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There are over 20,000 wood engraving blocks in the W. & R. Chambers Collection at National Museums Scotland. Over 7,000 of these blocks were created to print the illustrations in Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, which was first published in 1859.

Encyclopaedias are a snapshot of a particular time, place and world view. Like museums, they are curated, and their contents reflect how history, science and culture were understood at the time. Discover how Scottish publishers W. & R. Chambers pioneered the use of images as learning tools in their encyclopaedias, and how these pictures changed with the times as illustration styles and printing techniques evolved and world views changed.

What is an encyclopaedia?

The word ‘encyclopaedia’ comes from the Greek words enkyklios meaning general, and paideia, meaning education. An encyclopaedia is a work which pulls together information, either around a certain subject, or encompassing all branches of knowledge, and arranges this information so that it can be easily found.

These useful compendiums have existed in one form or another for over 2,000 years. However, the modern, printed encyclopaedia, with entries arranged alphabetically, did not appear until the 18th century, following hot on the heels of the first dictionaries.

Medieval encyclopaedias were expensive, produced by hand for wealthy, learned people. The invention of the printing press in the 14th century made information more accessible to those who could read. By the 19th century, however, with access to schooling increasing and literacy rates rising, publishers were keen to feed the Victorian population’s thirst for knowledge and self-improvement.

One such publisher was W. & R. Chambers of Edinburgh.

Who were W. & R. Chambers?

Man is capable of informing himself; the means of doing this are within his power. If he were truly informed, he would not weep over his follies and errors...
- W. & R Chambers, Information for the People, 1833

The firm of W. & R. Chambers was founded in 1832 by two brothers, William (1800-1883) and Robert (1802-1871). From humble beginnings as a small-time bookseller and hand-press printer, over the decades the company acquired a global reputation for its educational books, periodicals, dictionaries and encyclopaedias.

Detail of the frontispiece of the Memoir of Robert Chambers showing images of William and Robert Chambers.

Above: Detail of the frontispiece of the Memoir of Robert Chambers showing images of William and Robert Chambers.

One of the firm's early weekly periodicals, Chamberss Edinburgh Journal, contained ‘Miscellaneous articles of instruction and entertainment’, and sold at the affordable price of a penny half-penny (three halfpennies). In 1853 the title was changed to Chambers's Journal. The journal ran continuously until 1956 and numerous authors, including Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray and Margaret Oliphant, contributed to it.

During this time, W. & R. Chambers also established a reputation for publishing quality educational material on poetry, history, science, and mathematics, as well as reference books, including two dictionaries.

Universal Knowledge for the People

In 1859, the brothers published their first encyclopaedia in 520 affordable weekly parts, and then in ten chunky volumes between 1860 and 1868. 

Woodblock of the monthly issue of Chambers's Encyclopaedia, 1859

Above: Woodblock of the monthly issue of Chambers's Encyclopaedia, 1859.

Cover of the monthly issue of Chambers's Encyclopaedia, 1859, from the British Library collections. Photo by Rose Roberto.

Cover of the monthly issue of Chambers's Encyclopaedia, 1859, from the British Library collections. Photo by Rose Roberto.

The aim of the publication is summed up in its full title: Chamberss Encyclopaedia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge for the People. Firm advocates of public education, the Chambers brothers wanted to make knowledge accessible to as many people as possible.

In the preface to the first volume, they explain:

The information given may be characterised as non-professional, embracing those points of the several subjects which every intelligent man or woman may have occasion to think or speak about.

The layout of Chamberss Encyclopaedia, with its alphabetical arrangement of bite-sized topics and user-friendly cross-referencing system, would go on to influence reference books published in Britain and the US for decades to come.

As the brothers explained:

One great aim in the arrangement of the work has been to render it easy of consultation… To save the necessity of wading through a long treatise in order to find, perhaps, a single fact, the various masses of systematic knowledge have been broken up… Throughout the articles, however, there will be found copious references to other heads with which they stand in natural connection; and thus, while a single fact is readily found, its relations to other facts is not lost sight of.

To further increase understanding of the text, the encyclopaedia was beautifully illustrated with over 4,000 images.

