Last summer at a yard sale, the corner of an old book caught my eye. Old books always do. To me, there are few things that tell more about a time than the facts and ideas that people saw fit put in print. Buildings, maybe, as they’re even more lasting. I dug the little volume out from under a bunch of plastic robots, saw 1907 on the cover, and bought it right away, but I didn’t actually look at until weeks later—the short Canadian summer is for gardening, not browsing century-old reference books.
But when the weather started closing in toward autumn, the little book became a fascinating time capsule. Fact #1: They liked long titles that told you exactly what to expect: 1907 C. Regenhardt International Guide for Merchants, Manufacturers, & Exporters: A Directory of the best accredited and most reliable firms of Banks, Bankers, Commission and Forwarding Agents, Lawyers, Notaries, Solicitors and all the Consultants of the Globe, Containing also many commercial Statistics and indicating for each place of any importance a trustworthy firm that gives direct information.
Yes. That is all on the title page.
This book has all kinds of businesses and brand names, also currency equivalents for European and US money, the various calendars (European, Greek/Russian, Jewish, and Muslim) various advertisements (it has a little pencil loop and an accordian-fold pocket on the back cover, that still has a bookmark-size slip advertises “CP Goerz prismatic binoculars, (theatre and miltary styles”).
My favorite ads so far are for the “Ideal” type-bar typewriter–it “causes sensation!” (Especially, I guess, if you get your finger caught in the type-bar…) and the Frister & Rossmann Schnellschreibmaschine (quick-writing machine, sort of a high-rise typewriter.) The technology really has evolved in the last 102 years. I look at these ads sitting here beside my notebook computer, and the mind boggles. The F&R ad didn’t photograph well, but type-writing machines were a hot item–Blickensderfer has one, too:
The foreign currency exchange table is wonderful. One silver piaster in Arabia was worth 3 marks, 52 pfennigs, or 89 cents American, or 3 shillings sixpence. One gold Balboa in Panama was worth 4 shillings, 2.5 cents, or $1 American, or 4 marks, 19 pfennigs. In Siam—shades of Anna and the King–1 tikal was worth 60 cents, or 2 shillings sixpence.
Worried about European taxes on your merchandise? The rates are listed for all bills of exchange, for dozens of countries. You can check the size of your market—for instance, Hungary’s population is listed at 19,254,559, with an area of 125,000 square miles. The minutiae are amazing.
And it’s a business directory, so of course it took advertising. Got a cold? Try the Bath of Ems, Germany, best cure of catarrhs of the Respiratory organs, the digistive (sic) organs, the Female organs, Urinary Systems, & Rheumatism, Gout, Asthma. Season from 1st May to 15th October.. Drinking & Baths Cure, Inhalation, Pneumatic Chambers, &c. Get on the road without a horse or carriage with a Brennabor bicycle, Germany’s best, from the Brennabor Works in Brandenburg, Berlin, or Hamburg. Oldest and largest cycle works of the Continent! Need Licht? You can find the most up-to-date modern gaslight systems installed by Louis Runge, whose business may be found on Landsbergerstrasse in Berlin.
The typefaces are old-fashioned, perfectly suited to the antique illustrations—which were up-to-the-minute modern at the time. Even the owner’s name, in old browned-out ink, is in an elegant European script… Thank you, EJ Beammon. He must have dealt with Germany quite a bit–the book falls open to those pages, and some are dog-eared. Not surprising–this area was settled by German farmers; many old people still speak it as their preferred language, and until WWI the town was Berlin, Ontario. There’s only one disappointment – Mr. Beammon never used the blank memo pages at the end of the book, so his name is all the record he left of his activities in 1907.
I wish I’d had this when writing Gentleman’s Gentleman–lots of hotels all over the world, and unquestionable authenticity. And.. yep, the Neil House Hotel in Columbus, Ohio is listed here. I was there once, back in the 80’s, for a sci-fi convention. The Neil is gone now, torn down a couple of years later. In 1907 it was ritzy enough to get a listing in this book.
It’s strange and wonderful to hold, in my own hands, a book that might have belonged to my Gents characters. It would be just the thing for a traveler who might want to find a bank or an embassy in a hurry. The only risk, I think, would be allowing my enthusiasm to create an info-dump. Sherlock Holmes might ask Watson to check the train schedule in his Baedeker, but he’d hardly want to know what patent nostrums were advertised in the back pages.
I’ve always loved historical fiction, but in school history was one of the most deadly boring subjects. I think that was mainly due to how it was taught, all memorization of dates and battles, nothing about how people actually lived. It’s a shame that so little has been done to bring the past alive, to make things real to students. I’m probably excessively optimistic, but I have to hope that if people realized how many of the stupid mistakes we see today have been repeated over and over, there might be a chance of avoiding a few of them.
Or maybe not… still, I’m staying on the lookout for tattered old books—there are others I’ve snagged at library sales—and having looked at Regenhardt again I may have to nudge Lord Robert and Jack Darling to get into trouble so I can use some of these interesting gadgets.
If you’re working on something that needs info I may have here, feel free to drop me an email!