Paths of Research … Diderot and Me

Lea Wait, here. As many of you know, I write historical novels for young people as well as my mysteries for adults, so I’m very familiar with researching the past. Often I also do historical research for my Shadows Antique Print Mystery series. For example, in Shadows of a Down East Summer I wrote an “1890 diary” of one of the young women who posed for Winslow Homer that summer, and had great fun recreating Prouts Neck, Maine at that time.

And in all of my mysteries I include information about antique prints and the artists, engravers, lithographers and publishers who produced them. Although I’ve been an antique print dealer since 1977, I still check everything I write to make sure I have the dates and information correct.

This summer I’ve been writing the seventh in my series, Shadows on a Maine Christmas, to be published in the fall of 2014. Of course, my heroine, Maggie Summer, is going to give her beau and his aunt antique prints Christmas morning. I knew what she would give Aunt Nettie .. some prints to match the Morris birds I’d hung on Nettie’s wall in an earlier book.  But for Will?

I thought for a while, and then happened to glance around my study. On my study wall I have a framed page from Diderot’s Encyclopedia called L’Art D’Ecrire (The art of writing.)

Denis Diderot (1713-1784) was a French philosopher and writer, and editor of the Encyclopedia Systematic: Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts by a Company of Men of Letters which was published between 1765 and 1772. It wasn’t the first encyclopedia — that was written by Ephraim Chambers in England. But Diderot’s 27 folio volumes were far more ambitious than Chamber’s volumes were, including numerous engravings illustrating various arts and crafts.

Details from L'Art d"Ecrire

Maggie’s guy, Will Brewer, used to teach woodworking in a high school, and now is an antique dealer specialized in fireplace and kitchen wares. So … what page or pages in Diderot’s encyclopedia might Maggie give him to hang on the walls of HIS study? I didn’t have any in my collection, but I knew they must exist.

I started googling and, indeed, found another print dealer who had a number of pages from the Encyclopedia. Among them were pictures of carpentry tools, and barrel making, and the making of fish nets. Perfect. Just what Maggie should give Will for his Maine study.

In the process, I discovered that my L’Art D’Ecrire was one of 16 full-page prints, part of a section of 43 pages in the encyclopedia that described writing. My print shows a man writing at a desk. There was another in the Encyclopedia showing a woman writing, and several other pages illustrating how to hold a pen, make a quill pen, and how to make ink. A number of pages also showed different forms of

L’ Art de Ecrire Hermes Scarf



Further searches told me that in 1956 Hermes designer Maurice Trenchant had created an elegant silk scarf for the famous up-scale company based on the Diderot L’Art D’Ecrire pages. Very cool! Additional searches also found a Hermes jacket based on the same pages. The scarf was re-issued in 1998-1999, so any collector (I now knew there were people who collected Hermes scarves as decorative objects, not just as wearing apparel) would have to beware and identify which edition of the scarf they were purchasing. And, in case you’re  interested in acquiring such a scarf, on-line sources priced it at $500 … and up.

A simple search for an eighteenth century print had taken me into the world of high-priced fashion today. I also found (who could stop now?) that actress Kelly Rutherford had worn one of these coveted scarves in season one of the television program Gossip Girl (a show I’ve never watched.)

Which is exactly why I love doing research!


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6 Responses to Paths of Research … Diderot and Me

  1. MCWriTers says:

    I love it when you guys talk about historical research. Mine seems to always involve fire investigation or mapping or dog training or how divers take a body out of the water. But in mine, or in yours, one of the very best things is what Lea writes about today–the many roads one is led down while doing research.

    This is also the reason I like looking things up in a dictionary. I never know what other words will be on the page and how they will direct my thoughts or intrigue me in some way.

    Thanks for sharing this.


  2. Mario R. says:

    As one who did research for the sheer fun of it even as a child, I can certainly understand your joy in it. I would, however, like to mention that, while Ephraim Chambers wrote the first modern encyclopaedia, the concept of such a compendium of knowledge has been around for almost two thousand years. Marcus Terentius Varro’s lost Disciplinarum libri IX used the liberal arts as organizing principle and was a model for Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historiae, which I believe is the oldest encyclopaedia (or encyclopaedia prototype) of which significant portions are still extant. And Pliny, in turn, set the example for later encyclopaedias with its breadth of subject matter. It is also the first known compendium to have citations and an index. Those books wherein he discusses art are both fascinating and invaluable — I had occasion to consult them while doing dissertation research.

    If there are examples older than these, I have not heard of them … so very much has been lost to us, however, that even Varro might have had predecessors whereof we know nothing.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    Thank you for the correction, Mario! Appreciated.

  4. Barb Ross says:

    I made up a history for my fictional Maine midcoast town for my current ms. BOILED OVER. I loved doing the research, but the scenes in which the history was revealed were the hardest to write. I worried the ones based in real history didn’t do it justice, and the ones from my own flights of fancy wouldn’t–fly.

    It gave me such an appreciation for what you and Kate do. Wow! That is hard.


  5. Mario R. says:

    Not so much a correction as a clarification, Lea! And I loved your blog entry, truly did.

  6. Lea Wait says:

    Thanks, Mario — and Barb!

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