The works of the Beard family
October 29, 2008 7:42 PM   Subscribe

Let boys make their own kites and bows and arrows; they will find a double pleasure in them, and value them accordingly, to say nothing of the education involved in the successful construction of their home-made playthings. -- The American Boy's Handy Book
In the late 19th- and early 20th-century, the Beard family—Daniel Carter, Lina, and Adelia Belle—wrote a number of books on outdoor activities, woodcraft, and other recreational activities for boys and girls. Many of these books are in the public domain now: (The American Boy's Handy Book, The Field and Forest Handy Book, The Outdoor Handy Book, The Jack of All Trades, The American Girl's Handy Book, On the Trail: An Outdoor Book for Girls). Others, such as Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties and Boat-Building and Boating, are excerpted online. Some highlights include throwing tomahawks, making candy, and building tree houses, sleds, catapults, and rafts.

Daniel Carter Beard went on to found the Sons of Daniel Boone, one of the precursors to the Boy Scouts; Lina and Adelia Belle founded the Girl Pioneers of America, which became the Campfire Girls.
posted by Upton O'Good (39 comments total) 108 users marked this as a favorite
I have checked precisely two links of this so far, and I am not just favoriting it with my mouse, I am favoriting it with my very soul.

Excellent post.
posted by middleclasstool at 8:08 PM on October 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

I used to have a book, from what I'd guess was the 1950's, which detailed making all kinds of homemade toys. Some were "easy" tree forts and such. Some required a wood shop. Some required motors and electronics for making planes, trains and cars. It was old, falling apart, and awesome. It's probably long gone, but I've thought about it often. Seriously, pretty much all progress in this world is owed to tinkerers and fiddling around.
posted by wobh at 8:15 PM on October 29, 2008

From the raft link:

First we will select two pine logs of equal length, and, while the water is heating for our coffee we will sharpen the butt or larger end of the logs on one side with the axe, making a "chisel edge," as shown in Fig. 171. This gives us an appetite for breakfast and makes the big fish in the lake, as they jump above the water, cast anxious looks toward our camp.

Yes. Oh my this is good.
posted by middleclasstool at 8:16 PM on October 29, 2008

GREAT post. Many of these books are daily bread and butter as reference in history museum programs - awesome stuff. Not only that - they are certainly among the original inspirations for the Dangerous Book for Boys and Daring Book for Girls genre that still lives today.
posted by Miko at 8:24 PM on October 29, 2008

I used to own a couple of these Daniel Beard books. They are, if I can become ten again, TOTALLY FRICKING AWESOME. They told you how to build traps to catch animals, and teach a dog to sneeze, and build kites with blades on them so you could have BATTLING KITE FIGHTS!!!

Awesome post.
posted by Bookhouse at 8:29 PM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yep. I had a few of these bad boys. This is what real childhood is all about. Smell the adventure. Anything called a 'fire kite' can't be all bad. And it can't be remotely safe, either.
posted by LucretiusJones at 8:32 PM on October 29, 2008

Also by Beard but not mentioned in the post: The American boys' handybook of camp-lore and woodcraft
posted by twoleftfeet at 8:43 PM on October 29, 2008

I remember a bunch of indian craft and lore books that I was into as a kid. I still have my Dad's set of "The Book of Knowledge". Great post! Y'know, I haven't seen a spadefoot toad in 35 years. What a shame.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:51 PM on October 29, 2008

I had the American Boy's Handy Book. I shudder to think of who I might have become without it. Probably someone who doesn't know how to make a decent atlatl. Yikes.
posted by Freen at 8:51 PM on October 29, 2008

Also: Little Folks' Handy Book
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:03 PM on October 29, 2008

I used to love these kinds of reads as a child. Living in suburbia Vancouver, BC ~ 1980/90s made a lot of what I had read undoable. I even lived a block away from unharvested forest, albeit with a lot of Provincial park trails and - further up - mountainsides completely derided of old growth forest. For that matter, most of the "boy's life" stuff was written for the Prairies/Midwest rather than the Pacific Northwest despite the Haida stuff available.

Phone phreaking and kitchen-chemical synthesized explosives on the other hand...

I wonder what went wrong - was it the "safety first," or the "no tolerance" brainfart, or urbanization that made us, as a generation, soft and sheepish?

