Category Archives: American History

Fly Me to the Moon and other Adventures from “Our Wonder World”

Books Bygone: Fly Me to the Moon and other Adventures from “Our Wonder World”
Marica Bernstein

“A certain man had a boy who was an Animated Interrogation Point—one of the kind that can shoot Who? Why? What? When? And Where? at you faster than a rapid-fire gun. That irrepressible inquirer made things so uncomfortable at meal time that at last the father agreed to pay him twenty-five cents for every week in which he did not ask a single question at the breakfast table.” That was written 100 years ago—back when families had breakfast together and it only took a quarter to zip a lip!

“Did you ever feel like doing that?” the Introduction continues, “If so, you and the boy both deserve sympathy.” Stop right there because yes I have. As the mother of three little girls– now question-asking intelligent young women– I appreciate your sympathy. I also whole-heartedly agree with this: “He ought to ask questions, because he wants to know things; and you want him to know them, even if you do not know them yourself—which often happens, and perhaps causes trouble. At the same time, you ought to have a chance at your morning paper… and yet the questions must not be suppressed, because that means death to intelligence and to brain growth.”

No grownup in his or her right mind wants to stifle the growth of children’s brains, and so we look to encyclopedias for intelligent answers for our children and ourselves. And what better encyclopedia than Our Wonder World: A Library of Knowledge in Ten Volumes (1918)? These volumes are beautiful examples of topical encyclopedias. Each volume is devoted to a single, though wide-ranging topic. Volume One concerns The World and Its People and covers the heavens, the sea, earth’s geology, creation myths, assorted Earthling peoples, and much more. This particular set (of which I have only six volumes, but that’s okay, see below) is leather bound, gold gilded, and nearly every page has a beautiful illustration or photograph.

There is indeed a sense of wonder in “Our Wonder World.” A two-page graphic shows an imaginary spacecraft (which looks remarkably like a Klingon Bird of Prey!) flying above a large body of water. In the sky are pictured the sun, moon and planets. Along the sides of the illustration are listed the times it would take to travel to each: to the Sun, 88 years (“start now and you would not get there until after 2000 A.D.”); to the moon, 83 days; to Mars, 46 years (“a man would grow old on the way”); to Neptune, 2571 years (“if we had started six hundred years before Christ, we should be nearing Neptune”). Imagining the wonder of space travel should keep our “irrepressible inquisitor” quiet for a few minutes. If not, we can always give him or her Volume Ten: The Quiz Book in which he may learn what he “ought to know” about civics, what to look for when choosing a good pet, or—and this is particularly timely—“how rain happens to fall in drops.”

While he’s distracted, and you have a chance at your paper, we can talk more generally about what to look for when shopping for a set of topical encyclopedias. As with any old set, don’t spend too much. One on-line book seller has a complete leather-bound gold gilded set of “Our Wonder World” priced at $145. That’s ridiculous. Mine were a gift from my daughter and I can promise you she didn’t spend that kind of money! Unlike alphabetical encyclopedias, if you find a reasonably priced set of topical encyclopedias you admire, do not hesitate to bring it home even if it’s not complete. Your “irrepressible inquirer” won’t know what she’s missing.

Our Wonder World: A Library of Knowledge in Ten Volumes. Howard Benjamin Grose, ed. Geo. L. Shuman & Co., Chicago. 1918. Available to download or read at; free Nook version at; physical books available at online books sellers.

This essay first appeared in the April 17, 2014 issue of the Webster Progress Times.

BONUS for online readers. The second edition (1918– the one I have) includes a supplementary volume– Volume XI:

Our Wonder World: A Library of Knowledge in Ten Volumes Volume XI Supplementary: The Wonder of Life

If you ever come across it, pick it up. It’s a gold mine.

