What Causes Chilblains?

I’m a sucker for old maps, old books, old reference material of basically any kind. So you can imagine my delight when, while wandering garage sales last summer, I discovered a complete 20 volume set of children’s encyclopedias from the 1920s, the humbly titled Book of Knowledge.

They are an absolute joy to peruse and the fact that they are written for children makes the condescending tone in which the “facts” are presented so much more fantastic. Unlike traditional A-Z encyclopedias, The Book of Knowledge is organized to be read end to end as a set of school books. Presumably as a nod to the short attention span of youth, the volumes are set up as a repeating set of “books”: The Book of Nature, The Book of Familiar Things, The Book of The Earth, The Book of Wonder, and so on. They are also written in a format heavy on question/answer. They are neolithic FAQs.

There’s far too much to include here, but I have included a sampling on the fascinating information to be gleaned from its pages. The books are too fragile to scan well — these pictures were taken with our Canon S70 on a tripod overhead without flash.

The Book of Knowledge
Book of Knowledge, Cover Book of Knowledge, Copyright

… on the modern telephone
What happens when you call

… on the heat of the sun
What keeps the sun alight?

… on primates
The animals most like men

… on The Ether
What is The Ether?

… on Martian Life
Are there men on Mars?

… on… ur…. Chilblains

This barely scratches the surface, these books continue to fascinate me. I haven’t included the instructions for girls to make their own sewing boxes, discussions of why space travel is impossible, the unrecognizable skylines of new york or san francisco, or the pictures of Newfoundland, the British colony east of Canada.

Best $20 I spent that summer.

39 thoughts on “What Causes Chilblains?

  1. I read something a little while ago about how Google does it’s book scanning, with a fascinating contraption to photograph rare books. Maybe you should have them photograph your books and include it in the index – and you get to keep the full page photographs.

    This is such a valuable mirrow we look into when today we think we know exactly how things work. They did too think that they knew it all in the 20s.

  2. I love it. I hope you do more of these. Seems an entire blog could be devoted to scanning of these on a regular basis.

    Because of the Digital world we live in, I wonder if our future will get such a nice throwback. Because something like wikipedia is constantly updated and webpages are dynamic in nature, will we lack archives in the future?

    Sure digital copies last years and years beyond print copies, but who is bothering to save anything? Just got reminded of a website, the Wayback Machine. Be sure to see the same thing… on a much smaller timescale.

    Thanks again!

  3. Ya know, the Book of Knowledge is worth a close look just because Chris Ware seems to have owned a copy while he wrote the first couple of ACME comics.

  4. “The apes have brains not so good as those of the lowest savages, the wild men of Australia, and those savages who lived in Tasmania until the middle of last century. The savages can make tools and throw things. The apes use stones to crack nuts, and when they are chased by hunters they break off the branches of trees and throw them at their enemies.”

    Wow, we didn’t get taught that in history class!

  5. Not to spoil the fun of laughing at the ignorance of our forefathers (I particularly like the speculated utopia of Martian Life and would love to see why space travel is impossible), but Chilblains are a real dermalogical malady.

  6. i submit, sir, that it is in fact you with the condescending nature! why, these fine volumes are worthy of many a young minds valid worthy attention! it is a petulant and, indeed, ignorant view which insists that some things are ‘old’ and some things ‘new’, particularly in the realm of thought, as books are!

  7. What’s wrong with the entry about chilblains? It’s almost completely right today. You can laugh at other entries, of course, but this one is mostly correct 😛

  8. Please, oh Please post the entry about why space flight is impossible. Hopefully you can post it before the sun shrinks so much I don’t have enough light to see.

  9. I grew up with these in my home and asked for them when my folks retired to the south. Even as a youngster, I found them amusingly dated.

    My favorites were the “Things to Make and Do” sections. They listed a variety of projects for children – recipes, magic tricks, games, toys, primitive furniture, etc. Imagine the frustration of a 10 year old in the early 1970’s being directed to “go to your local druggist” to get things like “tincture of cudbear” or “discarded wooden crates” from “your grocer” or “shellac flakes” from your “general merchant”.

