A typical box

Today I’m going to tell you about a “typical box.”  Apart from the books we catalogue, we also have boxes filled with pamphlets or even just single sheets, which, I’m afraid, look as dull as dishwater, so there won’t be any pretty pictures in this blog post. The contents of a box will cover a bewildering range of topics, making a typical box distinctly atypical, if you follow me. To be honest, our hearts tend to sink when we go up the tower to fetch down a bay of books and discover the shelves groaning with boxes. I don’t think it would be untoward to admit that words such as dross, shredder, and bin are frequently heard being muttered in the same breath by grumpy Tower Project staff rifling through scraps of paper and flimsy pamphlets that look so tedious it’s enough to make grown cataloguers weep.  However, sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised. So, here’s a sample of what I found in my typical box this week:


The “A.L.” simple general knowledge cards. (classmark 1916.7.3125)


We used to get a lot of these when we were cataloguing the 19th century material, but there are still a few sets of educational cards turning up in the early 20th century. In this set there are 36 cards enclosed in a paper wrapper. The cards have questions on them to be used in the classroom, with an accompanying answer booklet. In this particular set each card has five questions on it, and on each card the fifth question is divided into two parts, prefaced with (Boys) and (Girls). For example on card no. 18 boys are asked  “What is a ream of paper; a rod of land; a ton of shipping; and a puncheon of wine?”  while girls are asked “What are the symptoms of measles and of scarlet fever?” Most of the questions specifically aimed at girls seem to be concerned with the sick room , first aid and cooking (I particularly like “Why do we take mustard with beef; butter with bread; and treacle or sugar with porridge?”) but to be fair they do get questions such as “What occupation would you like to follow when you leave school, and why?” Whatever happened to the word puncheon? According to the answer booklet it’s a cask holding either 84 or 120 gallons. A sad loss indeed.

The Victor rapid record selector. (classmark 1916.7.3124)

This is a handy little booklet aimed at owners of a Victrola, the most popular home phonograph on the market, first introduced to the public in the United States in 1906. These were the first phonographs to hide the amplifying horn and turntable inside a cabinet so that the phonograph could look less like a piece of machinery and more like a piece of furniture. The aim of the booklet is “to help you choose your records more expeditiously and with greater ultimate satisfaction” and the editor hopes to “fulfil its purpose in being of material assistance in the building up of a well-rounded record collection.” The guide attempts to steer the reader through the “bewildering variety” of Victor records available by classifying them into Instrumental, Vocal and Miscellaneous, and then further subdividing into Classical, Modern, Light, Concert Dance, Operatic and Sacred. I was quite surprised to see several German military marches listed in the Concert Dance section, including “Parade post with Kaiser Friedrich,” until I remembered that this booklet was published in New York in 1916 and the United States didn’t enter the war until 1917. In amongst the standards listed in the Talking Records category, such as speeches from Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth, Kipling’s Gunga Din, Poe’s The Raven , Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and  Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, we find A Dash for the South Pole, described thus: “A great English explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, has given a very interesting talk on this record of his final experiences in reaching the southernmost point of the globe.”  I like to imagine a family settling down to listen to Shackleton of an evening.

Great thoughts almanac for 1915. (classmark 1916.7.3121)

We get a lot of this sort of thing, almanacs, calendars and diaries packed full of aphorisms and apothegms (to use the Library of Congress subject heading), attributed to luminaries ranging from Seneca to Ruskin, Joan of Arc to Longfellow, Saint Augustine to Sir Isaac Pitman.  These “great thoughts” are supposed to provide uplifting enlightenment on a daily basis.  The almanac, or calendar, is illustrated with portraits and seasonal country scenes, and is composed of loose leaves stapled at the top edge and tied with thread for hanging on the wall.

Next up is “The scholar’s catechism on arithmetic and general knowledge.”  (classmark 1916.7.3119)

The word catechism means that this book will be a list of questions. The general knowledge questions come usefully supplied with their answers and include stock questions on history, geography, notable people etc., but my eye was caught by “What is a gamp?” to which the answer is “Another name for an umbrella, so called from Mrs Gamp  in ‘Martin Chuzzlewit.’”  What a pity that this Dickensian epithet has gone out of use, but so interesting that Dickens had permeated the popular imagination to such an extent that one of his characters was absorbed into the vernacular as an everyday object.

We are reminded of our manufacturing history on reading “What is the chief cotton town of England?” (Manchester), “What is the chief woollen town of England?” (Leeds)  and “Where are scissors made?” (Sheffield).  Not anymore, I fear.  Unfortunately the arithmetic questions do not come with answers, so I can’t tell you what fifty-nine sixths of £1 is (or should that be are?) – answers on a postcard, please …..

Where to go by car by J. Lingard (classmark 1916.7.3114)

This is not what it seems at first glance. The introduction decries the fact that “railway companies still prefer to spend large sums of money in advertising, instead of reducing the ordinary fare to a half-penny per mile, or less. Our present excursion system, restricting people to a few trains, causes overcrowding and delays; every railway maintains an amazing class system by which remunerative third class fares are made to cover the loss on first-class fares, railwaymen are badly paid and work long hours.” Then we get to the point – “This booklet is published expressly to show the different towns and places of interest that can be reached by electric car.” Ah, we’re talking about trams. This is the Lancashire edition, so you find you can travel from Manchester to Leeds, a journey of 48 ½ miles for 2s. 11 ½ d., taking 5 hours.  

