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Printing Technology and the Role of Illustration

America's Introduction to Aesthetics


Architectural Pattern Books

Architectural Advice Books: The A.J.s

Architectural Advice Books: Other Writers

Art Instruction and Leisure Pursuit Manuals

Exposition Catalogs


Further Information

Èbèniste et Marquetrie
Èbèniste et Marquetrie (Cabinetmaking Using Ebony and Marquetry), copperplate engraving, Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert, L’Encyclopédie, 1751-1780.

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.

Invalid Furniture
Invalid Furniture, wood engravings, Thomas Webster and Mrs. Parks, An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy,1844.

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.

The Impact of Diderot’s Encyclopedia Upon Museum Education
Americans’ Reliance on Domestic Encyclopedias:
A Monologue