With today’s referendum on Scottish independence, the former British empire stands to shrink even further. Mitch Fraas, curator at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Special Collections, recently sent me this image and GIF of a moveable toy distributed by the Children’s Encyclopedia in Britain in the early twentieth century. The toy, which doubles as an ad for the encyclopedia, takes the old saying “The sun never sets on the British empire” and represents it physically, through the medium of a spinning wheel.
The Children’s Encyclopedia, one of the first such projects directed exclusively at young people, was first sold in Britain as a serial in 1908. The illustrated Encyclopedia addressed a grab-bag of subjects, structured not alphabetically but thematically, with each volume holding information on nineteen different topics (animals, history, literature, geography, the Bible). Like the text on this movable map, the overwhelming tone of the Encyclopedia was optimistic and patriotic, with the United Kingdom’s achievements in science, literature, and war always emphasized.
The Encyclopedia was republished in the United States as The Book of Knowledge, where (its publisher claimed) it sold three and half million sets between 1910 and 1945. Here’s a poem by Howard Nemerov about his childhood experience reading the project’s American edition, which he describes as “The vast pudding of knowledge,/With poetry rare as raisins scattered through/The twelve gold-lettered volumes black and green.”