The Art of Dictionaries


Every time I move to a new home, I try really hard to get rid of all my extra stuff - or at least to put it in storage. But when it comes to books, I have no willpower. Regarding my ten-pound, 6-inch-wide, half-unbound early-twentieth century Funk & Wagnall's dictionary, there wasn't even a question: it goes with me where I go!

Do I use the thing to look up words? Rarely (although it's quite cool to see the early definitions of now-common scientific terms - they're often a little bit different than we might expect). Mostly, I love the pictures. Old dictionaries were works of art, with incredibly detailed engravings tucked between the entries. The creators of these dictionaries understood that pictures really could be better than words at explaining the nuances of ships, clouds, birds, etc.

Now, you can get a little volume (well under ten pounds) collecting the best engravings from the 19th century Webster's Dictionary editions. The Pictorial Webster's Visual Dictionary of Curiosities has been a ten-year labor of love for John Carrera of Quercus Press, who details the genesis of the project at his website:

The Pictorial Webster's is, in simplest terms, an artistic visual reference of what was important to 19th Century America.The 400 plus page volume is printed with the original wood engravings and copper electrotypes of the Merriam-Webster dictionaries of the 19th Century; namely the 1859 American Dictionary of the English Language (the 1st illustrated dictionary in America), the 1864 edition of that same Dictionary, and the 1890 International Dictionary. The Engravings are arranged alphabetically, a system of organization long shunned by lexicographers because alphabetical order grants no intrinsic meaning to any given grouping of words, but it is perfect for a book that creates its own immersive experience in imagery of a time gone by.

The Pictorial Webster's is not to be understood as mere visual reference. I believe a person instinctively tries to find the connection between things when they are grouped together, and so when confronted by combinations of two or more images the mind looks for a link to give their grouping meaning. My hope is readers will "read the text" by relaxing their minds in studying the pages to allow their subconscious-ness to supply the connective meaning between images.

Carrera initially approached Webster's, but learned that the engravings had been given to Yale in 1977. To see how he turned the collection of engravings into a book, watch the enchanting video below the fold!

Pictorial Webster's: Inspiration to Completion from John Carrera on Vimeo.

As you can see, Carrera created hand-run, hand-bound, hand-sewn and hand-tooled limited editions of the Pictorial Websters. He even cut finger tabs in the deluxe version! You can see sample pages from the project at Carrera's website, and buy limited leather-bound editions as well; but for the rest of us, Chronicle Books has produced a mass market edition for under $40 (buy at Amazon). It's not quite the same as the version pressed from original engravings, but it's still a wonderful time capsule of 19th century art.

More like this

Wow. Absolutely fantastic. I now have very strong motivation to go buy a lottery ticket so I can buy a deluxe edition with my winnings.


By Comrade PhysioProf (not verified) on 29 Sep 2009 #permalink

Ha- Funny- I saw this in Powell's Books last week and thought of you. If i had 40 bucks for anything other than mortgage and food I'd have bought it.

That video was insane- the work that wnet into making the hand bound editions is staggering.
thanks again for pure awesomeness

I'm having a bad case of dictionary-envy. Empathize with your book fetish, however: 1100 sq ft, 2 adults, 2 teenagers, 2 dogs, 1 cat and well over 5,000 books (number gets bigger every day). Oy.

By Catharine (not verified) on 29 Sep 2009 #permalink

Wonderful to see the process, thank you.
And they kept those drawers of stamps, intriguing.

That is a truly beautiful dictionary...the only one I ever had with illustrations was an old ladybird dictionary for children. I did like it though, it seemed a lot more interesting than the ones with just words :)