Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Requiem for a 129-year-old encyclopedia volume

I'm a sucker for an old book that seems to be beyond help or hope. Earlier this year, our family was strolling through the Market & Penn Street Farmers' Market1 in York, visiting old friends and shopping for vegetables.

We came across a shelf full of free used magazines, most of which were 5 to 15 years old. Sitting on the bottom shelf, sticking out like a sore thumb, was a lone, warped volume of an 1882 encyclopedia set:


Clearly, this book couldn't be left behind any longer. It came as absolutely no surprise to my wife that I snapped up the battered book and asked her for a quarter to drop into the styrofoam cup labeled "Donations."2

The book is in bad shape. The back cover is warped and doesn't lay flat; the spine is half-detached from the binding; and two pages, including the title page, are fully separated from the binding.

But it's still a book.

It's 800+ pages are just one volume in a larger compendium -- published in America by S.W. Green's Son from the Edinburgh and London edition of Chambers's Encyclopædia -- of Western civilization's knowledge in the late 19th century.

Some of the contents:

SUHL, a t. of Prussia, province of Saxony, and government of Erfurt, is situated on a small stream, called the Lauter, in a romantic valley on the s.w. side of the Thuringian forest, 32 m. s.s.w. of Erfurt. The Suhl, which in the Sorb-Wendish dialect means salt, is probably derived from the salt springs, formerly much worked. Mining is extensively carried on in the neighborhood, and has been so for centuries. The principal manufactures are iron and steel wares, chemical preparations, paper, and leather. Suhl, celebrated in the days of chivalry as the "arsenal of Germany," still maintains its ancient reputation as manufactory of arms. Pop. '75 10,721. Its history is very interesting; see Werther's Sieben Bücher der Chronik der Stadt Suhl (1847).

TORPEDO. During the war between Great Britain and the United States in 1812-14, this name was applied to certain mysterious boats invented by Fulton and other Americans for the purpose of navigating beneath the surface of the water, and injuring the the bottoms of hostile vessels. In those days of hand-to-hand naval war, these designs (which, by the way, were failures) were looked upon as little less than diabolical. The progress of destructive weapons during half a [century] has removed this aversion.

TOTEM. The ruder races of men are found divided into tribes, each of which is usually named after some animal, vegetable, or thing which is an object of veneration or worship to the tribe.3 This animal, vegetable or thing is the totem or god of the tribe. ... Numerous tribes with totems exist in America, in Australia, the South Pacific islands, and in central Asia; and there are some reasons for thinking that such tribes were once numerous even in Europe among races belonging to what is called the Indo-European division of the human family.4

VAMPIRE (Ger. vampyr), called also by the Servians vukodlak, and by the Wallachians murony, is, according to the popular belief of the Slavonic, Romanic, and Greek population of the Lower Danube and the Thessalian peninsula, a blood-sucking ghost.5 In the mythology of the ancient Greeks, beings of a similar nature existed - the Lamias, beautiful phantom women who, by all sorts of voluptuous delusions, allured youths to them in order to feast on their fresh, young, and pure blood and flesh. And among Greek Christians there is a belief that the bodies of those who have died in excommunication are kept by the devil in a kind of life; that they go forth from their graves by night and suddenly destroy other men, and also by other means procure food, and thus keep themselves in good condition. They are called Burkolakkä, or Tympanitä; and the only way of escaping from their molestation is by digging up their unwashed corpses and burning them, after the removal of the excommunication.

Sweet dreams!

1. Established 1866.
2. I also snagged a 1958 issue of the religious magazine Horizons and two 1970s issues of The Workbasket. Score!
3. Wow.
4. Wow again.
5. This encyclopedia was published in 1882 -- 15 years before the publication of Bram Stoker's "Dracula."


  1. I love this entry. I'm linking to it in the comment section of my post a scandal going on right now in Urbana, IL over the purge of nonfiction books aged 10+ years. Your story is charming; thank you for sharing! What a great find that encyclopedia was!
    Here is my blog post:

    1. "post *about a scandal;" sorry for the typo.