I have a 1907 copy of the Harmsworth Self-Educator, volume 6. It’s a battered old thing, that seems to have spent some time in places other than dry, safe, bookshelves. The cover is not so bad as the interior, which is not just stained, it has several damaged pages.
For non-fiction, I do appreciate a straight-forward title. The Self-Educator is a collection of essays exploring ‘life’ in Britain. I don’t think it should be called an encyclopedia, because apart from not being in alphabetical order, these read like academic papers. There are 29 groups of topics, dealing with the sciences; commercial activities; arts, crafts, languages and academic ideas and theories.
Who was it for? I’m not sure. It doesn’t seem child-friendly to me, but am I a good judge of what Edwardian children did, and liked? I think of it as a paper forerunner to internet search engines, except that this one is all edited by one man…Arthur Mee (1875 – 1943).
It’s not a book I turn to regularly, but when I do, invariably I find something intriguing. Do you know, for instance, how an Edwardian child should be dressed? Dr A. T. Schofield can tell you:
There can be no doubt that a combination flannel undergarment is the most comfortable and healthy arrangement. The legs especially should be protected in this way, and not left bare, or with a single covering of cotton. Over this, with girls, there should be a stout quilted bodice on which the lower garments can be buttoned, and then a plain dress over all. The stockings, of course, are suspended. A sailor costume is a capital one for girls, and very healthy.
Imagine getting strapped into that lot every morning. No doubt such padding would have been useful in the winter, but Dr Schofield doesn’t offer a lighter selection for the summer. Perhaps that’s why there are no smiles in this picture.
Children’s dress…should not leave any vital parts exposed. Unfortunately, this is too often forgotten, and children are dressed in a fashion that their parents would not endure for a moment if applied to themselves.
I wonder if he’s referring to the families struggling to survive?
It’s worth stating the obvious here, and remembering that in research, we should always find more than one source. The clue to the Self Educator is in the title and sub-title. It is an aspirational book, ‘A Golden Key to Success in Life’. The only reference I’ve been able to track down about the original cost of the volume, was that one bookseller had marked it up for ten shillings and six pennies.
Given that in 1910 the Army and Navy Stores were selling a ‘maids’ dress for four shillings and one penny, and that an average income for a working class family would have been around twenty two shillings per week, it seems likely that only well-to-do households would have owned any of these volumes, let alone all eight.
However, Mr Mee does provide the kind of detail that makes me think that in a post-apocalyptic, google-less situation, these volumes might be useful. In this copy alone are instructions on how to farm, build houses, make cheese, manufacture hats, weave cloth, lay out a sewerage system, run a bank, speak Esperanto, play a flute, sell postcards… Is there anything else necessary to keep us safe, dry and entertained?
Actually, looking again at some of those stained pages, I wonder if this copy was kept in a workshop. The worst damage does seem to be in some of the applied chemistry sections.
I feel a story forming.