J.P. has 29,000 pages of a major book. Yes, he has the Encyclopedia Britannica, the famed Eleventh Edition (1910-1911), the best encyclopedia ever to own.
He found it at Goodwill!
Let’s look at why it is a treasure, and some of this story involves culturally obsolete beliefs. J.P.’s 29-volume set is a slice of history, not so ancient, but ever so dated. But what a feat of scholarship!
And here is why it is important in the history of dictionary-type knowledge.
It contained everything you needed to know if you were alive in 1910.
Sir Kenneth Clark, who I studied with, said of this edition that “one leaps from one subject to another, fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of the authors as by their facts and dates. It must be that last encyclopedia in the tradition of Diderot which assumes that information can be made memorable only when slightly colored by prejudice.”
When we hear a British accent or hear of British scholarship, we believe what’s said. And there is a history to that notion.
This 11th edition was the last to be produced from England, although many scholars contributed from the U.S. and Canada. It was the last of its kind before the devastation of the two world wars.
It was — and is — a cultural artifact.
When this encyclopedia was edited, the British Empire was indeed an empire, and monarchs were true rulers (kings were on their thrones). And furthermore, the 11th edition was the basis for all later versions of the Encyclopedia Britannica until its 15th edition was published in 1974.
Scholars whose names you know wrote articles for this edition: John Muir, Swinburne, Huxley, Ernest Rutherford and Bertrand Russell. Thirty-four female scholars contributed, and today it is reproduced as the Project Gutenberg Encyclopedia.
The 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is indeed a product of its time. Lest we think we are “above” cultural currents, as one turns pages through pages, one might guiltily feel that we today might be influenced as well by the state of our times.
Here are some famous examples of what can be found in the 1911 edition:
— The American War of Independence was largely won because “the U.S. population had good English Blood and Instincts.”
—Various diseases were not helped by the diet or vitamins in food because vitamins had not yet been discovered.
— The preponderance of articles deal with world geography, and less than half of the volumes’ entries have to do with science or technology.
— When I myself read the entry on “Psychology,” the editors did not mention Freud or Jung. Too outré for the taste.
— This edition marks a first in the publishing history of encyclopedias. After this edition was first conceived in 1903, articles were edited as long as the book was in production. The result was the first part of the alphabet was being more highly edited than the latter.
— Because the encyclopedia had offices in New York and London, the book was dedicated to King George V and President William Howard Taft.
In spite of the edition’s obvious flaws and shudder- inducting pronouncements, this 11th edition was published by the venerable Cambridge University Press. But in the mid-1920s, it was sold to Sears Roebuck and Co., and for good or ill widely disseminated in America in a publication not so fancy and not bound in leather, called the “Handy Volume Issue.”
What is so prescient in the age of COVID cross-border research is that for this 11th edition, many scholars worked together, even though they often disagreed. Because there was so much discussion, it was deemed necessary to offer new insights in an annual “yearbook.” And thankfully, another publisher bought the rights from Sears, and it returned to a scholarly publication.
But the innovations of the 11th edition are such that the entire set reads like a dictionary. The last volume — the 29th volume — is an index of author-contributors, listing their names and “ranks.” They varied from academica to the church, the military, the business sector to the sciences. After that, the 29th volume features the innovation of a cross-referenced index, done by hand and mind, mainly by female editors.
The value of such a 29-volume set, in good condition, as opposed to other encyclopedias (which are not worth much), is $2,000.
But what a treasure as an insight into what the world thought in 1910-1911!
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.