The 1911 Encyclopedia
November 24, 2003 1:36 PM   Subscribe

The 1911 Encyclopedia, or the LoveToKnow Free Online Encyclopedia, is advertised as "what many consider to be the best encyclopedia ever written. As a research tool, this 1911 encyclopedia edition is unparalleled - even today." But what about the definition for Negro? It reads in part: "A dark skin, varying from dark brown, reddish-brown, or chocolate to nearly black; dark tightly curled hair, flat in transverse section,1 of the 'woolly' or the 'frizzly' type; a greater or less tendency to prognathism; eyes dark brown with yellowish cornea; nose more or less broad and flat; and large teeth." Can an encyclopedia with definitions like these be considered useful at all?
posted by josephtate (40 comments total)
Put the entire entry numbnuts. Christ, what should they put for the entry? Perhaps an IP tracer and an autoreport to the police for even looking up the word.
posted by damnitkage at 1:45 PM on November 24, 2003

So what is a good definition? For instance, Merriam-Webster,a current source, goes for:

"a member of the black race distinguished from members of other races by usually inherited physical and physiological characteristics without regard to language or culture"

Which is pretty much the same, but leaves out the details. Should an information source be leaving out the details?
posted by smackfu at 1:46 PM on November 24, 2003

Well, this part is a bit worse.

The intellect seemed to become clouded, animation giving place to a sort of lethargy, briskness yielding to indolence. We must necessarily suppose that the development of the negro and white proceeds on different lines. While with the latter the volume of the brain grows with the expansion of the brainpan, in the former the growth of the brain is on the contrary arrested by the premature closing of the cranial sutures and lateral pressure of the frontal bone.3 This explanation is reasonable and even probable as a contributing cause; but evidence is lacking on the subject and the arrest or even deterioration in mental development is no doubt very largely due to the fact that after puberty sexual matters take the first place in the negro's life and thoughts. At the same time his environment has not been su;h as would tend to produce in him the restless energy which h,as led to the progress of the white race; and the easy conditions of tropical life and the fertility of the soil have reduced the struggle for existence to a minimum. But though the mental inferiority of the negro to the white or yellow races is a fact, it has often been exaggerated; the negro is largely the creature of his environment,

They also go on about how negro hair is not "true" hair.
posted by delmoi at 1:52 PM on November 24, 2003

Can an encyclopedia with definitions like these be considered useful at all?

Sure. By looking up "negro," you can find out what white people thought about black people back in 1911 and discover how far we've come. Very educational.
posted by kindall at 1:54 PM on November 24, 2003

This was 1911 and that is the definition. The encyclopedia is what it is. Like any document it is a reflection of its time.

Sure I consider the pasage offensive. But I am also strongly against any whitewashing or editing of history. What was the question? Of course its useful.

(what kindall said)
posted by vacapinta at 1:55 PM on November 24, 2003

Well, I suppose it's useful for historians, anthropologists, and others who wouldn't be getting strange looks for using 1911 texts in their studies.

And I suppose it's not useful for doctors, lawyers, accountants, and network support technicians.

What's your point? That many encyclopedia authors in 1911 were racist and ethnocentrist? That's not exactly shocking.
posted by PrinceValium at 1:57 PM on November 24, 2003

sounds about right to me... what is the problem exactly?
posted by billybobtoo at 2:02 PM on November 24, 2003

The 1911 Encyclopedia is a good link, it's too bad you had to editorialize and troll it all up like this. It's a shame you can look at history and this is all you see.
posted by dgaicun at 2:11 PM on November 24, 2003

From the standpoint of 1911, that's a fairly progressive opinion, odious though it seems today. You know, even the progressives of 2003 aren't going to look particularly enlightened to the people 2100. And the people of 2100 will seem quaint -- or worse -- to their descendants, too...
posted by coelecanth at 2:14 PM on November 24, 2003

Actually, the "negro" entry is moderate by the standards of the time. I would not be surprised if later editions were actually more racist in tone. The 1911 ency. is primarily of historical interest, being an important document from the era of positivism, before the two World Wars. The following editions were highly politicized and apologetic for both Church and State.

