The activity of compiling encyclopedias extended from the rationalist philosophy born of the 18th century. Jean Jacques Rousseau and others argued that an understanding of the workings of the universe was not dependent on divine revelation, but rather could be comprehended through reasoning. In their attempt to figure out the world, these philosophers believed that gathering and organizing information was a noble pursuit with far-reaching benefit.
Perhaps the most monumental product of their quest is the 35-volume L’Encyclopédie; ou, Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers (Encyclopedia of Trades and Industries) published between 1751 and 1780. In it, Denis Diderot, and his co-author Jean d’Alembert, chronicled each of the trades and industries so that tools and processes could be examined and operations improved. Diderot believed that this publication would make society “more virtuous and happy.” Although considered a heretic by some of his contemporaries, Diderot firmly established the concept of the betterment of individuals and society at large through the publication of “how-to” manuals.
Comprehensive encyclopedias documenting nearly
all aspects of domestic life appeared soon afterward. Particularly popular
were one-volume compendiums, some of them over 1,000 pages in length and
containing thousands of woodcut illustrations. Among the most notable
is John Claudius Loudon’s Encyclopedia of Cottage, Farm, and
Villa Architecture and Furniture (1833). Containing nearly 150 house
designs, it served as a prototype for the architectural advice book genre.
In a similar vein, Thomas Webster and Mrs. Parks offered An Encyclopedia
of Domestic Economy (1844) and Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher
Stowe collaborated on The American Woman’s Home (1869).
The need for this kind of prescriptive literature during the 19th century
speaks to shifts in population, with many young people moving away from
their hometowns and hence from their elders’ wisdom, and to shifts
in consumerism, with greater availability and variety of goods afforded
by the industrial revolution.