Saturday, March 5, 2011

Introducing A. E. Youman

The world is chockablock full of things I don’t know how to do. A heavily abbreviated list, ranging from the silly to the serious, includes:
  • barricading my home against zombie invasion
  • blowing bubbles with chewing gum
  • locating north when the sun isn’t actively setting or rising
  • growing anything that doesn’t have the word “chia” in its name
  • knitting
  • building a fire
  • responding to any medical emergency of greater severity than a (mild) nosebleed
In this day and age of specialization, none of these things have presented much of a problem. With trusty Google on my side, I sometimes even feel like a superhero—there’s nothing I can’t learn to do, find someone else to do, or procrastinate my way around. But what did people do once upon a time, before eyeliner tutorials on Youtube and dentist reviews at Angie’s List? Before Walmart and CVS and

Once upon this distant past, people did things for themselves: They raised the barns and birthed the babies and plucked the chickens, all with their own two hands. But they didn’t necessarily do it alone—if they were lucky, they might have had Alexander Youman on their side.

Published around 1872 and completely forgotten by nearly everyone but GoogleBooks and a handful of print-on-demand specialists, Youman’s Dictionary of Every-day Wants (Containing Twenty Thousand Receipts in Nearly Every Department of Human Effort) is a exhaustive guide to . . . well, pretty much everything. It's a fat doorstop of a book filled with cradle-to-grave wisdom ranging from popular names for children and directions for cleaning lace, to advice on selecting a cart horse and pointers for embalming at home. Arranged alphabetically and boasting one of the most deliciously thorough indexes I’ve ever seen, this book was clearly every bit as useful as the modern world’s most successful search engine.

And, according to this ad in the 1908 World Almanac and Encyclopedia, it even had healthy backlist potential 36 years after its first release.

 (Click to enlarge)

Enter this blog, 139 years and a number of technological innovations later. Every weekday, we’ll post a new entry from the Dictionary of Every-day Wants. Try them if you dare.