Monday, November 23, 2009

My Quest for Outdated Books

Sometimes, I just love being a cultural historian (if I may even call myself that). Take a look at this copy of Eaton's Catalogue. It's from 1913-14 and it reflects all of the values of society during that time. What I find remarkable about the book section is the overwhelming concern to "keep up appearances." Just from looking at the assortment of texts advertised here, a mini-study could be conducted about gender and domesticity at the time.

To be fair, I should mention that my original assignment was to track down electronic copies of a handful of these books of my choosing. Not surprisingly, I originally chose books that were obscure and odd. These include items such as "Hands: How to Read Them" and "Toasts." After a ruthless search to find each of these gems individually (and after finding out that everyone else in my class found their choices within minutes), I decided that these books had apparently been wiped off the face of the earth (probably with good reason) and that I should change the tune of this assignment.

So... I devised a new approach. I figured it would be useful to go at this in a topical way - since I will probably never again be asked to arbitrarily locate random old books without a specific purpose - but I will probably have to call upon some electronic books for assistance whilst researching a particular theme.

So, I referred to Eaton's again and I created a list of 20 books that pertained to the central themes of gender and domesticity, and then I hit all kinds of free book resources to see what kinds of results each site came up with.

Yes, this shall be my method.

I'll start with Project Gutenburg, which is the oldest digital library and attempts to make books in the public domain as free as possible through the process of volunteer-based digitization. This is what I found:

The Care and Feeding of Children: A Catechism for the Use of Mothers and Children's Nurses by Emmett Holt. This book is highly entertaining and, if kept in mind that it was written in 1907, has some very useful information for new mothers. Of course, there are some very typical British biases that come through - like the advice that masterbation is the most dangerous habit an infant can possibly develop and it should be physically broken as quickly as possible.

Whitehouse Cook Book by F.L. Gillette and Hugo Zieman. This book has also got some fantastic and useful information. I would argue that it's more than just a cookbook. It's a kind of reference book for people who have no idea how to run a household. I think an adapted version of this text could be circulated and sent off with every college freshman, provided that all references to remedial opium were removed.

The Internet Archive is another not-for-profit digital library that acts just like a material research facility and includes different kinds of media. Here's what I could find:

The Physical Life of Women: Advice to the Maiden, Wife, and Mother by George Henry Napheys was written in 1871 and would strike most modern day women as terrifying. It literally said that more unmarried women die at a young age than married women. During its time, this book was widely praised for its ability to cover even the most lude topics without tarnishing even the purest women's innocent nature. It discusses in great detail how a woman should conduct herself during all stages of the courting process, especially her wedding night, with a very distinct flavor of how society viewed women at this time. It's quite obvious to me that this book was written by a man...

Maternity without Suffering by Emma Drake has more of a feminine touch in its pages, and comes with a disclaimer that makes sure the readers knows that reading the book will not actually make child labor free of pain - which is very honest and polite, I think (also implying that there is no such thing as "maternity without suffering). It also comes with a dedication at the beginning to "those wives who exalt motherhood."

Now, here's something that I didn't think I would find, or perhaps expected it to be something different: The Transmission of Life also by Mr. Napheys, the nice man who doesn't think that unmarried women have value of life. This work is subtitled "Counsels on the Nature and Hygiene of the Masculine Functions" I almost don't want to read on - but this is for educational purposes, so I shall! The authors support of marriage rings clear in this work as well, as he claims that the vices of single men are the worst of society. He also expresses a deep concern for tantric practices, claiming that they would severly damage a man's nervous system. There is also early evidence in this text against any form of birth control and abortion. It would be really interesting to compare these arguments to the arguments still present around these topics in the present.

I'm really getting into this now. It's amazing what's available right at my finger tips - in the comfort of my apartment, sipping my third cup of tea. I wish I had the time to read these books for fun. My, how times have changed. I was thinking that it's funny that there existed a time when these issues of domestic life didn't come naturally to people and they needed physical guides to help them - then I remembered the booming age of the self-help book and how I love to sit in Barnes and Noble to watch people circulate the self-help aisle until they think that no one is looking and then frantically try to commit their pages to memory. I wonder if people were that awkward about purchasing these books from the catalogue or if it was generally more acceptable. Cultural history...the examination of social awkwardness...I love it!

Let's see if I can't find one more... I'm thinking that may be my one-stop-shop for strange and obsolete books - batting 1000 so far.

Ah yes, here's one by "A Member of the Aristocracy" (Good old what's-his-face), Manners and Rules of Good Society: Or, Solecisms to be Avoided, published in 1913. This is clearly a text that is meant for the upper classes, as it covers how to bow properly and how to conduct oneself outside the country - although it seems to claim that etiquette should be instilled in all people, for it's not a mask to wear on certain occasions, but a necessity that should be carved into our character. Mr. Aristocracy says in the introduction that the manners of today should be the manners of tomorrow - I'm not sure he'd be pleased if he were around to see the charming nature of our popular culture.

Well, I can't remember when I've had more fun, but it's time to come to some conclusions here. First of all, I've become a fan of digitization projects. I think they're important - for accessibility, if for nothing else. When you throw copyright issues into the mix, things get a little more complicated...but just look at the treasure trove I've tapped into here! Secondly, the Internet Archive has proved to be an excellent resource for online books, and you can do a lot more with it that I've yet to discover. Sites like GoogleBooks and the Gutenburg Project are useful as well, but they are more likely to pull up classic results, like Uncle Tom's Cabin. I find it curious that my collegues said it was so easy to find the old fiction books out of the catalogue. I think that's a bit strange, since these non-fiction books clearly have such historical and cultural value. As a third conclusion - I have a new appreciation for the changes in our societal values. While I'm really glad I have the option (thanks to digitization) I think I'll leave What a Young Wife Ought to Know tucked away on its virtual shelf.

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