 To further increase understanding of the text, the encyclopaedia was beautifully illustrated with over 4,000 images.   Above: A page from the first edition of Chambers's Encyclopaedia showing different sizes of illustration.  It is these blocks which are now in the National Museums collection. Chambers’s Encyclopaedia New Edition Chambers’s Encyclopaedia was a great success – but time does not stand still, and twenty years on, it was revised and updated by a new editor and published in ten volumes between 1888 and 1992 as Chambers's Encyclopaedia New Edition.

Above: A page from the first edition of Chambers's Encyclopaedia showing different sizes of illustration integrated with text.

It is these blocks which are now in the National Museums collection.

A New Edition

Sales of Chambers’s Encyclopaedia were slow at first but eventually the project made the firm money. But time does not stand still, and twenty years on, it was revised and updated by a new editor and published in ten volumes between 1888 and 1892 as Chambers's Encyclopaedia New Edition.

The first two bound editions of Chambers's Encyclopaedia, housed in Chetham's Library, Manchester. Both editions sold widely and were consulted regularly in the industrial cities of the UK. Photo by Rose Roberto.

Above: The first two bound editions of Chambers's Encyclopaedia, housed in Chetham's Library, Manchester. Both editions sold widely and were consulted regularly in the industrial cities of the UK. Photo by Rose Roberto.

The second edition was produced in collaboration with the American publishing firm J.B. Lippincott, based in Philadelphia. Again, it was generously illustrated. But the differences between the images shows how society had moved on during the past twenty years.

Encyclopaedia illustrations

The illustrations were key to W. & R. Chambers’ aim to make the information in the encyclopaedias accessible to as many people as possible. The pictures covered a wide range of topics, but the subjects most likely to be illustrated were:

  • Vertebrates (animals, birds, fish and reptiles)
  • Plants
  • Machines and vehicles
  • Anatomy
  • Architecture
  • Arms and armour
  • Maps
  • Human and mythic figures.
  • Above: Elephants from First Edition, volume 4, page 2, 1862. An example of the vertebrates category.

    Above: Elephants from First Edition, volume 4, page 2, 1862. An example of the vertebrates category.

  • Maize Plants, from Second Edition, volume 10, page 441, 1892. An example of the plant category.

    Maize Plants, from Second Edition, volume 10, page 441, 1892. An example of the plant category.

  • Above: Thomson experimental gears, from First Edition, volume 9, page 103, 1867. An example of the machines and vehicles category.

    Above: Thomson experimental gears, from First Edition, volume 9, page 103, 1867. An example of the machines and vehicles category.

  • Organs of the chest and abdomen, from First Edition, volume 1, page 8,1860.

    Organs of the chest and abdomen, from First Edition, volume 1, page 8,1860.

  • Above: Ruins of Temple of Aegina, from First Edition, volume 1, page 53, 1860. An example of the architecture category.

    Above: Ruins of Temple of Aegina, from First Edition, volume 1, page 53, 1860. An example of the architecture category.

  • English breech-loading field-gun and limber-12-pounder, from Second Edition, volume 2, page 715, 1888.

    English breech-loading field-gun and limber-12-pounder, from Second Edition, volume 2, page 715, 1888.

  • Isobarometric lines during storms, from First Edition, volume 9, page 149, 1867.

    Isobarometric lines during storms, from First Edition, volume 9, page 149, 1867.

  • Chinese-matchmakers, from First Edition, volume 2, page 817, 1861.

    Chinese-matchmakers, from First Edition, volume 2, page 817, 1861.

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There are three kinds of illustrations used in the encyclopaedias: pictorial, facsimile and schematic.

From left to right, examples of pictorial, facsimile and schematic-style illustrations from the first and second editions of Chambers's Encyclopaedia.

Pictorial-style illustrations

Pictorial images, like this picture of the Colosseum below from the first edition, were designed to convey to a sense of understanding of technologies, places, people or objects they had never previously experienced.

 Colosseum, from first edition, volume 1, page 214, 1860.

Above: Colosseum, from first edition, volume 1, page 214, 1860.

Facsimile-style illustrations

In contrast, the idea of facsimile-style representation was to depict a subject in as realistic a way as possible, or to show how it would be encountered in the real world

Photography, popular since its invention in the 1830s, provided the best facsimile of the real world. In the 1860s, however, the technology for reproducing photographs in print was cumbersome and expensive. Yet facsimile images copied from photographs, such as this Maori Chief, were thought to convey equal authority.

