, are long gone or wouldn't appeal to today's tourists. One 1884 guide's must-see list included the U.S. Coast Survey Office and the Government Hospital for the Insane ("it is only open on Wednesdays from 2 to 6 p.m.," noted the guide, helpfully).
Also mentioned in most books from the late 19th century: the carp ponds that were just east of the Washington Monument. "A walk of a few minutes will bring one to them, and although from the roadway they do not appear at all attractive, yet, upon investigation, the visitor will find them to be of decided interest," wrote William H. Morrison in "Morrison's Stranger's Guide for Washington City," published in 1884.
Harriet Earhart Monroe's 1903 book, "Washington, Its Sights and Insights," recommended a visit to the dead letter office, where some 6 million pieces of correspondence ended up every year. "Think of the heartaches which that means!" she wrote. "Think of the loves and friendships wrecked thereby!"
Harriet also made an interesting point about the Senate Chamber, whose ventilation she noted was very good, but which was too warm in winter, with disastrous results: "After an absence of fifteen years, I find men who have been in the Senate during that time have aged much more in appearance than their contemporaries outside."
The U.S. Senate: You go in looking like George Clooney, and you come out looking like Ted Kennedy.
Just how much Washington has changed is evident from perusing "Etiquette at Washington," published in 1857. The author noted that it was "exceedingly simple" to gain access to the president. You simply showed up at the White House between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., his regular visiting hours, and presented your card.
Citizens were advised not to get too carried away, though: "A visit of this nature should not be extended beyond five or six minutes, because it must be remembered that, however agreeable it must be to the party visiting, yet so important a personage as the President of the United States never has any time to spare."
Frances Margaret Fox's 1929 guide for children said of D.C. youngsters: "Because they live in Uncle Sam's home city, it is their duty to be courteous to strangers and to answer all questions politely. This is one reason Washington is noted for polite, gentle-mannered young folk."
Boys and girls in Washington were lucky to live in a city with so much to offer, including the museums, the cherry blossoms and, wrote Frances, "all the famous Indian chiefs, with feathers streaming down their backs, who come from the West to see the Great White Father." (I imagine a travel book written for Native American children would have been a little different.)
Then there's 1931's "Washington As You See and Hear It" by Frederick May. The author includes a selection of anecdotes, "true in every particular," observed during sightseeing trips in the Washington area.
The best involves a tour guide -- "with a typical southern drawl" -- who was describing the view from the steps of Arlington House. In the crowd, the guide spotted an old Civil War veteran, dressed in the uniform of the Union. Wrote May:
"Placing his hand on the old soldier's arm, and pointing to the Long Bridge (roughly where the 14th Street bridge is today) which connects Washington with Virginia, he said:
" 'You see that bridge, Pap. Well that's the bridge over which the Union troops retreated after the Battle of Bull Run. Remember it?'
"The old veteran pushed his glasses closer to his small keen eyes, threw back his glistening gray head, and peered for a moment at the Highway Bridge spanning the Potomac in the distance.
" 'Guess you're right, boy,' he agreed. 'That's the bridge us fellars marched over all right.'
" 'MARCHED -- Hell!' exploded the fiery lecturer from the South, 'you ran.' "
No Need to Sue
On July 29. I thanked some of our Send a Kid to Camp group donors. I managed to rechristen the law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson as Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jackson, proving that I have only enough brain cells to hold four attorneys' names in my head at any one time.
Researcher Alex MacCallum contributed to this report. Special thanks to the Library of Congress for letting us paw through its collection.