I hadn’t given much thought to the social implications of taking the tram as opposed to the train, but “Where to go by car” argues a strong case for the democratising impact of the tram:

“Everybody on a tramcar is on an equality, there is no distinction of classes, the artisan who pays his penny is on a par with the rich man, and this rubbing of shoulders is destined to have a beneficial effect all round. It tends to eliminate the aloofness which is fostered by railway travelling, and leads to an exchange of ideas which to anyone of an observing turn of mind, is most interesting, especially the different shades of dialect spoken on a journey.”

Travelling by tram was a political statement, evidently.

Moving swiftly on, past the “Doses of the British Pharmacopeia, 1914,” “A calendar of hymns ancient & modern,”  some meditations in “Words out of the silence” and prayers  in “The best friend : a little book of thoughts and prayers for women” which includes “Prayer for husband at the war” and “An evening prayer for a child” with the touching petition “O God, bless mother and father (and take care of him, and bring him safe back)” we come to “The star pocket-book, or, How to find your way at night by the stars : a simple manual for the use of soldiers, travellers and other landsmen” by R. Weatherhead, (classmark 1916.7.3109). This little pamphlet, published in 1915, is principally aimed at servicemen, “dealing as simply and practically as possible with the subject, as it concerns present use (1915) in France, Flanders and Germany.”

“Mothers & sons in war time” (classmark 1916.7.3116) is a bringing together of articles written by Sir Ernest Barker, political theorist, originally published in the Times, in which he argues forcefully in defence of England’s participation in the First World War. Barker deplored what he saw as ”the worship of power”  in Germany and the tyranny of nationalism. Writing of the English mothers’ sons who have died in the war, he says “They live in the better fellowship of the nations, which the work of their hands has gone to establish; and a mother may say in her heart, in a new Europe which her son died to make: here and here I see my son; in this better thing and that nobler way of living I see him living on and on for ever.” You have to hope that these persuasive words offered some comfort to bereaved mothers, but with our hindsight, knowing that the Second World War loomed ahead, they resonate painfully. There is a memorial stone to Ernest Barker, political theorist and principal of King’s College, Cambridge, from 1920-1927, in St. Botolph’s Church here in Cambridge.

After a cursory perusal of “Prize-giving government and municipal bonds” (classmark 1916.7.3115) advocating that a similar system to that of France be adopted in Britain (which it was, but not until 1956, 40 years after the publication of this pamphlet), we move on to “Brown’s signal reminder” (classmark 1916.7.3106), a colourful little booklet in notebook format with illustrations throughout of international code flags, semaphore, Morse code, naval and military signalling, urgent and special signals (W.— means “Have encountered ice”), featuring a “Pilot Jack table for reporting vessels of war sighted” and nationality signals in Morse (the letter for British is F.)

So you see, it’s not all glamour and fizz on the Tower Project. You can see that the typical box contains some pretty dry stuff, some of which is dull beyond belief, quite frankly, but there’s always the possibility of sifting tiny nuggets of gold from the dross.  Now I can get back to a shelf of proper books with a sigh of relief and hopefully rattle through some attractive fiction and ponder over some solid books of sermons, technical books on shell-turning for munition workers, hygiene handbooks and childcare manuals, until I reach the next box with its typically unpredictable contents.

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6 Responses to A typical box

  1. Valerie Jeffries says:

    “Where to go by car” meaning trams ! I wonder how that publicity fared, advocating tram transport as an escape from the divisiveness [and cost] of the trains. When the automobile car was becoming popular after the war the railways were in a parlous state, and people were glad to become independent of them. Use of public transport generally later became a mark of not being able to afford a car [unless you were a commuter], especially in relation to the egalitarian ‘omni’bus, successor to the sadly-now-rare trams. Maybe that will change if more people have to give up their cars. Now they are largely gone, trams seem to hold a place in the British heart, as ‘preserved’ transport thrives on trams as well as steam engines. Edinburgh seems willing to still be aiming for a tram system even after expensively digging up the Royal Mile and gumming up the city’s transport so badly you wonder if it’as due for some Boris Bikes.
    Here’s to the Tower Project then ! I hope you find some headline-worthy take on monarchy in a little pamphlet in time for the Jubilee Weekend.

  2. Alan says:

    I make it £9 16s 8d. May we have a definitive answer please?

    • Rosalind says:

      I make it £9 16s 8d, but trying to work it out took me back to Arithmetic lessons and that feeling of bafflement, combined with a stomach-churning fear that the teacher might tell me to go up to the blackboard and work it out in front of the class. I’m now feeling traumatised.

    • josh says:

      You’re right, and I’m wrong!

  3. Deb Fanner says:

    I’m deeply jealous – sounds like my idea of heaven, doing your job!

    My Nan always used to use the word Gamp for umbrella, but I never knew where it came from before today; I’d assumed it was an old Poole colloquialism! I should clearly be reading more Dickens….

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