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Before Google, there was The Universal Handbook

This leather-bound book, published in 1938, was always on the coffee table in my mother-in-law’s home. Towards the end of her 98 years on the planet, the covers were held together with lengths of duct tape, and the pages were tattered and curled. It looked like a bible, but the family referred to it as her dictionary. Had I read the preface, I would have known that it was much more than a dictionary. 

The preface is two pages long and explains that the book is aiming to “meet the requirements of every user whether engaged in business, trade, agriculture, a profession, in school or college, or in private life.” After listing over a dozen possible uses for the book, the preface ends with, “In short, this Handbook is a mine of knowledge, a ready reference book of convenient size and arrangement, which will prove a good friend and a great argument settler in many a tight corner. It is intended for practical use in Home, School, Office, or Shop, and on the Farm. In the hope and belief that it will be more and more appreciated with use, this volume is given to the public.” I had underestimated the importance of this book.  

My mother-in-law, Marjorie, married John D. M. Haddock in Montreal in 1941. In 1944 John’s mother travelled from Rosetown, Saskatchewan to Montreal, to visit the young couple and meet their firstborn son. On that trip, John’s mother presented the little family with this very costly book. Marjorie cherished it and read all 1132 pages, revisiting certain sections, frequently. 

John’s mother, Charlotte, had been widowed in 1919 when her young husband, just 32 years of age, succumbed to the Spanish Flu. Later, Charlotte Haddock married Mr. Hopkins, and in the front of The Universal Handbook, Marjorie wrote, From Tottie (Charlotte) Hopkins, given to us in Montreal 1944, and explained that Mr. Hopkins was Tottie’s second husband. I have always wished that John’s mother had signed the book, but I am grateful that my mother-in-law recorded the source of this very significant gift. 

Marjorie had longed to go to university, and having married a well-educated young pharmacist, she was keenly aware of the dream she never fulfilled. I am not sure what Charlotte was thinking when she chose The Universal Handbook as her gift to Marjorie and John, but I think she meant it as a coming of age gift. John’s mother was telling the family that there would be occasions, now that they were in the pharmaceutical world, to discuss a wide range of topics, as well as make formal introductions, invitations, and speeches. The handbook would be their resource for doing things properly. 

For Marjorie, though, the gift was a starting point for educating herself. She often borrowed library books to expand on the topics in the handbook. She broadened her understanding of manners, the art of conversation, grammar, authors of significance, politics, and basic business. She relied heavily on The Universal Handbook of Necessary Information to answer many of life’s quandaries. She often left the book open to the section filled with sample letters for offering condolences, congratulations, introductions, and apologies. The Handbook includes lists of important historical dates, one hundred best books to read, basic business law and more. 

If you find one of these treasures, in an antique store or in your grandmother’s attic, keep in mind that the book provides a snapshot of life in the late 30s and early 40s. The rates of postage on parcels posted in Canada will make you smile. Public and Statutory Holidays in Canada have very much changed. Even the suggested phrasing of conversations, for delicate situations, makes me long for the speech patterns of decades past. There was a respect and dignity in every message delivered, even if it was a rejection. 

I always enjoyed the way Marjorie and John spoke to one another. They formed full sentences, after addressing each other, lovingly, by name. They made eye contact over the simplest of requests. John would say, “Marjorie, please pass me the butter.” Of course, we all laughed when, under his spell, she would let her guard down, and he would tip the dish toward her, getting butter all over her hand. His apologies were charming, and he only teased her in the privacy of their home. Perhaps he had read the Handbook. 

A speech given by Henry Watterson of Kentucky, on the occasion of General Sherman’s birthday on February 8, 1883, is included in the Handbook. One line reads, “It has been said that a good woman, fitly mated, grows doubly good; but how often have we seen a bad man mated to a good woman turned into a good man?” He goes on to imply that the longevity of men may be, in part, due to having a good wife. Some thoughts are as true today as in 1938 when The New Universal Handbook of Necessary Information was published. Giggle!

Imagine the hundreds of scholars, experts, editors, and illustrators who worked to create a handbook that would equip the reader to face their world, confidently, with grace and knowledge. I think the keywords for Google to remember might be “necessary information.” Today, with so much information at our fingertips, it would be lovely to have a filter for the unnecessary facts that cross our computer screens. On the other hand, maybe I want to be the judge of that.  

My mother-in-law often said, “Well…you can’t stop progress.” 

Comments (10)

  • Sakina Madini August 8, 2018 at 09:06 pm

    After reading your blog, I learned a lot of information. Thank you for sharing this lovely story.
    I made a copy because I want to keep it.

  • Patricia Coulter July 30, 2018 at 08:06 pm

    A lovely tribute to etiquette, and useful information! What a treasure!

  • Nicki Ault July 28, 2018 at 10:21 pm

    Thank you for sharing this lovely story Maureen. What a treasure for you all to cherish- the book and the family memories it has generated.

  • Ash D July 26, 2018 at 09:32 pm

    What a lovely discovery and story!
    Will keep my eye out for such a treasure:)

  • Marion Murawsky July 26, 2018 at 04:03 pm

    So much fun to read your blog!!!! So much nostalgia. Love it!
    Marion

  • Gayle Senger July 26, 2018 at 01:07 pm

    As usual. A very interesting read. Now I see where you learnt some of your intense simple way of giving your sweet heart and soul. You are a very special lady!!!

  • The Boy July 26, 2018 at 12:50 pm

    I remember that book always being easily available to the family but I never took a moment to open it up despite its ready availability. I always thought it was a dictionary and instead it held the secrets of success. I should have been more curious.

  • Wilma Poole July 26, 2018 at 12:43 pm

    Hi Maureen: If only our young people/companies could be so polite and accommodating in today’s world. I often think of Mrs. Levine, Robertson’s Secretarial School, and how she must be turning over in her grave with some of the mistakes I have found in some correspondence. Sounds like a great book!!

  • Shelley Park July 26, 2018 at 12:38 pm

    Hi , Maureen ... I am enjoying your blog . Your mother-in-law's " dictionary " reminds me of the big reference book I loved to read as I was growing up in Saskatchewan , in the 50s and 60s . It was called The Everyday Reference Library and was part of a set of books my parents purchased from , I'm guessing , a travelling salesman . The set included a set of encyclopedias , a set of story books , and others , all in a small bookcase . I loved all those books , but especially The Everyday Reference Library - it had everything in it ! Copyrighted in 1948 , it was formerly published as Austin's New Encyclopedia of Usable Information .
    I still love flipping through this book , so glad to have a copy .

  • Margaret Jones July 26, 2018 at 10:45 am

    What an amazing book that is.
    Reading it would be like digging through an old trunk of treasures.

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