A Rare Book Analysis "For Dummies"

by Ailsssss on March 30, 2016 - 9:10am


            Primary sources are very important tools, notably to historians, that allow a better understanding of a certain period of time. Located in Montreal, Canada, the McGill Osler library – a branch of the McGill University Library - contains a large amount of medicine-related books that have already existed for a few hundreds of years. Among these worn volumes, there is a book called The Family-Physician, and the House-Apothecary, written by Harvey Gideon. We can trace its publication date back to the 17th century, more specifically, in 1678. It is fairly small-sized, measuring approximately 5 inches long and 3.5 inches wide. Given its size, it is no surprise to say that this rare book weighs about 100g. On the surface, the cover of the book looks quite antique and reminds one of animal cells. One could even argue that it is the result of the decomposition of the leather possibly initially coating the book. It is also important to note that despite its age, the book does not emit any foul smell. All text is written in English, in a serif font (indicated by the small decorative lines enhancing the characters). The size of the text is also comfortable to read. Except for some occasional stains scattered on the pages, there is no trace of hand written notes, watermarks, or images. From its surface, Gideon’s book looks like it has been manipulated a lot throughout the years, which wouldn’t be very surprising since it was intended to be “user-friendly”.



            When thinking of medical books, one would be more likely to picture a big, heavy, volume containing an extensive amount of information. However, that is not the case for The Family-Physician, and the House-Apothecary. Gideon’s book was published for people who didn’t have access to, or who didn’t have the financial means to acquire, the complete, more expensive, scholarly used books. Considering the size of it, printing the book must have been a lot cheaper (since it takes less paper and less ink), thus allowing ordinary people to buy it at a relatively lower price.

Although titles can often be misleading regarding the content of the books (Gideon 36-37), this one relays the clear purpose of the booklet. It is a handbook of some sort, aimed towards teaching the general public how to cure different illnesses using more accessible material. The book even goes to criticizing the prices of more “professional” ingredients and treatments used on patients. It is nonetheless arguable whether the procedures and the exotic items described in it actually work. Some might say that such “so-called practical handbooks and manuals contained impractical, even injurious, advice.” (Gideon 38) Unfortunately, we cannot confirm or deny these assumptions unless we tried the recipes ourselves. In any case, it is important to note that books of these types existed and were widely used. They allowed ordinary people to learn about remedies by themselves, while avoiding the need to leave their homes. Given the practical advantages of Gideon’s book, it would be natural to hypothesize that it was widely distributed.

We can almost compare the book to the “For Dummies” collection that we have today. While there are textbooks explaining every subject in full detail, we can still find numerous writings that simplify the material, making it more accessible to the general public who doesn’t necessarily understand all the technical terms. It goes without saying that these abridged versions also often cost much less than the scholarly used textbooks.

On the very first page of the booklet, we can see that this second edition has been revised by the author. Therefore, like in many other cases, we can figure that the author had previously published the same book anonymously, in order to “test the market”. If our assumptions are right, the book would have received good feedbacks, thus letting the author publish it once again under his own name, Harvey Gideon, to obtain the credits he deserved. Much like the book industry today, the book recognizes the publishing firm associated with it and mentions it on the bottom of the first page, something that has never been done in the period of the scribes. Publishers “put themselves first” (Gideon 33) and have gained more power over the time. Nowadays, all books have the name of their publisher and editor on their cover page. Competition was present and publishers advertised themselves by providing “‘more readable’ texts, ‘more complete and better arranged’ indexes, ‘more careful proof-reading’ and editing.” (Gideon 29) As we can see, with the evolution of the printing press, such issues no longer exist in today’s book industry.






Elizabeth Eisenstein, “Defining the Initial Shift,” The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 2nd Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005): 13-45.