To me, Wikipedia is the legitimate successor of the traditional encyclopedias, not because it does things the same way but because it does them differently. Of course Wikipedia still contains many errors, but we are working on an approval process to filter out articles that have gone through several stages of peer review.

After less than 3 years the English Wikipedia already has over 175,000 articles, and these are not "Hello world" pages. Many of them are highly detailed and written by experts (many others are "stubs", but very very few are pure noise). While it is sometimes hard to maintain neutrality, you usually get all sides of the story and not just the prevailing mainstream opinion.

We've actually imported some of the reasonable (primarly historical) entries from the public domain Britannica. And the best thing about Wikipedia is that, like the 1911 encyclopedia, it is free to use and distribute and will always remain so.
posted by Eloquence at 2:15 PM on November 24, 2003

Isn't it important to find out where you are by finding out where you were?

Today, in high schools across the country, for example, students are taught that the Holocaust was "bad", but omitted are the details, up to and including the Second World War, of why the Holocaust was bad. This is done for several reasons, some reasonable, some irrational, like fear that if students ever hear what the Nazis were, they will want to become Nazis.

Back to this encyclopedia. Much of their scientific knowledge at the time was severely flawed, incorrect, or underdeveloped *compared* to today. So were their social systems and their politics. But at the same time, many of the people then were not stupid.

Heck, go back 2000 years and you can read brilliant intellectual treatises written by people who lived in mud brick buildings.

So, relativistically, you could say that they and we are equal, just different. But that obviously isn't the case, now, is it? Only in retrospect is it evident how flawed some of their knowledge was.

And with humbleness, how we must assume what we do will look like to people in a hundred years.
posted by kablam at 2:16 PM on November 24, 2003

Can an encyclopedia with definitions like these be considered useful at all?

Sure, why not? What are your objections? Contemporary encyclopedias and reference works have suffered too much because of the politically correct patrol; it's time to seek a balance that's neither prejudiced or excessively PC.
posted by 111 at 2:18 PM on November 24, 2003

No sir, I see no use whatsoever in maintaining an archive of historical documents. Burn it all within 5 years, my pappy always used to say. Of course we had to toss him in the incinerator once it was discovered he didn't know what google was, can't have a family member being obsolete.
posted by kavasa at 2:27 PM on November 24, 2003

posted by Space Coyote at 2:30 PM on November 24, 2003

Sure, why not? What are your objections? Contemporary encyclopedias and reference works have suffered too much because of the politically correct patrol; it's time to seek a balance that's neither prejudiced or excessively PC.

I want to take back the term "PC" from conservatives. It used to be an appropriate insult for people who, to use Bill Maher's definition, valued sensitivity over truth. Conservatives now thrill in using it to tar all liberal commentary with the same brush, as though it were all of equal value. Political incorrectness was supposed to mean a return to telling the truth instead of filtering or whitewashing it; it has instead elevated insensitivity over truth, and gone further in that direction than the worst excesses of PC ever took us. People try to excuse the most appalling things with a smile and the phrase, "I know it's not politically correct to say this, but...."

For crying out friggin' loud, 111, this is a racist definition. It may have been well-intentioned by the standards of the time, but it's unacceptable by today's standards. And the result is that we cannot rely on this encyclopedia as a tool -- its value is as a cultural document. By ignoring how repugnant (and demonstrably inaccurate) it is, you are hardly bringing yourself closer to truth or further from prejudice.
posted by Epenthesis at 2:39 PM on November 24, 2003

posted by keswick at 2:41 PM on November 24, 2003

And the result is that we cannot rely on this encyclopedia as a tool -- its value is as a cultural document.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that. We might not be able to use the definition for "negro", or some of the other iffy entries, but this doesn't mean we need to throw out the entire encyclopedia. For instance, the entry on "Japan" has some lame race-theory stuff in it, but the part about Japan's flora and fauna is amazingly detailed, and the geological info is equally good. There's no reason to throw it all out, just use the good and ignore the bad.
posted by vorfeed at 2:53 PM on November 24, 2003

Thanks to this article, I am please to discover, that aside from mere physical trivialities such as skin color and hair texture, I am a negro.
posted by wobh at 2:55 PM on November 24, 2003

How completely fascinating that those in this historically racist nation who whine so piteously and continuously about "political correctness" (a code phrase for "we really hate it when you make us face our racism") are most often the worst demagogues for "patriotic correctness" -- ie stifling of dissent, censorship of opposing views, American flags on every SUV, "my country right or wrong", etc.

