‘The air of cities is less pure — more people breathe it’

Glancing through my Little Cyclopædia of Common Things, I have to acknowledge once again it’s the small stuff of history that gets forgotten. The Little Cyclopædia is not so little, by the way, stretching to nearly 700 pages. Mine is the ninth edition, published in 1891, but the information comes from a decade before. Books such as this are (or should be) invaluable source material for the historical fiction writer because they describe so much incidental detail which, correct or incorrect, was the essence of the way folks thought, did and were.

An encyclopaedia is about the minutiae of life — explaining in detail the commonplace and answering the questions using the present state of knowledge. Thus when the Aeolian harp is explained, the book mentions in passing that they were designed to be conveniently placed in the parlour window sill. Who knew? It says “When the harp is placed on the window sill and the window is raised just enough to let the wind blow on the strings, it makes a sweet but sad kind of music.”

The entry on cockroaches says that living with the critters was not all bad. As the Cyclopædia said, cockroaches “are also very useful, for they eat many bed bugs, of which they are very fond.”

The entry on ‘the carriage’ explains the difference between a brougham, a landaulet and a coupé, a dog cart and a French dog cart? Who knew? As the book says: “There are now so many pleasure carriages that we cannot give even a list of their names.” You (well, I) would not imagine that the favoured seating in the coach, drag or four-in-hand (a four-horse rich man’s plaything of a carriage like a western stage coach) would be on the roof, in the wind, possible rain and the occasional low branch. But it was, according to the Cyclopædia … Nearly a dozen toffs would be crammed on the roof seats, while the servants rode inside.

Millionaire Andrew Carnegie reliving his past with a nostalgic trip from England to Scotland in a Four-in-Hand

Millionaire Andrew Carnegie reliving his past with a nostalgic trip from England to Scotland in a Four-in-Hand

On the bigger bits of science the book’s knowledge is often surprisingly advanced (good on astronomy and the workings of the telephone) and sometimes charmingly wrong. Air, for example is said to be colourless — but only in small amounts. “When seen in large quantities, as when we look up into the heavens on a clear day, it appears bluish.” Or “The air of the cities is less pure than that of the country, because there are more people to breathe it.”

Maybe not so wrong?

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