Vintage Books: Health Knowledge and Reader’s Digest

25 Apr

I love to check the vintage book section at Value Village as they often have wonderful old books with beautiful lithographed illustrations.  The colours achieved with this type of printing are far superior to anything you see nowadays in books, even when a limited  colour pallet is used.  These illustrations are a great resource of inspiration for unusual colour combinations, drawing composition, and illustration styles.  Some are suitable for framing just as they are, I think, or maybe they could be turned into decals, stickers or t-shirts.  Perhaps I’ve said too much!  Don’t steal my idea to steal other’s work and turn it into unauthorized merchandise.

The first illustrations come from a 1953 Reader’s Digest condensed book that contains the stories “Black Widow”, “The Silent World”, “East of Eden”, “Karen” and “The Curve and the Tusk”.  I love how the illustrations are rendered with mostly blues and browns, an unusual combination that is never the less very satisfying.

The cover of the Reader's Digest book

An illustration from "Black Widow by Patrick Quintin

another "Black Widow" illustration.

My personal favorite of the "Black Widow" illustrations.

An Illustration from "Karen" by Marie Killilea

I have a few of these condensed RD books and the lovely  illustrations are uncredited for some reason.  They even feel nice, the ink is somewhat thick, and smoother than the paper.  These types of bright lithographs would make excellent solvent transfers.  This technique, in which you apply a light coating of solvent, such as gasoline onto the image before pressing it onto another surface, will unfortunately ruin the book though.

The second book I would like to share with you, dear reader is a beautiful thick medical atlas from around 1919.  Entitled, “Health Knowledge” this book, volume II of an unknown number of volumes was published by Medical Distributors Inc.  It boasts “34 Departments Scientifically Illustrated”.  I was lucky enough to find this beauty for only $6 at Value Village, a bargain for a book with as many lovely full colour plates and black and white illustrations in the text.

The cover of "Health Knowledge"

Diseases of the teeth

The above illustration of the jaw and teeth is my favorite in the book.  The colours are so beautiful.  Wouldn’t you just love some stickers or a t-shirt of this image?

A close-up of the jawline

Diseased teeth

Look at those colours!  These diseased teeth are stunning through the eyes of this medical illustrator.  These old medical illustrations are so different from the type of digitally rendered illustrations and plastic models you see today.  Modern medical textbook illustrations are very sterile, the frailty of life, the reality of death, and the experience of aging are filtered through a scientific perspective to achieve a comforting emotional  distance. The old illustrations speak to a different experience with death and disease, a more visceral, yet more romantic connection to the body and aging.  During the Victorian era and into the beginning of the 20th century the notion of death was seen as more poetic, medicine was more of an art.  My sculpture thesis was inspired by the fusion of death, medicine and science at that time.  Take for instance the wax medical models that were produced during that era:

a wax model of a baby born with syphillis

This is a lithograph of a photo of a wax model of a baby with syphilis.  Notice how it’s mounted on a piece of wood painted black surrounded by white fabric.  Other wax models of this type can be seen mounted on fine stained wood enveloped in silk.  It’s presented like a little jewel, like a little sleeping doll.  Many full body wax models of women were presented in white nightgowns on purple velvet pillows.  It speaks to the body as the original site of entertainment, theatre and show business, which is also evidenced by the development of traveling sideshows that presented preserved body parts and medical oddities, and the dissections done in front of live theatre audiences that were offered to the public at the time.

Check out this colourful illustration of different colours of urine and what ailments they indicate:

a scale of urine colours

Now wouldn’t you just love that image on a shirt?  Perfect for any occasion, am I right?

the joints

And here’s a happy looking fellow:

The black and white illustrations within the text were also nice, my favorites being this skull:

and these two dapper looking fellows in an odd, almost  homo-erotic embrace (not that there’s anything wrong with that)(actually, I think everything is homoerotic, I just love homoeroticism, don’t you, dear reader?):

"Dont look now Edmund, it appears we're being illustrated into a medical book"
"mmm.. yes, quite."

Two books I will treasure forever.

Both books found at Valure Village, 1319 Bloor St. W., Toronto

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