“No Christmas Present Will Please the Children Half So Much!” runs the handwritten copy down one side of this 1913 advert for Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia, a statement cannily paired with, “This Is Your Last Chance To Subscribe Before the Price Is Increased!” Which neatly covers both appealing to children and parental blackmail, with the sort of blatant hard sell often assumed to be the unique product of our own era. The unchanging nature of advertising copy aside, what gives this set of encyclopedias their particular Nottingham interest is their creator, Arthur Mee.
Born in Stapleford in 1875, Arthur Mee was the second of ten children born to a railway worker and his wife. He cut his teeth on a few local newspapers before heading to London in 1898 and becoming Literary Editor of the Daily Mail in 1903. A prolific columnist, writing at length on such favoured themes as temperance, duty and patriotism, it was through editing a series of books aimed at self-improvement for children and non-specialist readers that he really found his niche.
Beginning with The Harmsworth Self-Educator in 1905, followed by his Children's Encyclopedia in 1908, he soon found himself in possession of the means to shape the worldview of English middle-class children for generations to come. The Children’s Encyclopedia sold more than 800,000 copies of its earliest editions, and continued to be revised and reprinted until 1964, substantially outliving Arthur Mee himself, whose death in 1943 did not seem to hinder the ongoing success of his enterprise.
Looking through the many editions of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia today is to be confronted with all the attitudes of their various eras in a uniquely unvarnished form. Mee believed his young readers to be the future servants of empire, obligated to set good examples for the world they would inevitably rule.
Apparently considered a relatively progressive figure in his day, this fact probably tells us more about the general attitudes of his time than it does about Mee’s actual progressive credentials, which his encyclopedias suggest were, at best, limited in scope.
Despite this, these encyclopedias remain fascinating, partly for their many digressions into long-forgotten technology as well as now-extinct species and ways of life, but mainly as time capsules that preserve the standard beliefs of their age like woolly mammoths in Siberian glaciers. Disturbingly, Mee’s books can also give us a glimpse into the rationalisations of certain high-profile politicians of our own benighted moment, forever stuck in a slightly delusional Edwardian worldview that was written for children over a century ago and seemed somewhat dated even then.