Colosseum-Exterior, from second edition, volume 1, page 238, 1888 (left). New Zealand Chief's face tattooed (from a photograph), from first edition, volume 9, page 313, 1867 (right).

Above: Colosseum-Exterior, from second edition, volume 1, page 238, 1888 (left). New Zealand Chief's face tattooed (from a photograph), from first edition, volume 9, page 313, 1867 (right).

Schematic-style illustrations

A schematic illustration is used to convey abstract information, and usually incorporates graphic symbols rather than realistic pictures. Maps and diagrams are examples of schematic illustrations.

Dredging machine, from Second Edition, volume 4, page 91, 1889.

Above: Dredging machine, from Second Edition, volume 4, page 91, 1889.

Facsimile-schematic style illustrations

Some images do not fall neatly into any one category but show elements of two illustration styles. One of the most common combinations, especially in the second edition, is the facsimile-schematic illustration style. In these illustrations, while there is an attempt to depict an object or place in a realistic style, the labels and captions highlight specific features.

Different kinds of bacteria (mostly after Koch), from Second Edition, volume 1, page 649, 1888.

Above: Different kinds of bacteria (mostly after Koch), from second edition, volume 1, page 649, 1888.

Photographic-style illustrations

Many of the illustrations, particularly in the second edition of the encyclopaedia, look like photographs. Yet all were achieved by professional wood engravers, and no photo processes were involved in their production.

Japanese ambassadors, from the first edition, and Buddhist monks, from the second edition

Above: The Japanese ambassadors to Europe in 1862 (from a photograph by Vernon Heath), from first edition, volume 5, page 684, 1863 (left). Buddhist monks, with their pupils, from the second edition, volume 2, page 564, 1888 (right).

Frieze of the Parthenon, from the second edition

Above: Part of the Frieze of the Parthenon - Elgin Marbles, from second edition, volume 4, pages 293, 1889.

Changing styles and subjects

Comparing both editions of the encyclopaedia demonstrates how styles of illustration and graphic design altered throughout the 19th century. The first edition seems to favour pictorial illustration, while the second includes more facsimile-style images, with many based on photographs.

The topics illustrated also changed slightly, reflecting changes in illustration practices, but also new discoveries. For example, there are far fewer images of people in the second edition, and most of these are based on photographs, whereas pictures of microorganisms nearly doubled, as bacteriology became a new scientific area of study in the 1870s.

The preface to the second edition also states that:

A considerable addition has been made to the number of Maps, always an important feature in a work of reference; and amongst these are a series of carefully executed Physical maps.

Physical Map of Africa, presented as a fold-out plate in the second edition, Volume 1, 1888.

Above: Physical Map of Africa, presented as a fold-out plate in the second edition, volume 1, 1888.

In the second edition, the editors also tended to prioritise tables over images, as can be seen in the entries for 'Agriculture' and 'Parasites'.

The illustration for Parasites in the first edition (left) was replaced by a table in the second edition.

Above: The illustration for Agriculture in the first edition (left) was replaced by a table in the second edition.

The illustration for Parasites in the first edition (left) was replaced by a table in the second edition.

Above: The illustration for Parasites in the first edition (left) was replaced by a table in the second edition.

Printing methods

The Chambers brothers were early adopters of steam-powered printing machines, which had been installed in their Edinburgh premises before the 1840s. The first edition of Chambers’s Encyclopaedia was printed on an Applegath and Cowper Book Machine, which printed 700 sheets per hour, on one side of paper at a time.

Applegath and Cowper book machine illustrated in Chambers's Encyclopaedia, 1865.

Above: Applegath and Cowper book machine illustrated in Chambers's Encyclopaedia, 1865.

The firm printed the second edition on a Marinoni Perfecting Machine, a much faster machine which printed both sides of a page in one run, saving a lot of time and work.

Marinoni Perfecting Machine

Above: Marinoni Perfecting Machine illustrated in Chambers's Encyclopaedia, 1891.

How were the woodblocks created?