    As I remember, the books also contained an excellent selection of poetry and literature from the western canon. There’s also excellent articles and illustrations on contemporary engineering and technology: dam building, building construction, steam ships, early aeroplanes. Seriously, for their time, they must have been an incredible collection.

  10. What’s astonishing is the different philosophical starting point for astronomy: “What’s the use of stars that we can’t see?”

    To which we’d answer, “Sorry, stars have to be useful now?”

    It’s almost like they still think that the Earth is the centre of the universe.

  11. I think I remember seeing the bit about water on mars on slashdot last month. It said about the same thing anyways.

  12. Wow. I had that whole set. Or rather it was passed down to me from my grandmother, who got it from her mother. To think, I actually read this stuff in the 80’s as fact. Makes me want to have the set sent from home. I also had a GREAT turn of the century world atlas, with huge sections on different countries, cultures, and races.

  13. i have the gigantic 20 volume set of the book of knowledge, too. it’s a bit of a golden albatross around my neck. i love it, i hate it! it takes up too much room, it’s too cool to let it go. it serves as an excellent anchor to my overly-high bookshelves and i’ve used them in several art projects.

  14. The Book of Knowledge series is a facinating look into traditional education in the first half of the 20th Century. It really represents a documentary of one of the first ‘alternative’ education movement. Some editions also contain a syllabus for instruction in the last volume that outline an extensive course of instruction of elementary education (grades 2-7 anyway).

    I have always loved the flow of the books, which seek to engage young readers by providing them with different articles on different subjects, rather than an A-Z compendium. It is out of date and it is easy to poke fun at some of the more outlandish misinformation it contains, but that is the fault of the times in which it was written and not a fault of its authors. I doubt that very many reference works from today will fare better 80 years from now.

  15. I love the extensively arrogant proclamation on ~What’s the use of stars that we can’t see?~ It is such a great example of the concept that the world was made for man and man was made to conquer and rule it.

  16. This is a good book to read! By knowing where our technology, our phylosofy, our way of life came from we will truly know how things work at the moment.

  17. Neolithic??
    If it was\’nt for these \”neolithic\” people you refere to you would
    not be using a keyboard. The books you refer to were given to
    me by myfather whom at the time could bearly put food on our plates.
    Please choose your grammer a little more wisely so as to not insult those
    of us still living. Pulling your head ouy of your anus would go a long way to
    opening your mind.

    Jane B. Charles

  18. [Re-posted here because Ms. Charles’ supplied email address bounced.]

    Dear Ms. Charles,

    The authors of the book of knowledge are most definitely not neolithic, nor did I imply such – my description of the question and answer format as being like a Neolithic FAQ is, I believe, a fair, if figurative characterization. As you are no doubt aware, FAQs are a relatively recent acronym, referring to internet-based (and before that BBS-based) compilations of commonly asked questions and answers. Far from disparaging, I am in awe of the presaging evident in these books, and my purpose in photographing these out-of-date passages was to remind us that “received knowledge” is always to be avoided, and to humble anyone today who thinks they’ve got a monopoly on truth.

    Your father sounds like a decent man and I’m sure he was, though I’m not sure how it impacts the discussion at hand. Likewise I’m not at all unaware of the cultural legacy I have inherited, indeed I am profoundly grateful for it, and my desire to appreciate it further is precisely why I expressed my love of old maps and books in the first place – one must understand our history — even its failings — to truly understand ourselves, don’t you think?

    On the final subject of your colourful suggestions regarding my anus and mind, I would submit that they are easily the most neolithic of the comments anywhere on my weblog, and you may feel invited to contemplate the closed-mindedness they embody as you see fit. I apologise for continuing this conversation into a public forum but as I have indicated, your supplied address was not functional.

    With warmest regards and my deepest respect to your father,


  19. It’s striking how much joy can be had by sharing this work with others. It’s interesting to compare your freedom in this instance, with what you could do if the work were under an “All rights reserved” copyright restriction.

