On the face of it, these books are absurd. Commonly the author claims the ability to reveal to you the reader the secrets of ancient trades, so that you, the reader,- at a ridiculously low cost and little effort- may replicate the efforts of the old masters. These books could tell one how to build a summer house in a weekend out of scraps of wood and crushed tin cans, or the recipes for making Michelangelo's paint. All the knowledge of the past could be had at your fingertips, for a nominal fee, of course.
Many books were aimed at children, and it is breathtaking both in audacity and danger what these books sought to teach young children. Books aimed at boys taught then how to make their own shop, complete with their own tools. Once the shop was ready, books like "Boy Mechanic" and its ilk would teach boys how to build birdhouses and small toys, (including knitting toys for their sisters) and would go from there, to kites to treehouses to iceboats to what must have been the last word in boys toys- a bi-wing glider, which, as the book put it, would let the boy fly "just like the Wright Brothers!" The boys were expected to find their own material from old crates, barrel staves, and cigar boxes. With those and a few minor tools borrowed from Dad or made by their own hand, the boys were told they could accomplish miracles, and build a sailboat, or a flyer, or a pipe organ.
In spite of their absurdity, there is a positivism flowing through these works, the idea that anyone can do anything, if only they read the right book, and tried. The Victorian era was bursting with such positivism- it was the other side of the dark coin so often looked at. Through the grit and filth of London, and the typhoid and cholera epidemics and the trodden down lower classes toiling- if they were lucky- in one of the "dark satanic mills" there was this other side, which is why the Victorian era is sometimes called "The Golden Age of the Amateur". People had hobbies, tinkered in their shops, discovered and invented things with their endlessly inquisitive minds. The truth is, those boys could and sometimes did accomplish their miracles. Consider, for a moment, what the Wright brothers were before The Flyer lifted off.
These days, I see people with shops outfitted with equipment like few factories ever saw back then. What do the owners do with these shops? Often very little. I've seen men churn out birdhouses, one after another. Or pens. Or trivets. All worthy projects, all a good place to begin, but a poor place to finish. The odd thing is, there are whole books devoted to building birdhouses, or salad bowls, or salt and pepper shakers, and so on. You won't see a book aimed at a child any more telling them how to build a glider. The reasons are obvious: first, no one today would consider such a thing to be within the scope of a child's ability; and second, anyone who did would be risking being sued into oblivion the first time a child got hurt.
So we keep the children safe, and give them safer toys, even the toys outside the shop. The chemistry sets of the past are gone, for example. The sets of today have no chemicals, merely a set of instructions on things a child can do with material found in the kitchen. In short, a cook book in drag. The books for the shops are equally tame, guaranteed to keep a child protected, and safe, and bored. Can a pen capture a child's imagination? Or a bowl? Or an endless line of pens and bowls? I believe we have drawn ourselves in, made ourselves smaller, put limits on what we can be, and we are now circumscribing our children, and placing their imaginations outside themselves, to the tube of a tv.
When I flipped through a few of the old books, and saw some of the projects, including the glider, the adult in me thought "That is insane! What fool would teach a child to build something that dangerous?" But the small part of me that never really grew beyond the age of eleven, that boy I left behind so long ago, he looked through my eyes and thought: "That would be so cool!" The Victorians believed people were more than their jobs, and often sought to improve themselves through knowledge and skill. We could do well to learn from them, and teach our children to do the same.
I leave with a quotation from Robert A. Heinlein, possibly the only time I will ever quote him with any sort of approval:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.