The woodblocks used for printing the illustrations are made from boxwood, a very hard, dense wood which meant the blocks could withstand many thousands of impressions.

Woodblock showing an aye-aye, from the second edition, volume 1, page 681, 1888.

Above: Woodblock showing an aye-aye, from the second edition, volume 1, page 681, 1888.

Woodblock showing a Norwich Canary, from the second edition, volume 2, page 702, 1888.

Above: Woodblock showing a Norwich Canary, from the second edition, volume 2, page 702, 1888.

The images were drawn by artists then engraved onto the blocks by wood-engravers. Although the artists were occasionally named, the engravers were rarely credited for their painstaking and highly skilled work.

In the early decades of the 19th century, wood-engraving was considered a good and stable profession, with apprenticeships typically lasting seven years. As the newspaper and periodical business boomed in the mid-19th century, there was such a demand for wood-engravers that apprenticeships gradually decreased from seven years down to two. Eventually, on-the-job training was provided in order for firms to keep up with the work.

Where once a master wood engraver was skilled in all aspects of the trade, from the 1870s, apprentices might only be trained in specific types of engraving. Those who specialised in botanical illustrations were known as pruners. Others specialising in animals or humans were called butchers; specialists in clothing and drapery were tailors and experts in machinery were mechanics.

Large illustration showing wood engravers at work, from J. & R. Wood's Typographic Advertiser, 1 March 1863, p77.

Above: Large illustration showing wood-engravers at work, from J. & R. Wood's Typographic Advertiser, 1 March 1863, p77.

Blocks were often reused in different publications. For example, an article on ‘Wood-engraving’, first published in Chambers’s Miscellany in 1845, reappeared in the first and then second editions of Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, with updated text describing the changes that had taken place in wood-cutting and engraving techniques, and referencing the influence of photography.

Above: Entry on Wood-engraving in the first edition, 1868.

Above: Entry on Wood-engraving in the first edition, 1868.

Entry on Wood-engraving in the second edition, 1892.

Above: Entry on Wood-engraving in the second edition, 1892. You can find out more about the history of wood-engraving here.

For the first edition of the encyclopaedia, the engraved woodblocks were printed together with the metal type making up the text. This meant that the blocks needed to be 'type high' in order to print a clear image. This could involve hours of pasting layers of paper, known as ‘make-ready’, onto the back of the blocks, to make them high enough.

By the time the second edition came out, things had moved on. For this edition, the engraved woodblocks were used as templates for the creation of stereotype or electrotype plates. Both types of plates require a mould to be taken from the engraved block, from which a metal cast is produced. Stereotypes were made from type metal (the alloy of lead, tin and antimony used for making type), while electrotypes were created by applying a thin copper plate to the mould, which was then removed and backfilled with type metal.

Both techniques produced high quality copies of the original wood engraving, and meant that the original block could be retained as a template.

Woodblock showing apparatus fitted for an open tube combustion, from second edition, volume 1, page 250, 1888

Electrotype mounted on a block to make it ' type high'

Above: Woodblock (top) and electrotype derivative (bottom) mounted on a block to make it 'type high'. The image, from the second edition, shows an apparatus fitted for an open tube combustion, 1888.  

How did the collection come to the Museum?

The Chambers firm remained a family-run business until 1989, when the business became part of a multinational publishing company.  

In the early 1980s, Anthony Stuart Chambers, the last family member to run the firm, placed the company’s archive on deposit in the National Library of Scotland. At the same time a collection of wood-engraving blocks, stereotype and electrotype plates, and other publishing-related objects were donated to National Museums Scotland.

You can see a selection of the blocks on display in the Discoveries gallery at the National Museum of Scotland. And if you go to see them, have a think about the Museum’s address – Chambers Street was named after William Chambers!

Statue of William Chambers outside the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street

Above: This statue of William Chambers by John Rhind stands outside the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street. Chambers was Lord Provost of Edinburgh from 1865 to 1869.

Democratising knowledge: Chambers's Encyclopaedia research project

For lots more about the W. & R. Chambers collection, visit our Collections and Research section, where you can discover the findings from Democratising Knowledge, a Collaborative Doctoral Project between the University of Reading and National Museums Scotland, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Supported by

University of Reading  Arts & Humanities Research Council 

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