Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The liveliest 95-year old catalogue

Our Digital History class has recently been given a fun assignment involving the 1913-1914 Eaton's Catalogue. We were told to choose 5-6 books and see if we could find copies of it online. Around Christmastime I am used to walking through the Eaton's store rather than flipping through its literature for gift ideas (or in this case, clicking through), and I have to say I enjoy the absence of earworm-inducing Christmas music. It's also fun to see what people were buying in the early twentieth century. As we talked about in class, it's interesting to see how many books on Christianity there are, but perhaps not so surprising when we consider that it was published nearly a hundred years ago.

I was able to find the majority of titles I chose on Project Gutenberg, but several escaped my grasp. Google Books has nearly every title but it is hit or miss in finding a complete digitized copy free for viewing. I could not find Husband, Wife and Home which I thought was surprising considering people generally love that kind of stuff for the shocking and/or comical value. In my Gender and European History class last year my prof once mentioned that Isabella Beeton's Guide to Household Management is still being published even though it was originally written in the 19th century for Victorian housewives.

I was successful, however, in finding The White House Cook Book on Project Gutenberg. Old cookbooks are quite fun to look through. Even the titles can be hilarious- my sister and I were laughing recently at one of my mom's that was called something like Healthy Eating with Carbs or The High Carbohydrate Diet- I can't remember what exactly the title was but it was something you'd never see today (and yes, I tried Googling it but couldn't find it!) This one in particular was written in 1887 and has lots of traditional recipes that differ little from modern day cooking. At the back they even provide menu suggestions specific to the month and day of the week. So, for example, you might follow their luncheon menu for a Monday in November: Cold roast duck, welsh rarebit, fried sweet potatoes, cold pickled beets, french bread, cookies, gooseberry jam, and cocoa.

Not too tricky, right? At least it's more appetizing than the Tuesday option of "scalloped mutton," whatever that means. At any rate that's your cooking manual online for this holiday season. My next goal was to find another DIY book but for the home rather than the stomach. I searched the various online repositories for Cements, Mortars, Plasters, Stuccos, Concretes, etc. by Fred T. Hodgson and, as you can see, discovered it on the Internet Archive. It's actually quite interesting looking at the pages on cement and tiling, etc. because at first glance it doesn't seem all that different from present-day work. That being said, I'm sure much has changed in the way of home building materials since 1916.

With all my research on housekeeping I decided to take a break and relax with some fiction. I was intrigued by the title Pathfinder by James Fenimore Cooper. I found it once again on Project Gutenberg. At first it just seemed like a typical adventure story set in the early history of North America, but after reading the Preface it was clear that there is a strong bias to the book. Writing of how recently the region of Ontario had been settled by Europeans, Cooper states that "a just appreciation can be formed of the wonderful means by which Providence is clearing the way for the advancement of civilization across the whole American continent."

So maybe you should cross Pathfinder of your Christmas list. Searching for something more innocent, I took a browse through the titles under the children's section. The book Wee Macgregor Enlists by J.J. Bell sounded pretty fun (it reminded me of one of my favourite children's books Wee Gillis). I had some trouble finding this title at first. It came up on Google Books (again as a Snippet view) but when I opened up the link I discovered that the original spelling was "MacGreegor" rather than "Macgregor" as on the cover in the Eaton's Catalogue. I'm not sure why they changed the spelling but sure enough a search on Project Gutenberg with the added "e" provided results.

Another interesting feature of the Eaton's Catalogue was the division between girls' and boys' books. For girls, there was a section on "Elsie Books." Not having heard of them before I did a search and found that they were written by Martha Finley (1828-1909) and were based around a girl named Elsie Dinsmore. The titles of the series demonstrates the Victorian ideal of womanhood as revolving around the family: other titles include Elsie's Girlhood, Elsie's Womanhood, Elsie's Motherhood and Elsie's Widowhood.

"Henty Books," on the other hand, were the option for boys and seem to include a much more exciting array of titles. Written by G.A. Henty (1832-1902), the series included At Agincourt and With Wolfe in Canada. Not surprisingly, he displays a clear bias towards the English and against the French in these works but if you get past that in our present day they look like they could be quite fun reads. I am biased myself towards history, of course.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that all these books could be found online, and yet still I remained awed by the powers of the internet. Just the fact that I could look at the Eaton's catalogue online enthralled me. I also liked how Project Gutenberg gave you the option of reading the document online or downloading it. I would say that the one downside with this site was the fact that the page numbers did not match up with the original document. Certainly this flaw would be corrected with the downloaded version but if they give you the option of searching by page number on the online document it should provide accurate results.

I had a lot of fun with this project, and it's certainly given me some ideas for gifts. Not to mention recipes; I'm already craving tomorrow's breakfast of musk melon and calf's liver.

Image Source: Internet Archive.

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