Bubbles by John Everett Millais. An early Pears Soap advert (with the addition of a bar of soap in the bottom right-hand corner). Chromolithograph © Victoria and Albert Museum.






Pears’ Shilling Cyclopaedia was first published in December 1897. It offered “A Mass of Curious and Useful Information about Things that everyone Ought to know in Commerce, History, Science, Religion, Literature and other Topics of Ordinary Conversation”. The Guardian has just told us that, according to Penguin Books who now publish it, the just published 2017-18 edition will be the last one. The editor, Chris Cook, has been at it for the past forty editions, and is now retiring, or being retired.

Pears’ Cyclopaedia (no doubt it hasn’t cost a shilling for quite a while) was unobtrusively omnipresent in the Britain of my youth. It would contain a chronological list of events, a list of prominent people, ancient and modern, a miniature encyclopaedia of general information and around a dozen or more other sections on various subjects such as cinema, classical mythology, current events, wine, astronomy, ideas and beliefs, gardening, medicine, as well as an atlas and gazetteer. Arguments could could there be settled. It was the pre-Internet equivalent of Google Search.

Robert Gray wrote an elegant nostalgia piece about Pears Cyclopedia on Shelf Awareness on 8 September. It can be found at his blog Fresh Eyes Now. Nostalgia for a book which you never saw might seem paradoxical, but he justifies it with reference to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, where he writes “There are bars of Pears soap and a thick book called Pears’ Encyclopedia, which keeps me up day and night because it tells you everything about everything and that’s all I want to know.” It did provide vast amounts of information between two affordable covers. The same might be said for the phone book — when did you last get one of these dumped on your doorstep? Sales of the Cyclopedia have declined in recent years: the 2001/2002 edition sold just under 25,000 copies, while last year’s sold barely 3,000! Eager autodidacts have other routes nowadays.