If you’re looking for a crash course in prewar hilarity—or, indeed, in American gender dynamics—get yourself to the nearest used bookstore and pick up a copy of 1910’s Cupid’s Cyclopedia, “Compiled for Daniel Cupid by Oliver Herford and John Cecil Clay.” Perhaps the infantile title and winking byline give a sense of the work’s witty tone.
Clay was a popular commercial artist of his day. Herford, meanwhile, was a successful professional wit; he was actually known as the American Oscar Wilde. (One imagines those who called him that had never read much Oscar Wilde.) He wrote a good bit of doggerel, plus such urbane texts as The Cynic’s Calendar of Revised Wisdom for 1903, The Cynic’s Calendar of Revised Wisdom for 1904, The Entirely New Cynic’s Calendar of Revised Wisdom for 1905, The Complete Cynic’s Calendar of Revised Wisdom for 1906, The Altogether New Cynic’s Calendar of Revised Wisdom for 1907, The Quite New Cynic’s Calendar of Revised Wisdom for 1908, The Perfectly Good Cynic’s Calendar, The Complete Cynic, and The Revived Cynic’s Calendar (1917).
As to the Cupid’s Cyclopedia, it was not just for cynics. On the contrary! It’s a pretty book, embellished with mischievous pen-and-ink cupids and liberally illustrated with watercolor plates. Here’s the author’s note:
It has long been the belief of the authors that Love-making should be included in the regular curriculum of our schools. It seems to us the most important branch of co-education.
How few of us know how to make love properly, and how very few, after making it, know how to keep it!
So much depends upon the kind of love that is made. There are no artificial methods for preserving love, but the best kind will keep forever. Few beginners know how to make the lasting kind, and many, even, of those with vast experience, keep at it.
We hope that this book will fill a long-felt want. Surely of all long-felt wants the want of love seems longest.
It is for the earnest student of True Love that we have inspired this cyclopedia.
What follows is an alphabetized list of vaguely love-related words with cutesy captions. (“Bill: See Coo.” “Husband, n.: See Brute.”) There are also maps and charts detailing the behavior of the typical American girl and beau—and then there are those illustrations. These, you see, identify the various types of American girl. Rather like a protohipster handbook, Cupid’s Cyclopedia attempts a full taxonomy of femininity. But it should be said that all of them—from “The Typist” to “The Western Type” to “The Bathing Girl” (“They can hardly be called aquatic, as they hardly go into the water enough to more than wet the feet”)—have a uniform, Gibson Girl look, with dramatic S-curves, sharp pen-and-ink snips of noses and clouds of improbable pompadour.
And don’t worry, the wit doesn’t stop here! We learn that “Type A Widow, Found the World Over” is “Very Dangerous to Man.” And as to the “Type Found Pretty Much All Over North America”?
NOTE THE HEAD-DRESS OR WAR-BONNET OF FEATHERS. THEY HAVE ALSO VARIOUS COLORED SUBSTANCES KNOWN AS “WAR-PAINT,” WHICH THEY SMEAR ON THEIR FACES, GIVING A GHASTLY AND UNNATURAL APPEARANCE. THIS PRACTICE IS QUITE COMMON. SOME OF THIS TYPE, HOWEVER, ARE MOST ATTRACTIVE, ESPECIALLY THOSE FOUND IN THE UN-UNITED STATES.
It’s no stupider, really, than half the novelty gift books on the market today. Hackery is eternal. But I still don’t understand the intended audience: even if these guys were considered the most hilarious thing going and people snapped up their work unquestioningly, this book seems too tame to tempt even the most milquetoast of young bucks; might young women have chortled over its naughtiness? Someone must have: shortly thereafter, the duo reteamed to pen Cupid’s Fair-Weather Booke. Second verse, one presumes, same as the first. But then, I’m a cynic.