Reference Book Duos

The following article is from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Attack of the Factoids.

(Image credit: Flickr user Kennedy Library)

You've heard about these reference books, and probably have used some of them. Who are the people behind them, and how did the references come about? We'll find out today, courtesy of the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Attack of the Factoids.


Significance: From the early 1900s until the 1980s, Funk & Wagnalls published reference books: dictionaries and a series of encyclopedias. The encyclopedias, in particular, found their way into millions of American homes because of the way they were marketed: the 29 volumes were sold one volume per week in supermarkets, meaning if you bought the book with aardvarks on January 1, you wouldn’t learn about zygotes until the middle of July. Consumers liked Funk & Wagnalls because the arrangement spread the cost of a complete encyclopedia set over 29 weeks; supermarkets liked them because consumers were motivated to come back to the same store for seven months so they wouldn’t miss any volumes.

Who Were They? In 1876 a Lutheran minister named Isaac Kaufmann Funk started a company that would publish works that reflected his interest in religion, psychic phenomena, and temperance. In 1877 Funk took on clergyman Adam Willis Wagnalls as a partner, and they began publishing reference works, starting with a dictionary in 1893. The first Funk & Wagnalls Standard Encyclopedia came out in 1912, the same year that Funk died.

(Image credit: Flickr user Michael Coghlan)

What Happened Next? It wasn’t until 1953, after Funk’s son Wilfred sold the company to Unicorn Publishing, that its unique supermarket marketing strategy emerged. Using the “loss leader” sales technique —selling something for a loss and making the money back when consumers buy more to complete a set— Unicorn sold the first volume for just 99¢ and then raised the price to $2.99 for subsequent volumes. (That’s about $25 each today.) A full set of encyclopedias eventually cost $84.71 (about $712 today). Although many people abandoned their sets before reaching the last volume (some after that first cheap book), many parents considered the price affordable and worthwhile when it was spread over seven months.

Fun Footnote: When Microsoft tried to license content from well-known encyclopedias for its electronic Encarta Encyclopedia, it was repeatedly rebuffed, so the company used Funk & Wagnalls content until it could create its own.


Significance: During the early 1800s, Connecticut-born Noah Webster created the 70,000-word An American Dictionary of the English Language, the first comprehensive dictionary of American English. After Webster’s death, George Merriam bought the rights to republish and adapt the dictionary.

Who Was Webster? Decades after his schooling began at age six in 1764, Noah Webster despised his teachers because they concentrated on teaching religion above everything else. While at Yale, the American Revolution broke out, and Webster was an ardent supporter. After college, he taught school, creating a successful series of textbooks and spellers designed to push the curriculum toward a more rigorous, secular approach and away from cultural dependency on England. A believer in simplifying spelling, he removed the u’s from the British spellings of words like “colour” and “humour,” and decided that the newly established United States needed a dictionary that reflected its use of the language and rich influx of words adopted from immigrants, enslaved Africans, and Native Americans. His textbook income allowed him to publish the first truly American dictionary in 1806, followed by two decades of intensive labor on the comprehensive version, during which he learned 26 languages in order to better track down the origins of individual words. Released in 1828 when Webster was 70, An American Dictionary of the English Language contained 70,000 words, of which 12,000 had never appeared in a dictionary before. He revised and expanded the dictionary, adding another 5,000 words for an 1841 reissue that was published two years before his death at 84 years.

What Happened Next? As far as we know, Noah Webster never met George Merriam. When Merriam bought the rights to reprint and revise Webster’s dictionary, he also inherited a massive headache. For one thing, Webster’s official version of his dictionary, priced at a budget-breaking $20 (about $450 today), had sold fewer than 2,500 copies. American copyright law was weak at the time, and other publishers had reprinted Webster’s work word-for-word in cheaper and more popular editions. Noah Webster had successfully leaned on government officials to reform the copyright laws in 1831, but it was too late to do much good. In fact, court cases in the early 20th century established that “Webster’s Dictionary” had become a generic term and could be used by any publisher. So Merriam decided the best way to compete was to go the infringers one better: print cheaper dictionaries in large quantities, cutting the cost below that of competitors. The first edition of Merriam-Webster’s came out in 1847 with a $6 price tag (about $150 today)— still pricey, but within the budget of many libraries, schools, and businesses. In fact, the Massachusetts government ordered one for each school in the state, and New York ordered 10,000 copies.

Fun Footnote: Poet Emily Dickinson was the proud owner of an original Webster’s Dictionary. For many years, it was, in her own words, her “only companion.” Dickinson scholars consider many of her poems to be “definition poems” that borrowed heavily from the dictionary for inspiration.


Significance: In 2011 Time magazine called The Elements of Style (also called Strunk & White) one of the best and most influential nonfiction books since the 1920s. It boils down the demands of good writing to a succinct 105 pages, with such pithy advice as “Omit needless words!”; “Do not break sentences in two”; and “Use the active voice.” In its first year, Elements sold two million copies. By its 40th anniversary in 1999, it had sold 10 million, and the slender volume is still required reading in many writing classes.

Who Were They? As with Merriam and Webster, William Strunk Jr. (1869– 1946) and E. B. White (1899–1985) were collaborators who didn’t actually work together, with White starting his work on the project long after Strunk had died. The two did know each other, though. Strunk was an English professor at Cornell University, and White took his writing course in 1919. White later became famous as a contributor to the New Yorker magazine and the author of the children’s books Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. In 1957 he wrote a piece for the New Yorker about his writing professor’s lasting influence on him, particularly a pamphlet Strunk had written that White characterized as an attempt to “cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin.”

What Happened Next? When White’s editors at Macmillan read his praise of Strunk and the book, they asked White to update his professor’s tome for publication. In an ironic twist, one of the things they asked was that White make it less succinct, since it was awfully hard to get a good price for a pamphlet of 12 pieces of paper folded in half and stapled in the middle. White more than doubled the book’s bulk, but it remained short. And perhaps its length was the key to its success: Unlike most reference books, The Elements of Style was short and easy enough to read in one sitting and then put on a nearby shelf for future reference. English teachers loved it, and made it a must-have item for aspiring writers.

Fun Footnote: Strunk, an expert in classical literature, was hired as a literary consultant for MGM’s 1936 production of Romeo and Juliet, directed by George Cukor and starring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard. Before he even arrived, though, the scriptwriters unwittingly took Strunk’s succinct writing philosophy to heart and cut out about half of Shakespeare’s script.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Attack of the Factoids. Weighing in at over 400 pages, it's a fact-a-palooza of obscure information.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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