In college (private liberal arts), in the Midwest USA, I met a few more people who could be self sufficient from the land, but most of the people I knew were from big cities. Even then a lot of people who I knew who came from smaller places couldn't survive off the land even if they were forced to.

If there *was* an unjust martial law called, what percentage of the populace would have the *capability* of resisting?
posted by porpoise at 9:16 PM on October 29, 2008

what percentage of the populace would have the *capability* of resisting?

I showed a friend of mine, a history professor, one of those 1930s "Science Experiments for Boys" books. After we had a good hoot, he quite seriously said: "You know, this is what the Greatest Generation was made of. They read about how to build a radio, and they went out, got the materials, and did it. They read about how to raise rabbits for fun and profit to help feed your family, and they did it. They read about how to build a solar water collector, or make their own mild explosives, or build a pea-shelling machine, and they went on down to the hardware store and druggist and asked for potassium sulfate and made iron filings and distilled wood alcohol and just freaking figured out how to DO everything. We have lost something because we don't indulge in this simple, shared, can-do anymore. And when it came time to multiply our production and fight a global war against genocide, they said sure - if I can build my own power-generating windmill out of engine scraps and use it to freeze ice cream for the 4-H fair, I can do this."

And I totally agreed. I used to read those things and go "forget about it - where am I going to get magnesium strips?" where my own father would happily go exploring about and find out, and end up with his own home-built photobooth.

Time for a revival of this sort of risk-taking DIY,
posted by Miko at 9:23 PM on October 29, 2008 [6 favorites]

A couple of my best friends in high school and myself, back in the eighties (mutual friends with our own dammitjim who I also went to high school with--and rediscovered here) stumbled upon a great series of volumes in our public library: The Chemical Formulary by H. Bennett. We made all sorts of stuff-- but mostly pyrotechnics.

What we couldn't get from a drugstore we were able to find as chemistry kit refills at local toy stores. Unfortunately, these things are very hard to find off the shelf now. Potassium Nitrate, Magnesium ribbon (which we used to load into each others cigarettes for a laugh and a bout of temporary blindness) even HCL (which we would dissolve the Mg into to collect the ever-fun Hydrogen gas). It even supplied the recipe for a detergent-based napalm.

It seems that modern kid chemistry kits rarely get beyond "baking soda-and-vinegar-volcanoes" and the oh-so-fun "watch-food-coloring-dissolve-in-water."
posted by sourwookie at 9:33 PM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Heh Miko:

Funny you would bring up Magnesium strips while I was collecting links for my comment.
posted by sourwookie at 9:34 PM on October 29, 2008

Now that I think of it, the out of print Chemical Formulary probably deserves its own post.
posted by sourwookie at 9:36 PM on October 29, 2008

Heh. The Greatest Generation could also get chemistry sets with actual chemicals in it, were allowed to go out and play with friends unsupervised, and if they got lost, hurt, or frightened by something, nobody got sued, arrested, or designated a terrorist.

They also didn't have the distractions of tv, videogames, or the Internet.
posted by Blackanvil at 9:40 PM on October 29, 2008

I've been thinking about, in particular, the American Boy's Handy Book a lot lately, which I checked out of my small Midwestern home town's public library many times as a boy. Now I have a 4-year-old boy of my own, and find myself pondering when he should receive his first pocket knife (and dwelling ruefully on the fact that I will probably have to add "avoiding the consequences of zero tolerance policies" to my knife safety instructions).

Having observed some of the activities of the little one with his blunt scissors I think he may yet require a year or two. Good memories from this post.
posted by nanojath at 9:59 PM on October 29, 2008

Remember: Safety Third.
posted by Freen at 10:07 PM on October 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

If it is desired to cut off the limb of a tree, do not disfigure the tree by tearing the bark down; trees are becoming too scarce for us to injure them unnecessarily;

To kids. A century ago. Wow.

