Friday, May 30, 2014

Ephemeral city: World Book Encyclopedia

Volume 6 of the 1931 edition: "Husband to Leo."

Made my way down to the West Bottoms early one recent First Friday to see how the antiques merchants had replenished stock over the previous month. I arrived just as business began. The morning was fresh, the coffee black and steaming. The vintage things awaited.

Until seeing it, I seldom know what vintage thing I need to own.  This time there were two such things: a sweet backyard springer chair (immediately hauled to the nearby Industrial Services company for sandblasting) and a single volume of The World Book Encyclopedia – the sixth of 12 in the 1931 edition, covering all of the letters I, J and K as well as parts of H and L. Specifically, it spans entries from "Husband and wife" to "Leo the lion."

That familiar blue cover. Those blue covers filled a shelf of my 1960s childhood bookcase, a full set my grandparents had bought new in the 1920s for my aunt and mother. Their old World-Book world view seemed foreign to me then, and these pages brought back those encyclopedic charms and oddities. Again, how much has changed.

References to the World War. As in the entry for "League of Nations" ... a world wide union of great and small countries designed as an international force which should guarantee justice to all peoples and make future wars unnecessary.

At "Key, Francis Scott" it becomes clear that his famous lyrics have become a favorite national hymn – 'The Star Spangled Banner' – but not yet the official national anthem. (President Hoover signs that law in 1931.)

Under "Illiteracy"– referring to all persons ten years of age or over who are unable to write in any language (not necessarily English) regardless of ability to read – you discover Kansas is fifth most literate among the 48 states and Missouri ties for 15th.

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The title page shows The World Book Encyclopedia was a local production, something I hadn't noticed in my childhood set. The Roach-Fowler Company, with headquarters at 1020 McGee Street, had been collaborating with a Chicago concern on the books since 1917.

Roach-Fowler, headed by Arno L. Roach, marketed The World Book as "The only encyclopedia equally useful to children and adults, calling it "an outstanding achievement in American book making. Twelve volumes; over 9,000 pages; more than 14,000 illustrations; 288 pages of maps."

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Colored maps of the U.S. states are among the charms of the series, and there are six states in my Volume Six. They show elevations, railroads, counties and county seats, towns and cities and each state capital.

Three calendar months are included, and three U.S. presidents, as well as Robert E. Lee, Lenin and Jesus Christ, the Man who, of all that have lived, has influenced humanity most profoundly.

There are instructions for building a "Kite" and tying "Knots." And rules for "Hygiene" – Exercise in open air. Bathe frequently. Drink plenty of pure water. Keep the feet warm and dry.  Sleep eight hours a day.

No "Internet" exists, nor "Integration," and you'll not find "King, Martin Luther." But under "Ku Klux Klan" you learn that Although the organization exceeded legal bounds, it did much in bringing law and order to the South.

Fifteen pages are devoted to "Kindergarten," the developmental institution that fills the gap between the home and the school. Twenty-eight pages cover everything "Indians, American," the 'redskins' of romance and history. Twelve pages profile a great empire under the rule of Great Britain, "India."

Ireland gets 13 pages and Italy 19, but Iraq, a new kingdom on the border of Asia Minor, gets just three, and Iran is worth a single paragraph ending with See 'Persia.'

And then there's the reason I chose Volume Six over the other World Book on the table of vintage items for sale: "The Story of Kansas City." Three pages and a half dozen illustrations of our town,  noted primarily as a grain and livestock market. Nary a word about machine politics or sin industry or jazz music, all of which comprised a big chunk of the story of Kansas City in 1931.

Still, "Jazz" does have its own one-paragraph entry, where you learn Its effect has been objected to by the moralist, on conventional grounds. There are those who feel that, in its more modified forms, jazz may yet prove the basis for a distinctly American type of music. See 'Music.'

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