Jan 28 2012: Before Urbanisation: Forty-Two Photographs from The World Reader (c.1910)

A set of forty-two postcard-sized hand-coloured photographs from The World Reader, a book aimed at schoolchildren to educate them in the nature of agriculture, business and industry both within the British Empire and in places outside it. Although very badly damaged and missing many pages, the book itself is built as a kind of geographical atlas (with maps of the world’s major continents and nations in an appendix at the back: the United Kingdom, inevitably, gets more space than Africa, Australasia¬†and the Americas combined in this section) with the body of the volume made up of articles on each nation and its main industries and sources of trade. This tends to mean the Caribbean is represented by banana harvests, the United States by tobacco and California oranges, Australia by its sheep farming, and so on. The dating isn’t certain, but it clearly went to press before the First World War (which is mentioned nowhere, and trade with the Austro-Hungarian Empire is described in the terms preceding the events of 1914) and the Russian Revolution (Britain is still, for this book’s author, one of Russia’s key trading partners, though a single paragraph hints at the brewing storm with reference to “some political dissatisfaction, particularly among the intelligentsia and middle classes in the major cities”). Perhaps most intriguing, in many ways, are the photographs showing iconic urban landscapes such as Bombay, Hong Kong and Sydney as barely the size of large coastal market towns: there’s something fascinating about the view of Hong Kong’s or Sydney’s harbours stripped of their identifying structures. Something rather haunting, too, about the view of Nagasaki, which would, like other places seen here, gain a resonance unanticipated in these pages as the century unfolded.

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