Memories of the Encyclop(a)edia Britannica

This week’s announcement that the Encyclopedia Britannica would cease publication after more than 240 years brought back some childhood memories.  I told a shorter version of this story at my dad’s funeral.  Here it is in full regalia–and in honor of the EB.

My parents had purchased the Encyclopedia Britannica in the early 1960s, ostensibly to advance my education.   In the pre-digital age, encyclopedias were sold by door-to-door salesmen.   Though we had been approached by several over the years, ranging from sad, overweight Willie Loman types to eager young men just starting out in professional sales,  Dad was never too interested when they rang the doorbell on a Sunday afternoon, and always politely sent them on their way.  Mama bought individual volumes of a children’s set that were sold, in serial fashion, at the local grocery store, and these sufficed for most of my lower school homework projects.  The year I entered the sixth grade, however, the purchase of a proper encyclopedia had evidently risen higher on Dad’s list.   Like most things he became interested in, he plunged into a full study.

Although I don’t know for sure, I suspect that The New York Times and National Geographic were major influences.   We got  the National Geographic for as long as I could remember, and Dad’s interest  in The New York Times dated from the 1930s when he had first visited New York City.    We knew from our mailman  that  Dad  was  one of only a few people in our small town of East Tawas, Michigan, to subscribe to  the Sunday edition, which often didn’t get delivered until Tuesday or Wednesday.  Don seemed bemused that anyone would want a two or three day old newspaper, especially one from as far away as New York, but Dad enjoyed the paper despite its tardiness.    When money was tight, he might let the subscription lapse, but he always resumed it when finances permitted.    The Britannica advertised heavily in both publications.

During late 1962 and early 1963, the salesmen were invited in and offered coffee and my mother’s home-baked cookies.  Representatives selling Collier’s, the Encyclopedia Americana, World Book, and other contemporary products came in turn, and while Dad listened patiently to each one, and even looked at some of the sample volumes, after a time he took to closing the discussion by saying,   “I’m sure your encyclopedia is excellent for many of your customers, but we are  definitely leaning towards   the Encyclopedia Britannica.”   On hearing this, the salesmen, all of whom must have undergone the same anti-Britannica training,  would look over at me, naturally assuming that the purchase was for my benefit, and launch into objection mode.  They pointed out that the Britannica was much more expensive, more scholarly, and less accessible  (the term “user-friendly”  had not yet been invented) for a young person.   All of these statements would later prove to be true, but even after hearing the various selling points of the Britannica’s competitors, Dad would still purse his lips in a way that meant further discussion was useless, and the salesman would ultimately leave, full of coffee and cookies but without a sale.

Like two day old New York newspapers,  the Encyclopedia Britannica did not have much of a market in Northern Michigan, and none of the salesmen who knocked on our door sold it or would tell Dad who did.    Ultimately,  he  was forced to contact the Britannica company directly in Chicago, and ask them to send a representative.

This took a few weeks, and I distinctly remember the day that  the salesman, who came from Bay City– visited us.  A slender, diffident man a few years older than my father, he  had a shock of gray hair and large glasses that nearly filled the top half  of his face.   It was a bitterly cold winter day, and he wore a heavy overcoat, muffler, and rubber boots, which he removed in the front doorway before lugging a large and worn black carrying case with samples of the volumes into the living room.     Dad asked him to sit down in the wingback chair by the door that was reserved for visitors,  my mother produced cookies and coffee, and after some small talk, the salesman started to wind up and deliver his pitch.   Within a few seconds, Dad interrupted him and said,  “Thank you, but we want to make a purchase, that’s why I called the company and asked you to come all this way.”   Surprised but clearly elated that his long trip was not going to be in vain, the salesman recovered his composure and  moved quickly into colors—the volumes came in leatherbound white or black—which did we prefer?   On this point, Dad graciously conceded the floor to my mother and said, “Now, Moms dear–why don’t you choose the color, whichever one you like best.”  With little hesitation, she picked black, reasoning with a housewife’s seasoned practicality that although  “black leather  would need to be dusted, it would not show the dirt as much as white.”

