The door to door encyclopedia salesman was a part of American folk lore. They were the target of comedians for their insistence upon getting in the door and convincing mothers and fathers their children would grow up at a disadvantage if the family did not have a set encyclopedia.
Encyclopedias were very expensive compared to the income a family had in those days. They were promoted as the way to bring a lasting educational source into one’s home. It was promoted as a library in the living room, and that is exactly what it was. Our family bought a set of encyclopedia before we owned our first clothes dryer. That’s how important the books were considered by families raising kids.
They came with their own short bookcase — displayed with honor in the family living room. Their presence was a symbol that a family was committed to seeing its children educated. Or so the sales pitch went. It was an effective sales pitch, too, in an America which wanted its children to grow up and go to college. Many of us had parents who most wanted their children to get a chance to go to college and graduate.
We got our Encyclopedia Americana in 1957. I was in the third grade at Herty Elementary, and moved to Coston Elementary in 1958. I can recall dragging out the books many times to make a report for school. Every topic imaginable was covered.
IN ADDITION to the encyclopedia, there was a full set of about 10 science books, with transparencies and color drawings which made studying the body, or weather, or the planet so much more interesting and easily understood. Those science books taught me more about the body and its internal system than any books before or since. They taught me geology better than I ever learned in class, with visual aids we didn’t see in school.
Another set of about a dozen books in the package was called The Book of Knowledge. These books contained a variety of things historic or literary. We kids loved to find in it poems or stories we enjoyed. They were literally full of knowledge, and my mother still has that set of books in her living room book shelves.
Each year an annual update was sent to us, and that update covered things that happened in the year which most recently ended. This allowed the publishers to keep readers current on things like the space race or nuclear developments.
Today everyone with internet can access a variety of encyclopedia, many of them with no charge for access. Both Encyclopedia Americana and Encyclopædia Britannica remain in existence today, but are clearly in decline from their days of glory in the 1950s and 1960s. Online versions or disc versions are available, but when was the last time you saw a short shelf of such books sitting in the living room of a family home? The ability of everyone to gain access to a world of information online has killed off the door to door encyclopedia salesman.
Unfortunately, the internet does not come with sound evaluations of each source, and merely because something is published on the internet does not mean it is true. Knowing good sources versus bad ones is a skill that appears to be diminishing among those who read online sources. Today’s smart phones have the ability to find all sorts of information, but the safe bet is they’re used more often to find restaurants or movie schedules than abiding knowledge.
Looking back, I have to say the sales pitch was right. Mama and Daddy were smart to buy their kids a set of encyclopedia. Immediate access to knowledge is a good thing. The internet provides immediate access to information, but it lacks the ability to discern good sources from bad ones.
© 2010, Pappy Moore, All Rights Reserved.
Jim “Pappy” Moore is a native son of East Texas who still makes the piney woods his home. firstname.lastname@example.org