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Democratising knowledge and visualising progress: illustrations from Chambers's Encyclopaedia, 1859-1892

Roberto, R. (2019) Democratising knowledge and visualising progress: illustrations from Chambers's Encyclopaedia, 1859-1892. PhD thesis, University of Reading

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To link to this item DOI: 10.48683/1926.00085483


In the 19th century, the Scottish firm of W. & R. Chambers transformed the publishing model of encyclopaedias from a book aimed at the elite to a tool for mass education. This multidisciplinary study examines the design of the first two editions of Chambers's Encyclopaedia, focusing on their illustrations and the woodblocks used to print them. The business history of the Chambers firm, operating between the 1850s and 1890s, has not been researched before, nor has Chambers's relationship with a transatlantic partner, J.B. Lippincott of Philadelphia, been studied in-depth. Together, both firms produced Cham­bers's Encyclopaedia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge far the People (1859-1868) and Chambers's Encyclopaedia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge, New Edition (1888-1892). This thesis draws on research methods that include deep reading of printing artefacts and publisher archives, visual content analysis of 7322 images in Chambers's Encyclopaedia, and secondary sources such as historic library catalogue records and historical newspaper articles. Data on other illustrations was compiled from the Penny Cyclopaedia (1833-1843) and the English Cyclopaedia (1854-1862), the eighth (1853-1860) and ninth (1875-1889) editions of Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Johnson's Universal Cyclopaedia (1876). Additionally, to ascertain the publisher's marketing claims of high-quality authoritative content, the accuracy of illustrations and the images' usefulness in instructing non-experts was tested by a structured image analysis survey designed by the author, that gathered qualitative information through a selection of the most frequently illustrated subjects. The thesis is organised into Content, Production, and Reception sections, and the study's main findings are: After building a reliable reputation as a publisher of educational works, Chambers embarked on a well-lauded encyclopaedia project. Chambers chose wood-engraved illustrations to communicate complex information, because wood­engravings appealed to mass audiences and the technology behind them was cost-efficient compared with other printing methods of the time. Subject trends and trends in illustra­tion styles evolved through the decades from the 1850s to the 1890s, as did the styles of graphics for displaying information. A formal legal contract was drawn so that both Lip­pincott and Chambers could claim relevant copyright in their respective countries. Finally, evidence is presented that indicates where hundreds of Chambers images were reused in other subsequent British and American publications.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Thesis Supervisor:Banham, R.
Thesis/Report Department:School of Arts and Communication Design
Identification Number/DOI:
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Arts and Communication Design > Typography & Graphic Communication
ID Code:85483
Date on Title Page:2018


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