Growing Up In Newport

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When our doorbell on Cranston Avenue rang in the middle of one afternoon, my mother said, as she always said, “Oh, dear, I wonder who that can be at this time of day.”

She hurried down the stairs. Jeannette and I hung over the rail, heedless of “The Preacher and the Bear,” which we were playing for the tenth round on the cylinder gramophone, morning-glory-horned, in the front hall.

“Mrs. Scott?” said the lady at the door.

“Yes.”

“I understand you have small children?”

“Yes, I have a boy almost nine and a girl nearly seven.”

“Isn’t that nice!” said the lady.

“Well, I have something I’d like to talk to you about that concerns the children. I wonder if I may come in a few moments?”

“Why—yes,” my mother said. “Do come in. We live upstairs.” And she came up, followed by the lady.

Jeannette and I were dumb with curiosity, and it was evident my mother was puzzled. But all the same, this was a very nicely dressed lady, middle-aged, flawlessly corseted, and with her hands in a large fur muff. My mother not only led her upstairs, she took her into the parlor. And Jeannette and I promptly tagged along.

As soon as the elegant lady was seated she said, “I have something I’d like to show the children,” and she drew from her muff a big green and black book.

Altogether she stayed more than an hour, and skillfully she made a great many points. This was—in the first place—a sample volume of a new encyclopedia, The World Book . Its great merit was that though it would be useful to adults, it had been conceived especially with children in mind. Unlike any other encyclopedia, it used hundreds of illustrations. And in all the realms of science, art, literature, history, or whatever, the growing child had never before been offered anything to compare with The World Book . The set was an education in itself, and no child allowed near it could help but acquire such superior amounts of information as to guarantee his forging ahead in school and indeed in all his future life.

I remember—Jeannette and I hovering by her knees as she turned the glittering pages of the book and poured out her glittering messages—that the lady came one momentary cropper. Pointing to a picture of a group of black-backed, white-fronted birds, she said, “Now, I imagine the little girl can’t tell me the name of these birds?”

“Yup,” Jeannette replied. “Penguins.”

There was just an instant of pause, while my mother smiled.

“Well,” said the lady, “I could see the minute I came into this house that you have exceptional children, Mrs. Scott. While The World Book will be a boon to all kinds of families, I don’t mind saying that their greatest value will be for bright children. Bright children can bring to these books the intelligence that will get the most out of them,” she went on. And on and on.

Jeannette and I were entranced by all the pictures and, for that matter, by the lady herself. There was something about her that made you feel she must have a carriage and pair, complete with coachman, right outside at the corner of Tyler Street. As for my mother, she was at least as much impressed and of course she was gratified, though unsurprised, to be confirmed in her conviction that she indeed had very bright children: even a complete stranger could see that, my mother realized, at once. And at last, shyly, she asked the lady about the price of The World Book.

Well, it seemed that there were nine volumes in all and I forget how many thousands of pages and of illustrations. The volumes, as we could see from the sample, were magnificently bound in heavy green boards backed with genuine black leather and stamped in genuine gold. The expense of producing these unprecedented books was enormous, and yet the publisher yearned so to improve the youth of America that they could be had for a ridiculously low price. In fact, all Mrs. Scott had to do to secure the set was to make a deposit of twenty-five dollars.

But what was the cost of the set? Well, the cost was a mere seventytwo dollars. No one could be anything but amazed at such an economical price, the lady pointed out, as my mother pointed out that seventy-two dollars was a lot of money. But, as the lady said, it was nothing to worry about at all. Once you’d put down your twenty-five dollars the rest was an unnoticeable bill: just a little to pay each month, in no time the books were paid for, and all the while this painless installment plan went on, completely arranged for the benefit and comfort of the consumer, the books were in your possession, as good as yours.