The hypocrisy of the right never fails to amuse.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 2:59 PM on November 24, 2003

This is the famed ninth edition of the EB. Joyce used text from this edition verbatim in Finnegans Wake, I believe a description of water. John Cage intended to use his old set for I Ching-based chance operations to create texts, but he complained it was lost in a moist garage. The ninth edition also reprints James Murray's (of OED fame) classic essay on the English language.

If you are looking up Montaigne or Descartes or Rome, etc, you'll usually find entries in the ninth edition superior in style and clarity, and often detail, than anything you'll get from recent sources. Sure there's nothing on Einstein, etc.

It's of high scholarly poetical & creative value. The online edition needs to be cleaned up a good deal, however. The old leather vols keep pretty well. Indian paper and lovely old maps tipped in. Online, a good deal of ill formatted text. No illustrations.
posted by chymes at 3:15 PM on November 24, 2003

Throughout most of his life, Malcolm X was a firm believer in the Nation of Islam, which advocates a separate Islam state for Africans. Near the end of his life, he parted ways with the NoI, citing its hypocrisies. Do we think any less of Malcolm X because of his heavy involvement?

Birth of a Nation is a film that pretty much laid down the film language we use today. It is also a film that contains extremely racist imagery.

Likewise, Olympia and Triumph of the Will feature groundbreaking editing techniques, the former setting the standards of sports coverage that we now take for granted. Yet both were films of Nazi propaganda.

Shall I stop appreciating Emil Jennings' performance in The Last Laugh, Ezra Pound, or Knut Hamsun's Hunger because all of them turned fascist at some point in their lives?

Even today, as Michael Jackson stands charged with serious charges, is it possible for any of you to truly enjoy his music? Or to appreciate The Pianist when Roman Polanski raped a teenager? Or to read an Anne Perry mystery because she murdered her mother when she was young? That's just as hypocritical as the politically correct people here suggesting that an encylopedia featuring a racist stereotype is devoid of value. And yet people continue to enjoy Jackson and Polanski's work. And Polanski himself even won a Best Director Award.
posted by ed at 3:21 PM on November 24, 2003

The entry of United States, The is quite fascinating. In particular, Constitution and Government.

The lack of illustrations and problems with OCR need to be addressed.
posted by linux at 3:26 PM on November 24, 2003

Well said, Epenthesis.
posted by emf at 3:47 PM on November 24, 2003

Well, I'm just now getting around to seeing comments. I was surprised that the encyclopedia isn't advertised as an artifact. It's advertised as still useful today, as the "best ever written." But how can any definition like these be useful today? As others have usefully said, it's an instance, a snapshot, of how a society is thinking about things at a particular historical juncture. But to advertise the site as currently relevant, I think, is not accurate. But others seem to think it's fine as is.

I'm surprised that smackfu would say the current Merriam-Webster is "pretty much the same" as the one I posted (unless s/he was being sarcastic and I missed the sarcasm). So, smackfu (or others), you think that blacks (or African-Americans) all have yellow eyes and big noses? I think saying that African-Americans are more likely to get sickle-cell anemia (as the Webster defintion implies) is a little different from saying they all have large teeth.
posted by josephtate at 4:53 PM on November 24, 2003