BTW: props to Robert Baden Powell--though I have no clue what Boy Scouts are like today.
posted by sourwookie at 10:35 PM on October 29, 2008

Oh how I long for a kite. With frikkin' KNIVES on the twine, so that I may destroy the kites of my enemies. Yes.
posted by Justinian at 11:27 PM on October 29, 2008

A scouting medal of the Greatest Generation.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 11:41 PM on October 29, 2008

though I have no clue what Boy Scouts are like today

I'd love to see our local Boy Scout troop teach their kids this stuff (I'd also like our local Boy Scout troop to lose the crap about atheists and gays, but that's another long rant). I enrolled my son in Scouts and was sorely dissapointed. Maybe our former troop just sucked big time but the primary activity was coloring worksheets that the den mother downloaded off the web. We went on exactly one outdoor activity in 2 years, a hike on a trail so tame that I walk it half-asleep every morning with my dog. There was no camping. There was no building of fires or forts nor sharpening of sticks or knives nor reading of compasses.

My son didn't learn any practical skills at all. I pulled him out of the troop after discovering the upcoming week's big planned activity was making tamborines out of paper plates and uncooked macaroni.

Compared to my 86 year old Dad's fond memories of scouting, our experience was a huge letdown.
posted by jamaro at 11:42 PM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh man. I remember reading that book when I was nine. I had five miles of woods out back of my house growing up and while most of it didn't belong to my parents, it didn't stop me from going out with my hatchet and saw (yes, my dad bought them for me when I was nine) and building lots of shelters and even a log cabin.

Even back then, I found it interesting how much the world has changed since the book was written: We don't have barrel staves kicking around to make bows out of, and nobody has gas lights to fill balloons or bubbles with. Hell, most American kids probably don't even have woods out back of their houses.

Damn, nobody lets kids do shit anymore. Just imagine what a book like that written for today would be like.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:10 AM on October 30, 2008

I second sourwookie's recommendation of The Chemical Formulary...if I recall correctly (my friends & I came across it in the public library in the late 1970's), it was an annual (?) reference work that seemed to be oriented towards industry. Instructions on how to make flares, fireworks, mercuric fulminate (used in blasting caps), explosives for excavation...

And now that I'm in reminiscing mode, I also remember the hobby shops that had the Perfect Brand chemical displays in the back, with the pictures of atoms! And scientists! With test tubes! And beakers!

Back to the more woodscrafty thing, I've still got my well-worn copy of The Golden Book of Crafts & Hobbies (W Ben Hunt)...I didn't build a catamaran (p 60), or burn out tent caterpillars (p 29), but I did take his advice in displaying minerals & shells (p. 10).

Some assorted links:

Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum & Collections - Chemistry Sets:

Endangered Species - The Chemistry Set
posted by foonly at 2:41 AM on October 30, 2008

I'd love to see our local Boy Scout troop teach their kids this stuff (I'd also like our local Boy Scout troop to lose the crap about atheists and gays, but that's another long rant). I enrolled my son in Scouts and was sorely dissapointed. Maybe our former troop just sucked big time but the primary activity was coloring worksheets that the den mother downloaded off the web. We went on exactly one outdoor activity in 2 years, a hike on a trail so tame that I walk it half-asleep every morning with my dog. There was no camping. There was no building of fires or forts nor sharpening of sticks or knives nor reading of compasses.

To be fair, Cub Scouts (which it sounds like if your son had a den mother) is mostly about games and crafts and that sort of thing whereas actual Boy Scouting does have plenty of outdoor stuff and such. There's some reason for it, but I think it's mostly due to age.

Anyways, on the American Boy's Handy Book, I can say that there's a lot I never learned in Boy Scouts (like how to build a boat or build a war kite). Wish I knew about this back then.
posted by champthom at 3:13 AM on October 30, 2008

Can I ask a stupid question?

If these books are in the public domain and have been scanned by Google, how come I can't figure out how to read through them? I can search but it will give me literally the sentence or two that a particular word appears in. I tried looking on, but there's a fraction of them, and no illustrations.

What gives? Am I missing something?
posted by Happy Dave at 4:19 AM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ah, figured it out - I think it's because I have a UK IP address.

posted by Happy Dave at 4:27 AM on October 30, 2008

Happy Dave writes "What gives? Am I missing something?"

People either haven't scanned them in or don't want to provide hosting for them.
posted by Mitheral at 4:27 AM on October 30, 2008

There's some reason for it, but I think it's mostly due to age.

Little kids can learn and do all kinds of things related to nature and the outdoors. I'd share the disappointment over the indoor coloring. A wasted opportunity.
posted by Miko at 5:07 AM on October 30, 2008

I grew up with a reprint of the Girl's Handy Book. When I was 12, I managed a great Maypole from the book for a school thing. But I was always disappointed I never could get enough friends together for a mid-winter Carnival, with booths and such.

