Books Bygone: ‘Self-made’ means more than ever

By Marica Bernstein

 

Did you know “there are at present time three types of motor vehicles —steam, gasoline and electrical?” Regarding electrical vehicles: “its sphere of usefulness is confined to city traffic or very short tours out of town” because its battery must be charged after 40 miles.

Did you know the first General Maxim for playing dominoes is to “endeavor to play so as to keep both ends open, so that you may be sure of being able to ‘go’ next time?” Maxim 2 advises to play heavy dominoes first, although Maxim 5 states there is an advantage to holding a heavy domino: you may obtain a good “follow.”

How about this: Did you know the rules of good etiquette dictate that “a ‘morning’ visit should be paid between the hours of 2 and 4 p.m. in winter, and 2 and 5 in summer?” And whatever you do, do not take your “favorite dogs into the drawing room when you make a morning call. If they are of too friendly disposition, they may take the liberty of lying on a lady’s gown,” or —Heaven forbid! — jump on the furniture.

Here’s one for sports fans. Did you know, according to the Regulations for American Football, “a drop-kick for goal counts five points,” just as a touchdown does?

I don’t know if you knew these valuable bits of information, but I did not before I skimmed through “New American Encyclopedia of Social and Commercial Information: A Practical and Educational Compendium Suited to the Needs of Everyday Life” (1908).

What a book! For folks in the early 1900s, it must have been like having the entire World Wide Web in one volume. With this book, you can teach yourself everything from French to how to play the cello. You can learn how to write poetry, do brass work — “well suited to ladies as it does not require any great deal of strength” — and how to purchase a horse. You can study the physics behind the steam engine, English grammar, American history and astronomy.

This book bygone has it all. That, of course, was the goal. The book’s editor believed “a practical education is the greatest wealth that a man or woman may possess. It is a property that cannot be alienated, yet one that may be shared with others without lose. Education is the legacy that all good parents must bequeath to their children. It is an investment that all young people should be persuaded to seek. Some part of every day should be devoted to the acquirement of a little more useful knowledge.”

The problem, though, was in 1908 so much information was required to meet the needs of everyday life that “no school or college supplies enough. ‘Self-made’ means more than ever, and much of the most useful knowledge … is acquired in painstaking home-study to which is devoted from a few minutes to an hour each day.”

If we believe that folks used this book to learn, for example, “indoor gardening” — a cheap and effective means of home decorating “within the reach of all classes of people” — we might wonder where they found the time to spend a few minutes to an hour with this “manual of study and work of reference.” More than 100 years ago, folks had none of our modern timesavers. They had no microwaves, dishwashers, or programmable electrical washers and dryers. They didn’t have riding lawnmowers, power tools or diesel engine air-conditioned tractors with or without satellite radio. They didn’t even have radios! They had to entertain themselves with dominoes for goodness sake. Where did these folks find the time to educate themselves, to be “self-made?”

I don’t know the answer (though I have some ideas). But I do know that if they could be “self-made,” I can resolve this year to learn dominoes, and maybe some American history — if I have time.

[“New American Encyclopedia of Social and Commercial Information: A Practical and Educational Compendium Suited to the Needs of Everyday Life.” James E. Homans, ed. P.F. Collier & Son, New York. 1908. Available to read or download at openlibrary.org and archive.org.]

Marica Bernstein lives outside of Walthall. She may be contacted at bernstmc@gmail.com.