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Peabody professor talks historic how-to manuals

October 15, 2015

By AUSTIN HOPKINS For The News-Letter

In an interactive lecture titled “Ask the Past: Learning from the George Peabody Library,” Elizabeth Archibald, who currently teaches humanities courses at the Peabody Institute, analyzed historic how-to manuals. The event, attended by approximately ten students, was held in the Brody Learning Commons’s Macksey Seminar room and allowed for an intimate demonstration.

Archibald allowed the students to examine primary source material from the Peabody Library’s special collections. This included a 1789 manual titled The Art of Swimming, which included illustrations of poses and written instructions from source material that even founding father Benjamin Franklin himself followed.

She also passed around The Inn-Play, a manual on wresting from the 1800s which included the owner’s authentic comments in the margins. Finally students observed the The Jewel House of Art and Nature, an early modern instruction book on just about any topic imaginable.

Archibald’s academic work also has an online following as she currently runs her own blog where she catalogs much of the advice that she has come across in her research.

It turns out that this ancient advice ranges from strikingly relevant to strikingly terrible. Of course there is also some in between, like the wacky suggestion to rub your cat’s nose and legs with butter to prevent it from leaving the house.

Apparently this particular piece of advice was quite controversial with her blog readers, with some swearing by it and others claiming that it has no basis in reality.

Although many of the tips, techniques and recipes have been tested by curious readers, it is tough to tell how much of the advice was meant to be useful and how much was meant to be entertaining. In that regard, these how-to manuals function almost as pre-modern versions of Internet “life hacks,” as helpful and sometimes funny tips that present everyday shortcuts aimed at making life easier.

In addition to the lecture, Archibald presented her latest book Ask the Past: Pertinent and Impertinent Advice from Yesteryear, which contains some of the best excerpts from a wide range of historic how-to guides. Each page contains a statement of the topic (the problem that the advice will solve), the date, the piece of advice (quoted directly from the source) and an often sarcastic modern rephrasing of that advice.

Many of the entries also include images taken from the source material. Archibald’s same wit from her presentation is present in the book in both the selection of advice and especially the modern rephrasing. The book is organized neither linearly nor chronologically.

This non-organizational structure is similar to that employed by the source materials and makes it rather difficult to find a specific entry, but I doubt anyone wants to use this book to search for practical advice.

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