Tour of an 127 Year Old Textbook

The National Series of Standard School Books, Manual of Geography, Combined With History and Astronomy, Designed For Intermediate Classes in Public and Private Schools by James Monteith.  2nd Edition Published in 1885 by A.S. Barnes & Company: New York and Chicago.

This book was either salvaged from the one room school house, or was passed down through my family.  I’m having a difficult time deciphering the last name as it is inscribed inside the front cover.  Either way, this was “Lizzie E.’s” book in 1886, and she almost definitely learned from it in a one room school house, if not my one room school house.

The first edition of this book was published in 1868.  That is one year after Laura Ingalls Wilder was born.  Laura was likely using a textbook very similar to this one in her one room school house.  At the time of this second edition in 1885, Laura would have been 18 years old, and already retired from teaching.  Mark Twain was 50 years old at the time of its publication.  Nikola Tesla was 29.  Depending on the month of publication, either Chaster Arthur or Grover Cleveland were President, though by the time Lizzie was using it, she had penciled in Benjamin Harrison as the current President.  Dr. Pepper was served for the first time in 1885.  Bicycle Playing Cards were introduced.  Good Housekeeping Magazine hit the stands the first time.  The Statue of Liberty arrived in New York Harbor in 1885, and was dedicated in 1886.  Needless to say, since Lizzy’s home was both in the 1880s and rural, Lizzie’s household did not have electricity or running water.  (An ongoing debate in my family is which one of those you would rather live without.)

The first thing I noticed about this text book was how much I loved the way that it was designed.

One of the complaints I often hear from older people is how little young people seem to be learning in school these days.  And, indeed, the older people I know can rattle off country capitals, state leaders, geographic features, and dates of note with much more ease than I do.  And they have better handwriting, to boot.  Could it be that educational tools of the past suited more styles of learning than today’s tools?  I don’t have very much learning theory training, so take me with a grain of salt, but I was struck by how much the method of this old text book resonated with me.

I attended a nontraditional grade school that did not use text books, so my exposure to textbooks for children of the “intermediate” (3rd and 4th grade) age group is limited.  But this book is in stark comparison to my public high school text books, which sought to place every fact in a thick context.  The 1885 Manual of Geography contains between 2,000 and 2,500 rapid-fire questions and answers.  “Q: What is a Canal? A: An artificial channel filled with water, for the passage of boats.  Q: What are the principal Points of the Compass?  A:  North East, South, and West.”  And I LOVE that about it.  Growing up without text books made learning to use them in high school a special challenge.  Finding the facts in a paragraph, even if they were bolded, was difficult for me.  Each sentence seemed like the most important part of the paragraph, so I couldn’t retain the important parts for a test.  The way this text book is written, it provides all of the facts, and allows the reader to do more research on any one of the questions should they choose to do so, rather than place a heavy context around each fact.  I understand the reasoning behind both presentations, but I would have much preferred this one when I was younger.  I love to research and hunt for answers now, but it took years to develop that love.

Other things I loved about the book were the beautiful color maps, detailed pictures, and (mostly) clear diagrams.

“The Empire of Germany, drawn on four construction frames, each representing Kansas.” The image of Kansas was repeated over each U.S. State, and a number of different countries, to give a sense of scale. I thought this was a neat idea.

I also loved how State Capitals were described geographically by the river they were placed near.  I’m a river-loving girl, so I got a kick out of this.  “State: New York, Capital: Albany, Situation: Hudson River;  State: West Virginia, Capitol: Charleston, Situation: Kanawha River.”

As I was reading this book, I had no interest in laughing at my ancestors’ perception of the world around them.  At no time in history has the scientific goal post moved as much as it moves every moment of every day in the 2010s.  Technological development and scientific discovery are happening at such a rapid pace that we seem to be sure of less and less rather than more and more.  That certainly makes life interesting, but it doesn’t put us in a very good position to judge the scientific paradigms of those who came before us.  For the most part, I found the facts outlined in the book to be accurate, even now.

All of that said…


The book states, “The comparative size is here shown, as the animals, etc. are all accurately drawn according to scale.”  There is a measure around the outside border of the book indicating feet.  So in case you didn’t get that, on the top left is a polar bear, and on the top right is a walrus. TO SCALE.

I wanted to put a comparative photograph of an actual bear and walrus together, but I couldn’t find one where the polar bear wasn’t EATING the walrus.  So I leave that up to you and your own googling adventures.  But just in case there’s any confusion, walruses are much closer in size to polar bears than indicated here.  Much, much.  Can you imagine being a child (or an adult) reading this book, not having seen a walrus in captivity, or in a photograph, and believing that a walrus is two or three times the size of the largest animal you might have ever seen?  And even then, only if you had seen P.T. Barnum traveling through, or had a close call with a bear yourself.  For the benefit of sheltered children, there is also a deer on this page, and the walrus is four or five times the size of that fully grown buck.  Um …. can you say, giant fleshy bear-eating flipper-monster, kids?  My only theory is that the nice folks at the National Series of Standardized School Books were discouraging travel.  There were some other things in the book about barren foreign landscapes, savage cultures, and dangerous political situations, all far from home.  I think Mr. James Monteith might have been motivated to keep these kids local.

I did learn things from this book.  I learned one thing that made me feel really, REALLY dumb.  I generally consider myself to be a curious person.  And yet, somehow, I don’t think I’ve ever asked myself why the mass of land that I live on is named America.  I don’t know if that’s just me, or a lot of people, but nonetheless, here it is.  “Q: After whom was America named?  A: Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian navigator, who visited America in 1499.  Q: Why was this Continent named after him?  A:  His description of the country being the first published, many believed him to be the first discoverer.”  I know I’ve learned this name before, but if someone had asked me yesterday what or who America was named after, I don’t think I would have said, “Why, Amerigo Vespucci, Italian navigator, of course!”  But again, maybe that’s just me.

Naturally, several interesting things have changed since 1885.  These are just a few.

  • “Eastern States” were only comprised of tiny New England states. “Middle States” included New York and Pennsylvania.  “Southern States” stretched from Maryland to Texas.  And “Western States” started as far East as Tennessee.  And, of course, much of the land to the West was still divided by Territories.
  • At the time, there were only two continents on the globe, Eastern and Western.  This led me to a little light research, which revealed that the concept of continents has been through several incarnations, expanding and contracting to suit the times.
  • The American English spelling of the word Eskimo used to be Esquimaux.
  • Most interesting, I thought, was the little asterisk next to the diagram of eight planets.  The asterisk wasn’t for Pluto (RIP 1930-2006), but for the hypothetical planet, Vulcan.  The asterisk read, “A planet has been discovered between Mercury and the Sun, and named Vulcan.”  Some light wiki-research revealed that Vulcan was invented to rationalize the unusual orbit of Mercury, which was later explained by the Theory of Relativity.  Vulcan was supposedly observed several times.  A handful of unpopular astronomers still believe that Vulcan exists.  I kind of want to believe Vulcan exists, because how cool would that be?  Wiki-research also revealed that the Star Trek Vulcan was 16 light years from Earth, so no, it’s not the same one.


One thought on “Tour of an 127 Year Old Textbook

  1. Two things have been suggested to me about this post. (1) “But Walruses *are* really big.” Yes, yes, they are. But do you see that little bear on the right that the other arrow is pointing to? That’s a grizzly. A grizzly that’s six times smaller than the walrus. Nuh-uh. (2) “Great post! Waaay too long.” Oh. Whoops. Agreed. Shorter posts in the future!

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