I'm in total agreement with dgaicun here. That edition of the Britannica is indeed one of the all-time great reference works; if you had any interest in actual history rather than trying to trip up the past with the shibboleths of the present, you might figure that out. Lorentz wrote the article on "Light, Nature of"; Rutherford wrote on Radioactivity; the general standard of writing was better than ever before or since. Here, read this, about what happened after the 11th (and the 12th and 13th, which were reprints with added material):
Put as gently as possible, the 14th edition was designed not to offend anyone, or at least nobody in the English-speaking portion of the world. In the 11th edition many theologians had been asked to write entries regarding religion and religious figures, but the entries had not been prepared, or approved, by the hierarchy of the mainstream churches. For the 14th edition these were written with the direct purpose of making the churches involved happy, and not offending anyone. The result was that everyone involved felt better, but historical accuracy suffered dreadfully. Regrettable incidents in religious history, especially ancient and Medieval history, were glossed over or eliminated, and important figures were not always to be presented in a strictly accurate manner. The changes went beyond religion. Women, whose contributions to history, the arts and literature had been allowed to burst through into the pages of the 11th edition, were put back into their kitchens, and there were also political considerations brought to bear, as the Germans and other Central Power countries saw the tone or even substance of some of their related entries altered in the bitter aftermath of World War One.

Reaction to the change was not positive, to put it mildly. Scholars and academics were appalled, and sales tanked. The 11th edition had been a bestseller; the 14th edition (probably also hurt by the onset of the Depression) was a great disappointment. Britannica's editors would drop the "please everyone" tone for the 15th edition, but by that time there was so much new 20th century material to include that much of the earlier, more esoteric material which is of so much interest to booksellers researching semi-obscure 16th century scientists or 17th century theologians, had to be discarded.

Thus, the 11th edition, along with the related 12th and 13th editions, remains as an encyclopedia that is still useful almost a hundred years later. The text has passed out of copyright, and web-based and cd-rom editions are readily available. For those who simply have to have the paper edition, the larger, full-size set is recommended, although it will take up (your author pauses and gets out his ruler)... almost 3 feet of shelf space. And, with 30,000 pages holding 40,000 entries containing 4 millions words, it is a heavy set, so you had best make it a sturdy, well anchored shelf...
For years I lusted after a copy of the 11th, and I'm deeply grateful that it's available online, at the price of putting up with a few misprints. But if all you care about is maximally inoffensive definitions of sensitive terms, by all means boycott it. And you might want to avoid reading all literature produced before 1970 or so—G*d knows what you might find therein.
posted by languagehat at 7:31 PM on November 24, 2003

What chymes said, including this:

The online edition needs to be cleaned up a good deal, however.

For example, the limitations of their OCR can be seen in an article like this. Of course, I'm sure those who don't think they can ever "rely on this encyclopedia as a tool" will be happy to look up Theodectes of Phaselis in their 21st century encyclopedias?

Some interesting material (incl. illustrations) in this paper on Physiognomy and Racism.
posted by Zurishaddai at 8:52 PM on November 24, 2003

I'm surprised to even be discussing this: "If you had any interest in actual history rather than trying to trip up the past with the shibboleths of the present, you might figure that out." Actual history? Whose history? I doubt that any actual historian today would agree with its entry on Columbus. For example: "The expedition was received with great kindness by the natives." Ha! Not quite.

I honestly wasn't trolling when I posted up this link originally. But I honestly was surprised to hear people defending entries that would claim something like the following as fact: "after puberty sexual matters take the first place in the negro's life and thoughts."

I truly am flat out amazed that anyone would still consult a 1911 encyclopedia for factual information. To disguise discomfort with the alternate perspectives on history circulating today with talk of letting the present interfere with the past is so 1980s.

What some people call political correctness I just call correct: "Negros" don't all have big noses and Columbus wasn't welcomed by the natives.
posted by josephtate at 8:58 PM on November 24, 2003

>Can an encyclopedia with definitions like these be considered useful at all?

I think so. The glib nationalism and unquestioned racism is painful to read. But the books, imo, are interesting.

My friends have the 1914 Everyman encyclopaedia. The entry on the European war ends abruptly, with the evacuation of Antwerp, Belgium. The last news before the books went to press.

There is also the dated writing style: a curling rock is described as having the shape of "a block of Dutch cheese."

You can see how much of your life is of the twentieth century, how recent things are. Most of the things that seem to occupy my life (computers, telephones, hockey, jazz, linguistics, etc) had not been invented or at most had marginal entries in the books. You can see how people who merited extensive entries one hundred years ago (like Oliver Goldsmith, say) have subsequently been reduced or squeezed out entirely by new people (James Joyce and Albert Camus) or by re-evaluation of pre-1914 persons (such as Dostoevski).

