Blast from the past: Encyclopedia Britannica

Remember when it was aspirational to own a set of chunky, multi-volumne Encyclopedia Britannicas? HELEN MCGURK has the facts

By Helen McGurk
Friday, 10th June 2022, 6:04 pm
Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. shows volumes of the company's encyclopedia. Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. on Tuesday, March 13, 2012 said that it will stop publishing print editions of its flagship encyclopedia for the first time since the sets were originally published more than 200 years ago. (AP Photo/Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc.)
Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. shows volumes of the company's encyclopedia. Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. on Tuesday, March 13, 2012 said that it will stop publishing print editions of its flagship encyclopedia for the first time since the sets were originally published more than 200 years ago. (AP Photo/Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc.)

Can you imagine anyone spending hundreds of pounds on more than 30 leather-bound reference books that no one will ever read? Well, lots of us did.

In days gone by parents scrimped and saved to buy an Encyclopedia Britannica set for their children, who would invariably flick through them once, and never look at them again.

At least they looked nice: heavy black books with glossy gold lettering, arranged in alphabetical order, that usually occupied their own special bookcase. They were held in semi-reverance. Expensive, essential books containing all the knowledge of the world

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Many will recall the slick, smooth pattered salesmen who flogged the Encyclopedia Britannicas door-to-door, charming mums and dads into buying the massive compendium which would become nothing more than expensive ornamentation.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica was first published in Edinburgh in 1768 and had a distinguished roll-call of contributors, from Albert Einstein to Marie Curie. But, the internet heralded the demise of the print edition, so that now it is only available online.

Many of us may still have a collection in our attics, literary antique, relics of the good old days, when books were books, lovingly printed and bound, when you could read 500 pages on topics as photosynthesis or combustion.

Britannicas were dull but dependable. They were also good for decorating shelves and insulating walls.