Me and My Encyclopedias

Lea Wait, here. As many of you know, I grew up in a family of antique dealers. As a child my summer Saturday mornings were spent in Round Pond, Maine, attending outdoor country auctions run by Robert Foster, father of the Robert Foster who holds auctions in Newcastle, Maine, today. My grandmother was a doll and toy dealer (like Gussie White in my Shadows series.) My mother was looking for furniture and colonial fireplace equipment for our home. I was fascinated by the people and the antiques and the auctioneer. I longed to be brave enough to raise my hand; to bid, like the grownups surrounding me, sitting on folding chairs on that uneven lawn overlooking Round Pond Harbor.

Every week I carefully examined all the items to be sold. While prospective buyers took notes, planning possible purchases, I fantasized about what I would purchase if I could. Two things stood in my eleven-year-old way. Courage. And funds. My allowance was small. I seldom had more than a dollar or two in my pocket. Most items at that auction, even back in those “old days,” went for a good deal more than that.

Until one July day. It was steaming hot. Not many people had shown up, and those that had had brought umbrellas or large hats. Mr. Foster’s children were selling cold bottles of Moxie and Coke out of a cooler when one of the runners brought up two large boxes full of old books. Foster held one volume up and had the runner tip a box so possible buyers could see the rest. “Here we have enough reading for the rest of the year. A really old encyclopedia. Guaranteed to be totally out of date. Who wants it?” No one said anything. Then he said the magic words. “Who’ll give me one dollar for the lot?”

And I raised my hand.

Encyclopedia Americana, in my study

He grinned and pointed at me, not even looking for another bid.

“Sold! To the young lady for one dollar!” And the runner brought the boxes over and dropped them on the ground next to me.

I was in heaven.

My grandmother looked at me and smiled, shaking her head. “Now, why’d you buy those books?” she asked.

“Because some day I’m going to write historical novels,” “I told her, making up an answer on the spot. “They’ll be good for research. (I must have sounded very pompous.)

She just nodded. And she shared my excitement when, in true antique dealer fashion, we examined the books and realized I’d just bought a complete, mint, first edition of the Encyclopedia Americana (1829-1833,) with many uncut pages. It’s stayed with me ever since, and is in my study today.

Top Shelf, Encyclopedia Britannica

Last month that Americana was joined, courtesy of my writing friend Sherie Schmauder, who was  blessed with two full copies, by the 29 volumes of the 11th edition (1910-1911) of the Encyclopedia Britannica. That edition is another very special one. As with my Americana, some information in it may not be correct today. But the 11th edition of the Britannica includes 19th century data and political and social views on a myriad of issues that are hard to find anywhere else. It was assembled while the Britannica was in transition from its British publisher to its American publisher, so it includes articles by experts from two continents.

I look forward to exploring it, and using it when I write my next historical novel. Reference books of the period are a wonderful way to put you back in the days of your characters.

I love my computer. No doubt. But nothing can replace touching and reading the pages my characters might have looked at, one or two hundred years ago.

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17 Responses to Me and My Encyclopedias

  1. Great story, Lea. I’ve always wanted my own sets of the Oxford English Dictionary and the Dictionary of National Biography, although heaven only knows where I’d find space for them!

  2. Deanna says:

    What wonderful books to just browse through at random and get lost for a few? hours. Dee

  3. Lea Wait says:

    I have an OED, Kaitlyn — but it’s the Compact Edition. The one that’s in two volumes that comes with a magnifying glass because the type is so small — it’s printed on onion skin paper, four normal pages to one page. But I do use it! I also love the (still-to-be-completed) Dictionary of Regional Useage that Harvard is working on. 4 volumes down; one to go.And several dictionaries of slang. But the dictionaries I use most often are my 1807 Webster’s (a reproduction) and one from 1827 printed in Boston. They tell me how words were used in those periods. I’ve been looking for a similar one for the 1850s, but haven’t found one.

  4. thelma straw says:

    This is a delightful story – I can just see and hear that little girl and feel how thrilled she was… and now how delighted you are to have those books for your referencing your novel… Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  5. Lea Wait says:

    I can still feel how excited I was, Thelma … and I still love auctions! And research is my very favorite part of writing. My husband would tell you it’s a delaying tactic … but how can you write about a period until you really understand it …? Until you feel you could step into a room and live there?

  6. Barb Ross says:

    I grew up with my family’s encyclopedia from the sixties which sat on the bookshelf next to my mother’s from the 30s. Whenever there are debates about the internet and about how in the olden days sources were trusted and facts were facts, I think of those two sets. Their contents, both in terms of what was covered and what was said about the topics were, of course, heavily influenced by the politics and beliefs of their age. The discussion of the differences between the races in the very mainstream 1930s encyclopedia would make your hair stand on end.
    But I like what you’re saying, Lea. It’s those very biases as a representation of the age in which they were written that makes these old encyclopedias interesting.

  7. John Clark says:

    I cut my teeth (at least the electronic ones) on computer games back in the early 1980s; Might & Magic, The Bards Tale series, the Eye of the Beholder series, Ultima IV, V, etc. What hooked me was the excitement of hacking my way through a cluster of baddies to earn the opportunity to unlock a treasure chest. Said chest could hold anything from an obsidian sword of +30 badness or a decaying fizbin of humiliation. It was the possibility of awesome treasure that was so addictive. I carry that same sense of possibility with me to book sales and it sits on my shoulder whenever I pore through donations brought to the library. Call me a book junkie, I’ll happily wear that crown. I just finished triaging 4 truckloads of stuff that didn’t sell at a nearby library…tons of extra work, but the thrill of discovery was awesome. I really enjoyed this post.

  8. Lea Wait says:

    John, if in your scavaging you find any 19th century dictionaries from the 1840s -1870s, especially those printed in New England, keep me in mind! Those are the sorts of books a lot of people toss out. Which is why I’ve been having trouble finding any!

  9. MCWriTers says:

    I have the two-volume OED with magnifying glass. Wanted one for decades, inherited one recently.

    My secret book “vice” is old etiquette books. I distinctly recall my mother telling us that she’d once read the following things in such books: That you cannot assume a husband and wife sleep together, and must be prepared to offer them separate bedrooms. That you must have both light and dark shades. And that if your guest is too fat too tie his own shoes, he may properly ask his hostess to do it. Old home medicine books are also delightful. Where else can we learn to make a fomentation?


  10. Lea: just came upon this entry about your encyclopedea collection. Thanks for mentioning the joys of the 11th edition. Sherie

  11. Lea Wait says:

    Thank you, again, for sharing, Sherie! And, Kate — Mrs. Beeton’s Household Management is one of my favorites for such hints. Recipes, and how to handle the help, along with everything you need to know about removing stains, handling guests (although i don’t remember about tieing their shoes — I suspect she’d say their valets should do that! — and how to plan a formal dinner for 100 or more. Very useful information!

  12. Great post, Lea, and I enjoyed seeing the photos of the books on your shelves. We went to many auctions in the 80’s when we started our B&B — everything from Foster’s to the one in Burnham… cannot recall the name now but that was a real hodge podge of interesting things…

    • Just remembered it — Huston & Brooks?

      • Lea Wait says:

        Haven’t been to that one, Vicki! But Maine is full of wonderful country auction sites which are just plain fun, and where you can sometimes find real bargains. (Hmmm … maybe another blog topic!) And some internationally known ones as well, like Thomaston Place, where I drool, and occasionally buy or sell.

  13. MCWriTers says:

    I remember going to auctions as a child, and occasionally bidding on some treasure. Doing that again is on my to-do list. Any year now! So exciting. And I have a lovely platter from my father that he got at an auction.


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