On preview:
>I truly am flat out amazed that anyone would still consult a 1911 encyclopedia for factual information.

I don't consult the old encyclopaedia for information, more as a historical text; but I see your point. I'm glad you posted this, josephtate.
posted by philfromhavelock at 9:09 PM on November 24, 2003

josephtate, I think you mistake "acceptance" for "agreement". I accept it exists. I don't agree with it.

Also, josephtate, I think you miss that the encyclopedia itself is history. As you say yourself, why would anyone consult a 1911 encyclopedia for factual information? It is instead a perfect capsule view of the 1911 view of the world, good, bad, and ugly. You can't beat the convenience of the packaging; to find an equally representative set of primary sources on all the issues the encyclopedia covers would be a life's work, or more.

What exactly do you propose we do? Bury it? Censor it? How exactly would any of these actions change 1911? How does it pose any danger now? Even the most radical KKK member isn't going to be caught citing a 1911 encyclopedia with any degree of seriousness.

This whole post boils down to "There was a racist entry in an encyclopedia in 1911!" Well, yeah. Can't say I'm surprised. What's your point?
posted by Jeremy Bowers at 9:32 PM on November 24, 2003

I dunno. Can any encyclopedia be considered useful without entries for Nazi, computer, or Apollo? That's a real conundrum.

Then again, can a constitution that defines African-Americans as 2/3 of a human be considered useful? With emendations, probably it can. We can't erase what we've been.

I think its utility does lie in its position as an historical artifact, and in fact I have recently used the site to look up information about 19th-century German history, written from a nearer perspective than, say, Infoplease gives you. It was quite helpful in that regard. I'm not terribly bothered by entries such as the one for Negro, if only because very few people are going to actually look that one up. I'd be delighted if there were a 1611 encyclopedia online, in fact, despite the medical entries for the Four Humors, depictions of Moors as heathens, and uncritical appraisal of the Crusades.

The way the home page sells the encyclopedia (without ever using the dreaded trademarked phrase "Britannica") is obviously ridiculous, but I'm not bothered by that because few people are going to read that page anyway. They'll get there via external links or Google. I will say that I'm bothered they are inviting people to update or 'correct' entries, or add new ones, because that's going to mean people quoting what is basically amateur editorial with the implied authority of the 1911 Britannica. It will also reduce the sense of it as an artifact. LoveToKnow, which has a couple of decent (if brief) decent public-domain materials sites, is taking a poorly-considered misstep here, I believe.

By the way, I grew up with the 12th edition on my family's bookshelf. It served us well. And I don't ever recall using it to look up 'negro'.

In short, this is a not-quite-four-stars site posted with a really disappointing framing device. The Wikipedia entry on 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica might have been a better place to start.
posted by dhartung at 10:02 PM on November 24, 2003

I think that when you are offended by a passage that others find fascinating, you're actually both seeing the same thing, just having slightly different reactions. We all know that factually inconsistent racist schlock is uncool, but I personally think that makes the case for collecting and discussing said schlock (lest we learn nothing or lest I assume that my definition of schlock is any better than anyone else's).
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 10:49 PM on November 24, 2003

I'm all for collecting and discussing said schlock. I would never bury the encyclopedia or censor it. It is, as Jeremy Bowers says, "a perfect capsule view of the 1911 view of the world." I would, however, caution against using it as source of fact or as a repository of "actual history" as languagehat implies it can be used.

Indeed, the 1911 encyclopedia can be useful: I've used the entry on "negro" from the print edition to teach Shakespeare's The Tempest in order to suggest that when surrounding characters call Caliban a monster or a fish we can't really trust those descriptions. Similarly, students who have read the "negro" definition out of context often think a dog or ape is being described at first glance. When I tell them it's meant to describe a person of African descent, they usually get the point: you can't trust everything you read (to put it bluntly). But then there are those people like George Will who think The Tempest has nothing to do with race... oh well.
posted by josephtate at 11:26 PM on November 24, 2003

The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica is the major pillar of this Christian Home schooling curriculum, developed by Arthur B. Robinson, who says "My advice to homeschool parents is to teach geography, history, and government largely from books which were written in the 1950's and earlier."

