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8 How-To Books From 100 Years Ago That Are Still Useful

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Nineteenth and early 20th century authors knew a thing or two about baby-naming, football-watching, drink-making, and more.

1. How to Name a Baby without Handicapping It for Life, by Alexander McQueen

We're living in an age in which any noun, president's last name, or word ending in –"dyn" can be hung round a child's neck for the rest of his or her life. However, this is not the first time in history there has been a naming free-for-all. This book, written in 1922, lays out "The Seven Rules of Naming." Some of them fly in the face of modern convention (such as insisting that a name should be pronounceable and indicate gender clearly), but maybe that's a good thing. Names warned against include Chateau Thierry, Centennia, Liberty Bond, and Fritz De LaRue. Approved names include Cuthbert, Theophilus, Meta (for a girl only!), and Wertha.

2. The Perfect Course of Instruction in Hypnotism, Mesmerism, Clairvoyance, Suggestive Therapeutics, and the Sleep Cure: Giving Best Methods of Hypnotizing by Masters of the Science, by The Psychic Research Company

This manual covers just about every use of your latent clairvoyant forces and extrasensory abilities you can conjure. Whether you want to learn hypnotism to use in your dental practice (though you shouldn't call it "hypnotism"; your patients might think you're a quack) or simply render a neighbor catatonic with your mind, this book tells you how to do it. And there is no doubt that the information written here, in 1901, is just as accurate today as it ever was.

3. How to Mix Drinks, by Jerry Thomas

How often do you come across a mixology book that will tell you how to ferment your own old-school absinthe? (The secret is in how long you macerate the wormwood!) How to Mix Drinks is from 1862 and offers 600 drink recipes, most of which you've never heard of, and a few of which are illegal in this country. But really, you know you don't want to let your youth slip by without ever trying a Raspberry Shrub, a Yard of Flannel, or a Philadelphia Fish-House Punch.

4. How to Make a Shoe, by Jno. P. Headley

It isn't just that this 1882 book aims to teach that seldom-tackled craft of making your own shoes. This book does it entirely in rhyme. One long wonderful 119-page, shoe-cobbling poem. Observe: Nails are driven, both iron and steel / Around the top, in mind / And on the outside some prefer / A few more nails to find.

5. How to Hunt and Trap, by Joseph H. Batty

This book is part instruction manual and part awkward novel about men exploring their manliness. But aside from that, the camping, hunting, trapping, and pelt-preparing information is beautifully illustrated and still applicable to the modern wilderness aficionado. Just don't forget to cross check the author's 1887 list of potential animals to hunt with a modern Endangered Species list. Because, wow, there is a lot of crossover.

6. How to Write a Novel

Today, the marketplace is glutted with book-writing techniques and short cuts. So this 1901 approach actually has a freshness to it; a stern simplicity. This extremely thorough book offers examples of technique among "our young writers," such as H.G Wells, and helps you through some pitfalls that you think the internet has solved for you but actually hasn't (topography, scientific accuracy, grammar, and so on).

7. Football and How to Watch It, by Percy Duncan Haughton

There was a time when the majority of Americans didn't understand football, as opposed to now, when it appears to be only me. There is no guarantee that this book, written in 1922, will make the game clearer. But it does offer many detailed photographs and diagrams and as a bonus, a florid, Mr. Burns-esque narration, ("Hence, the two-hundred pound fat boy is fast disappearing, and in his place appear strong, versatile athletes who must of all things be possessed with that quality best described as the ability to handle themselves with dexterity and even grace.")

8. Kites: How to Make and How to Fly Them, by George J. Varney

When you made a kite in 1897, you created a masterpiece of engineering and aeronautic art. Materials had to be just right (no lightweight tear-proof plastics or nylon strings), folds and knots had to be specific. This book is not for the trifling kiter. If you think you have what it takes to make the Kite Nymph (pretty lady soaring like an angel above you) or Chinese kites that sing, or the double box Clayton kite that can be used for atmospheric experiments, take a look at his book.

All photos courtesy of Getty Images.

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This Harry Potter Candle Melts to Reveal Your Hogwarts House—and Smells Amazing
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As it gets darker and colder outside, the thought of lighting a candle in your room and curling up with a good book becomes more appealing. A sorting hat candle from the Muggle Library Candles Etsy store makes the perfect companion to whatever Harry Potter book you happen to be re-reading for the hundredth time this season. According to the Cleveland news outlet WKYC, the candle slowly reveals your Hogwarts house as it burns.

From the outside, the item looks like a normal white candle. But when lit, the outer layer of plain wax melts away, allowing the colorful interior to poke through. The candles come in one of four concealed colors: red for Gryffindor, blue for Ravenclaw, yellow for Hufflepuff, and green for Slytherin. The only way to know which house you’re destined to match with is by purchasing a candle and putting it to use. According to the label, the scent evokes “excitement, fear, and nervousness.” The smell can also be described as lemon with sandalwood, vanilla, and patchouli.

Due to its viral popularity, the Fort Worth, Texas-based Etsy store has put all orders on hold while working to get its current batch of shipments out to customers. You can follow Muggle Library Candles on Instagram for updates on the sorting candle, as well as other Harry Potter-themed candles in their repertoire, like parseltongue and free elf.

[h/t WKYC]

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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