Of course, there's always this winter.
posted by cobaltnine at 6:12 AM on October 30, 2008

Lee Valley has some reprints, such as the series of Boy Mechanic (grrlz, please ignore the title and dive in, too). They have other similar reprints as well.

When I was a kid I ate up books like these. I didn't get to build 90% of the stuff, but did it ever inspire the ideas. I was fortunate to grow up in an area close to some forested land, and we would build a "fort" or two every summer.

The books that most appealed to me were the old 1920s and 30s electrical experiment books, and I worked through a succession of crystal radios and telegraphs and such. One life-altering Christmas gift was an electronics lab, which ultimately led to a career.

The independent, curious, experimental child still exists, and hopefully there's a new generation of DIYers coming up. Check out MAKE magazine.

Ironically, a few years of economic slowdown would probably make us take more pride in becoming self-sufficient and handy again.
posted by Artful Codger at 7:46 AM on October 30, 2008

I have copies of both of these, somewhere. The Boys book definitely had more fun things, although many of the Girls' activities included things like "melt lead" or "obtain lye" or "find a sharp awl" which were kind of alarming. Ah, the 19th century!

Nowadays, Dangerous/Daring nonsense aside, there's no reason to gender segregate all the fun, is there? I was pretty handy with my Girl Scout knife, and quit my troop when we were assigned )(*&*%*% embroidery...I wanted to go hiking and chop down trees, dangit.
posted by emjaybee at 7:48 AM on October 30, 2008

Google Books and Gutenberg are great and all, but they are second rate compared to the quality of scans on Internet Archive. I'm fairly certain most of these books are on Internet Archive.
posted by stbalbach at 8:05 AM on October 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've a suggestion for the girl who sees herself as a bit too "hip" or "urban" for the Beard books, this may be a fun choice if you spot a copy anywhere (it's out of print). It's a little skimpy on "how to build a raft" or "how to blaze a trail" kind of things and instead tackles things like "how to start your own rock band" or "how to start a 'zine".

I actually have a copy and plan on also getting a copy of the Daring Book for Girls, and I've even seen a couple places sell recreations of the Handy Books that I'll pick up too. I just became an aunt -- my niece turned one month old last week -- and I fully intend to be that one aunt that encourages her to daring stunts and lets her get away with outbreaks of mayhem.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:48 AM on October 30, 2008

Great post! I used these books 50 years ago to create all kinds of cool amusements. I pity today's kids who can't imagine having fun with something that isn't prepackaged, made of brightly colored plastic, or complete with video screen.
As someone above said, I'd hate to think who'd I'd have become without them.
posted by ahimsakid at 8:55 AM on October 30, 2008

This post makes me very very happy. Thank you.
posted by Stewriffic at 9:36 AM on October 30, 2008

Apropos Miko's comment:

I have a homebuilt coffee roaster. It is what you might call industrial bricolage - I have salvaged a breadmaker (heatproof bowl + rotating vane), and I heat the beans with a paint-stripping heat gun (portable 500C air) mounted on a drill stand, monitored with a cheap multimeter and a temperature probe. It produces very superior coffee beans.

This is not my idea. There are plenty of these things out there described on the web in loving detail by their builders, and I just copied them, tweaking as appropriate to my materials and circumstances.

But anyway, when I tell people about this, a large majority respond as though I were crazy. The notion of using devices for things other than their ostensible purpose freaks them out. The notion of building something yourself rather than buying a manufactured appliance freaks them out. There must be something wrong with it.

I did grow up with a large backyard, on the fringe of the suburbs. My dad had a large garage filled with tools and he brewed his own beer and kept bees and built a lot of our furniture. I build radios from components with the aid of library books, and my parents encouraged all this sort of construction, and tolerated long afternoon absences when I roamed creeks and gullies with my mates.

I would love to read a scholarly account of how this strain in Anglo culture (I grew up and still live in New Zealand) was eliminated.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:47 PM on October 30, 2008

i_am_joe's_spleen, you can take Tom Wait's account, if not a scholarly one.
What's he building in there?
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:04 PM on October 30, 2008

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