Mr Robinson is a member of the "Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine" which conducts research into life extension, prides itself on being the only institution currently researching nuclear war survival skills/civil defense (they sell a DVD set on this subject) - [ "the Institute is now the most reliable remaining source of civil defense educational materials in America. Work continues on the improvement of these materials." ] and also has played a significant role in attempting to discredit the science of Global Warming, including through sending out a petition misleadingly designed to look like a mailing from the US National Academy of Science (which was roundly condemned by the US scientific community).

Robinson developed this christian home schooling curriculum out of the need to teach his own six children after the tragic death of his wife at an early age, which left him a single parent.
posted by troutfishing at 6:46 AM on November 25, 2003

"Can any encyclopedia be considered useful without entries for Nazi, computer, or Apollo? That's a real conundrum.......Then again, can a constitution that defines African-Americans as 2/3 of a human be considered useful?" - Dhartung, well put. It depends on what you are using it for, of course. Which is why I brought up Mr. Robinson's curriculum - would you use the 1911 Britinnica as your primary textual source material from which to teach your children about the world?
posted by troutfishing at 6:51 AM on November 25, 2003

why would anyone consult a 1911 encyclopedia for factual information?

Jesus Christ. Are you under the impression that "factual information" just accumulates, like dust in an empty room, so later reference works simply have more of it? Or are you under the impression that we have now reached the summa of human understanding, seeing the mistakes of the past without making any of our own? With regard to the first point, this may be news to you, but as history accumulates, reference works jettison a lot of the older stuff to make room for the new, just as each new edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary gets rid of a bunch of words that were in the last one. The 11th edition is a far better source for, say, Austro-Hungarian politics or the 19th-century history of the Arabian peninsula than more recent encyclopedias (I've used it for both). The entry on Anti-Semitism is still an excellent reference for the sudden upwelling of that particular ancient nastiness in the late 19th century. If all you're interested in is how it deals with hot-button topics like the description of people of African descent, you really aren't interested in encyclopedias or history, you just want to feel smug about your superior understanding.

Which brings me to the second point. Trust me, in a hundred years people will feel the same way about today's reference works; in fact, they'll look at the MeFi archives and say we were all a bunch of fuckwits for opinions we don't even realize we have because we take them for granted. So another good reason for reading old encyclopedias, even the entries that are now superseded or (horror!) "offensive," is to acquire some much-needed perspective and humility. You're no better than they—it's just that you can see the mote in their eye but not the beam in your own.
posted by languagehat at 8:28 AM on November 25, 2003

languagehat - One human example of this is Dorothy Sanger : tireless champion for contraceptive access for women and also a vocal advocate for the new pseudoscience on Eugenics which was then coming into vogue. Her fierce crusade for contraception still seems heroic, while her Eugenicist beliefs haven't weathered as well. But Eugenic beliefs were considered very "modern", progressive ones to hold at the time, and it was not until the world learned the full horrors of the Holocaust that Eugenics fell into deep disrepute. Sanger held to her Eugenicist beliefs to her dying day though, and so began to be perceived as a bit of an embarrassment and a crank in her later years.

Woody Allen put it differently in Sleeper - the people of the future tell the thawed-out from cryogenic freezing Allen ( as they hand him a cheeseburger or some such fatty food that appalls his New York 1970 era health food store sensibilities ) - "Don't you understand the health benefits of Deep Fat?"

But you know all this already, so I think I'll just find a 2X4 with which to whack myself in the head a bit - to see if I can beat my impulse to lecture out of my skull.
posted by troutfishing at 11:14 AM on November 25, 2003

Can I borrow the 2X4 after you're done with it? I need to whack the same impulse out of myself.

Excellent example, by the way. Shows how bad an idea it is to read about the past in anything but sanitized form; it can make your head hurt and get you all confused.
posted by languagehat at 12:21 PM on November 25, 2003

Don't you mean Margaret Sanger??
posted by dgaicun at 12:42 PM on November 25, 2003

Great links.
posted by inksyndicate at 7:57 PM on November 25, 2003

dgaicun - yup. oops.
posted by troutfishing at 9:27 PM on November 25, 2003

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