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Filed under American History, Reference, Texbook, Western culture

The One Great Law of Courtship

Books Bygone: The One Great Law of Courtship and Other Advise For Suitors
By Marica Bernstein

Love is in the air! What better time to review the complex rules of etiquette regarding “courtship– the word which sums up a man’s attentions to the woman he wishes to marry”? I say “complex” because we have a tendency to think of days bygone as simpler than those in which we now live. As The Book of Good Manners: A Guide to Polite Usage for All Social Functions (published in 1923) shows, there was nothing simple about courting in the 1920s. Let’s begin with some definitions. Good manners are based on “kindness of heart and courtesy of mind.” Etiquette is the “great body of rules [this book is over 500 pages!] to which good society conforms.” Culture is achieved when “good manners in every detail have become second nature.”

“A courtship, as a rule, develops naturally out of the propinquities of the same social circle.” (I had to look that up. Propinquity means nearness in place, proximity, similarity.) A young man finds attractive a particular young woman he has met “on the tennis court, at dances, in the home of her friends.” He pays her a call. He may call at her parents’ home only between the hours of 8 and 10 o’clock in the evening. He should never overstay his first call. This puts the young woman in an embarrassing situation. As to what he should wear—he does want to make a good impression—“a neat business suit or his Sunday best” are appropriate. Assuming the young woman finds his first and subsequent calls acceptable, they may begin to “pair off” as they engage in group social activities. The courtship thus “develops as a matter of course.”

Naturally, a young man who is paying court to the woman of his dreams will be inclined to give her gifts. These should be “impersonal—flowers, candy, one’s photograph, books” and so on. Any article of clothing is strictly prohibited. The gift of a pair silk stocking would be “vulgarism beyond redemption.” The suitor’s impersonal “giftmaking is justified by the tenuous and undefined status of the courtship” which will not change until the engagement is announced. Naturally, the young woman may infer—though she’s told in other etiquette books not to—that these gifts mean something more than “friendly generosity.” If her inference is correct, she has a responsibility. It is her duty to let her suitor know, as soon as possible, “whether or not his attentions are acceptable.” In no circumstances is it permissible to “play off” one suitor against another. This violates the “cardinal rule of all good manners—kindness to others.”

Keep reading…

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Filed under American History, Social Life, Western culture

The Life of Anna Mary Robertson


Books Bygone: The life of Anna Mary Robertson Moses
Marica Bernstein

“I, Anna Mary Robertson, was born back in the green meadows and wild woods, on a farm in Washington, Co. in the year of 1860… . Here I spent the first ten years of my life with Mother, Father, Sisters and Brothers, those were my happy days, free from care and worry… . 1870, now came the hard years… where twelve years of age I left home to earn my own living as then was called a hired girl.”

There is a quote I’ve always liked in a little old book about books: “There are three services which books may render in the home: they may be ornaments, tools, or friends.” Here at Books Bygone I’ve introduced several of my friends, many of which are also handy tools. Today I’d like to introduce to you a beautiful ornament, one that often sits open on the coffee table, waiting to be leisurely perused. The book is Grandma Moses, and it presents not only Anna Mary Robertson’s remarkable life story, but also an enormous number of her paintings. ( has some Grandma Moses paintings. When you have a minute, take a look.)

Until I found this old book, I’d forgotten all about Grandma Moses, the American folk artist who took up painting when she was in her 70s. What a remarkable woman! The quote above is from her autobiographical sketch written in 1945. She tells the story of keeping house for a family and of “being very proud in those days, could get up such fine dinner.” And “when the minister came and I could bring out the fine linen and china tea set, and the heavy silver, them with hot biscuits homemade butter and honey, with home cured dryed beef, I was proud.” Her career as a hired girl ended in 1887 when she married Thomas Solomon Moses. For several years they lived in “that beautiful Shenandoah valley” where she left “five little graves.” In 1905 she, Thomas and their five children moved to New York State, bought a farm, and “went into the dairy business selling milk, and doing general farm work. … Here Jan. 15, 1927, my husband died, my youngest son and wife taking over the farm, leaving me unoccupied, I had to do something so took up painting pictures.”

