A Short Walk Through the Stacks: La Science Amusante

Cover, La Science Amusante. Deuxieme Serie [1892]
Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor, SFPL

I was an unfortunate science student and can only imagine how much better informed I would have been if I had had a textbook similar to La Science Amusante: 100 Nouvelles Expériences, with its delightfully-illustrated science experiments.This series authored by Tom Tit and published by Larousse is another discovery I made recently while browsing the stacks in the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor. Amusing science, indeed!

Cover, La Science Amusante.Troisième série [1906]
Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor, SFPL

The Paris publishing house Larousse, founded by lexicographer and encyclopedist Pierre Larousse 
(1817-1875) in 1849, was known for its authoritative
and profusely illustrated encyclopedias and dictionaries;
the Grand Larousse Dictionnaire Universel (1866-1890)
is considered to be one of the great encyclopedias of the late nineteenth century. A short biography in the online  Encyclopaedia Britannica states that Pierre Larousse's ambition was "to teach children," and, accomplishing that, he hoped to "teach everyone about everything." He was a progressive thinker, democratic in his teaching philosophy. The La Science Amusante textbooks have abundant and beautiful engravings throughout each volume; they educate the student and appeal to the general reader. But more than that, they engage the student in a way that makes science fun! Certainly these nineteenth and early twentieth century boys and girls seem to be in happy pursuit of the latest magic trick, in addition to learning the principles of centrifugal force.

"La pomme dans le sac,"
La Science Amusante. Troisieme Serie, [1906], p. 149
Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor, SFPL

"Aplatissement de la terre aux pôles; son renflement à l'équateur,"
La Science Amusante. Deuxieme Serie [1892], p.69
Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor, SFPL

It is interesting to note that the Tom Tit series was important enough for the Government of the French Republic to display them at the Panama Pacific International Exposition (1915). At the conclusion of the fair, these and other French language books were donated to the San Francisco Public Library, which was rebuilding its collection after the disastrous earthquake and fire of 1906. Bookplates inside both volumes identify their provenance.

Bookplate, La Science Amusante [1906]
Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor, SFPL

Before 1800, those who could afford books often had them bound in leather. The publisher dictated the look of the binding, and the printer chose the typeface. But by the time of La Science Amusante, book bindings had become less of a wrapping for the contents of the book and more of a design element, reflecting a vastly changing commercial enterprise and world of readers. Decorative cloth bindings of the sort shown here are a development of the industrialized nineteenth century. Cloth book bindings of this period are lush, cluttered, richly decorated, charming, and affordable. In his Victorian Publishers' Book-Bindings (1974), Ruari McLean describes the radical changes taking place in the publishing world of the Victorians. Bookbinding historian Sue Allen published a pictorial survey on Victorian Bookbindings (1976) and wrote about American cloth bindings during the same period in her Decorated Cloth in America: Publishers' Bindings, 1840-1910 (1994). These instructive histories make for good reading, helping to elevate our understanding of what we've taken for granted, the cloth binding.

Side view of bindings, La Science Amusante [1892], [1906]
Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor, SFPL

A Short Walk Through the Stacks is an occasional series of posts highlighting hidden collections and small wonders in the Book Arts & Special Collections Center. La Science Amusante may be found in the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor.


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