    Did you ask permission from the publisher to do this? Are they even around to be asked? Is the harm done by doing so without permission greater than the benefit from sharing?

    The answers are (I presume) “no” to all three. Would the answers be different if the work was under copyright, with a defunct publisher and with no explicit license to do anything with the work?

  20. I was a child in the 1930s, and used to drive my parents wild with my constant demands for information of all kinds. My father found a set of the Book of Knowledge in a second-hand book shop and bought it for me, with the idea that I could look up anything I wanted to know. But it didn’t work that way. All that happened is that I found new questions to ask, and new ways to annoy my family. I had great confidence in it because it was called ‘THE Book of Knowledge’, ie, not any old book, but THE book. I particularly remember reading that people continued to live in Pompeii, on the side of a volcano, because they thought it was just a hill. We lived on the side of a hill, so I was convinced that at some point we too would be buried in lava. I wasn’t much bothered about the prospect of dying, but was seriously concerned that my body would be dug up hundreds of years later with me petrified in a disgraceful activity, such as picking my nose. I also set out to ‘discover’ a new type of butterfly which would be named after me, after reading that this happened when a new species was discovered. This involved filling a large number of jam jars (which had been saved for making home-made jam) with caterpillars and storing them under my bed. It didn’t enter my head that any butterfly likely to be discovered in England had already been discovered. The Book of Knowledge was my favourite for several years – I wish I had it still.

  21. I came across your page while searching for info on the Book of Knowledge online. I recently found an entire set in almost perfect condition in my late, great aunt’s house while cleaning out her closets. Needless to say, I was distracted for several hours flipping through the pages of this wonderful and very often hilarious collection. I then asked my grandmother about them and she informed me that her and her 3 sisters rarely did their homework without these books which were a very special and well loved gift from their father. It’s great to know that there are other people out there enjoying them as much as I am. Happy reading!

  22. I LOVED the Book of Knowledge as a child growing up in the ’50s. It was always a source of something interesting, and I picked the books up over and over again for many years. While many facts of course are outdated, I don’t remember facts that well anyway. What I did gain were many rainy days that passed pleasantly while reading of all kinds of things, many questions that raised new questions, and a delightful introduction to the desire for lifelong learning.

  23. I actually bought one of these books in a garage sale about ten years ago for a quarter. It is facinating!!!! I only wish that there had been more of them at that garage sale. The information in this book is interesting to say the least but I have to say that the collection of poetry was BEAUTIFUL ! The Butterflies Funeral almost brought me to tears the first time I read it…..but I am a sucker for art especially art as beautiful as that.

  24. Book of Knowledge question. I purchased a 19037 set missing volumes 12 and 15. If I buy missing volumes in another year close to 1937, will the index be close? Anyone know?

  25. I too have a full set of the Book of Knowledge. It was my grandmother’s and it is in wonderful condition. Any idea of the set’s value? I wouldn’t sell it but it would be nice to know if it’s worth anything to anyone besides myself.

  26. The Book of Knowledge and I were boon companions in the days of my youth (the far off and much-maligned 1970s). We had a relatively recent set and what it didn’t answer, the 10 volume set of science encyclopaedias we had (can’t remember the name – they were light blue, with really mysterious photographs on the front cover) did. Nowadays, I have a vintage set of Britannicas (1982) that I bought for 10 bucks. Unused… 1500.00 new and “my kids never cracked them once” the nice lady said. Lots of fields of knowledge have changed very little in the intervening years, making it useful both as a window on the times and a resource book. Plus very beautiful as artifacts. I keep an eye out for very old (90-100 years) encyclopedias not for their content, but for their context.



  27. ‘ ” Newfoundland, the British colony east of Canada.” ‘
    Hey, what? Newfoundland is Canada. A Canadian province.

  28. Wow! Thanks for restoring a big part of my childhood to me. Both my father and I grew up with these and loved them intensely.

  29. I have just gotton a 20 piece set of “The Book Of Knowledge”

    The Grolier Society Copywrite 1935

    Does any one know the value of them, I truly enjoy them, and are there any more copy to this set released in 1935

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