The subject of most Grandma Moses paintings is life on the farm. “Wash Day,” “The Spring in Evening,” “The Thunderstorm,” “The Meeting House,” and “A Quilting Bee” are a few of her 1100-plus works. “Rainbow,” painted in 1961 at age 101, was her last. It is a farm scene—men are working, animals and carts are near the barn. A large tree is in the foreground and a church tucked into the hills in the background. Behind the tree and over the church is a pale rainbow that she had intended to make bolder but never did. An art critic wrote after her passing, “The pale rainbow … will never be strengthened now. … No matter. It will remain a strong enough span for those looking at it—or indeed, any of her pictures—to be able to reach her simple, peaceful, idyllic nineteenth-century world from their own frantic world of today.” President Kennedy mourned her by saying, “The directness and vividness of her paintings restored a primitive freshness to our perception of the American scene.” Another tribute said, “We cannot think of the life, now concluded, of Anna Mary Robertson Moses without cheerfulness.” Simple. Fresh. Cheerful. All of the makings of a treasured ornament!

Grandma Moses. Otto Kallir. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York. 1973. Available at Maben, Starkville, and Winona Public Libraries, and MSU Mitchell Memorial Library. Also available at online booksellers.

Originally published February 6, 2014 in the Webster Progress Times.

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Filed under American History, Biography, Farm Work

“Nothin’ ever made me madder….”

Books Bygone— the column that appears almost every week in my little local newspaper– did not make it into the newspaper this week. It’s a complicated story involving editors and publishers and layout people. So not wanting to get ahead of myself here, I’ll not post the column that will hopefully be in next week’s paper. Rather, I’ll present a poem from Riley Farm-Rhymes with Country Pictures, by James Whitcomb Riley (The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis. 1901.) This is a delightful little book once you get the cadence and slang (dialect?) in your head.

'Country Pictures' by Will Vawter

‘Country Pictures’ by Will Vawter

Old Winters on the Farm
I have jest about decided
It ‘ud keep a town-boy hopping’
Fer to work all winter, choppin’
Fer a’ old fireplace, like I did!
Lawz! them old times wuz contrairy!–
Blame’ backbone o’ winter, ‘peared-like,
Wouldn’t break– and I wuz skeerd-like,
Clean on into Feb’uary!
Nothin’ ever made me madder
Than fer Pap to stomp in, layin’
on a’ extra forestick, sayin’
“Groun’-hog’s out and seed his shadder!”

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Filed under American History, Farm Work

What Does History Mean to You?

Books Bygone: What does history mean to you?
Marica Bernstein

“What does history mean to you? Is it alive, or is it dead and buried in the past? Is it a list of dry happenings with drier dates, or is it full of exciting or solemn moments and people doing the things you do, only in a finer, bigger way?”

These simple questions, asked of boys and girls in grades 5-8, begin Eleanore Hubbard’s Citizenship Plays: A Dramatic Reader for Upper Grades (1929). She continues, “If you had been present at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, do you suppose you would ever think of it as an uninteresting document of long words?” Of course not! But that was long ago. How can you be present, take part and experience what it might have been like to “sign that memorable document?” Hubbard answers that you can have the feelings of the signers by “playing that you are those men in this most solemn moment of their lives.”

“Do not simply read history, act it, feel it, live it!” Be those men and women who worked, suffered and triumphed to make our country! Toward that end, Hubbard offers over 30 short plays grouped into four parts: Ideals of Our Country, Growth of Our Country, Activities of Our Government (in 1929, the longest section), and Good Citizenship. Each part has a brief forward promoting its over-arching lesson. The lesson of the Ideals section is this: “All through our history this right of self-government has been insisted upon. This is where our liberty lies: not in freedom from law, but in the freedom to make and therefore obey our own laws. That is the American ideal.” Three plays make the beginning of American history come alive, “The Mayflower Compact” (no need to memorize the Compact, just read it), “The Charter Oak,” (a tale I’d long forgotten), and “The Declaration of Independence” in which various signers enumerate the grievances—the colonists’ complaints against the Crown– in fifth grade terms.

Keep reading…

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Filed under American History