Old encyclopedias are informative in new ways

The National Library of Scotland has made available to the public digitized versions of all 3 volumes of the 1771 edition of the Encyclopædia Brittanica. I’ve been browsing through it, and it’s a fun read — it doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind about whether it’s a dictionary or an encyclopedia, but it does have long sections on 18th century agriculture, algebra, and chemistry, so if you ever want to know what people actually thought about those subjects over 200 years ago, you can look them up.

There isn’t much on the stuff I study though — biology hadn’t been invented yet, so you’ll search through the “B”s fruitlessly. I thought maybe there’d be something on embryology, but no, this is it, and it’s rather brutal. They were straightforward about abortion back then.

There is a substantial illustrated section on midwifery, though, so if you ever need to deliver a baby without anesthesia or sterile technique, but you do have a great big handy pair of kitchen tongs, this section will do it for you.


  1. imback says

    At first I read that as embryotomy being practiced in cafes. Actually, according to the book The Invention of Air, coffee shops had become quite popular at that time there, with Benjamin Franklin partaking in caffeine-infused gatherings in London with Joseph Priestley (the subject of the book) and others, which as the book argues were somewhat more productive than alcohol-infused gatherings. Franklin had to then skedaddle back home when the rumblings of the American Revolution began. So 18th century London was indeed apparently pretty lively, though the book didn’t mention any cafe abortions.

  2. DrewN says

    Old midwifery & tokology books are very plainspoken about abortion. Women also used to be able to buy “herbal remedies” for “blocked menstruation” over the counter & from the sears catalogue.

  3. says

    imback “practiced in cafes.”
    Long esses (should that be effes, or efses?) can be lots o fun. I have a 1663 book on how tobacco is the panacea that has a section on growing the stuff and how it “fucks up water”….

  4. imback says

    richardelguru, searching around, I see the long s is representable in some digital type fonts, to wit:
    “Tobacco really ſucks up water and even the air in some caſes.”