The price came last.   I know that my father was expecting the Britannica to be expensive, but from the way he said, “Well, I suppose the extra value you get is worth it, and the leather adds to the price”, the set  must have been even more  than he had bargained for.  Hesitating just a little, he asked about payment plans, noting that “we are prepared to make a substantial down payment”.  Here the  salesman sounded reassuring and went over several options.  I don’t recall these in detail–I had a very limited understanding of debt financing due to my father’s strict “no loan” policy when it came to advances on my allowance (“Save up for what you want, dear, to practice your good habits for the future”).     Having made the plunge,  Dad also committed to purchase the customized bookcase for “only a few dollars more a month,” which would show the beautiful new set to its best advantage, and which included a complimentary World Atlas that fit neatly into a slot on top of the case.  Later, Dad felt that the case had been an extravagance that we didn’t need–  “we could have bought a bookcase here in town for a lot less”–but he consoled himself with the idea that it  was probably a “high markup item” that helped justify the salesman’s long trip up north to see us.     For a long time after, a coupon book sat in a mail basket on top of the television, dwindling slowly as Dad made monthly payments.   I don’t think the encyclopedia was paid off until I was in high school.

Early in the spring a few weeks later,  the volumes, along with the bookcase, arrived.   Kitty, the family cat,  appointed herself  inspector  and promptly began to sniff the books as they emerged,  and then climbed in and out of the empty boxes.  Dad, Mama and I placed the crisp new volumes, still smelling freshly of leather and ink, in the case, marveling at the gilt- edged pages.   When the project was done,  my father remarked that “it does look just grand”,  borrowing a favorite phrase from Franklin Roosevelt,  and Mama was pleased, too.  The  encyclopedia was shown off to family and friends for months afterwards.    I leafed through a few of the volumes, checking out subjects of personal interest—Abraham Lincoln and extrasensory perception had grabbed my attention most recently—but the competing salesmen had been right:  the writing style and vocabulary of the Britannica was meant for educated adults, not 12 year olds.   It was only later, when I was in high school and college that I was  able to appreciate  it as a great resource for various research papers.

But the purchase was not premature, and it soon became clear that the encyclopedia was only partly for my benefit.  Less than a week after its arrival,  Dad made his announcement at the dinner table—now that we had bought the encyclopedia and  “paid such a pretty price”, he intended to read the entire set  from cover to cover.  He recognized that this could be a lengthy project, but intended to get started that very evening–and so he did.  Night after night, after the evening news with Huntley and Brinkley and a quick post dinner “snooze”,  Dad would read for a half hour, before prime time television programs started airing.  At the beginning of this venture, he regularly lectured  my mother and me on his learnings, to the point that my mother soon expressed the view  that she had heard more than enough about subjects beginning with the letter “A”, and was ready for him to move on to the “B’s”.

As with most things he set his mind to, Dad persevered in this for several months.  Then, one evening the following winter, when he had reached the volume with subjects starting with Di, he read  the entry describing the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson.  It included a full page photo–the most famous one, taken when the poet  was about 25.   Dad read of her life in seclusion,  the fact that only a few of her poems were published in her lifetime with  the bulk of her work found after her death, gathered in bundles in drawers and on scraps of paper in the family homestead where she spent her entire life.    He read the entry a couple of times.  For several of nights afterwards at the dinner table, we heard about this fascinating new person, already known only by her first name: “Emily.”

Over the next several years, even after I left for college and was home only for the summer,  Emily was a frequent dinner guest —so frequent, that my mother was tempted to put an extra place setting for her at the table.   The Encyclopedia Britannica , while not spurned entirely, was invited back only as it might cast light on a concept or word found in one of Emily’s poems or letters.   I do not recall that Dad ever formally abandoned his cover to cover reading, but at the dinner table, we never moved past the D’s.