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Throwback Thursday: Honey, Don’t Forget to Pick Up Hamburger Helper and Volume IV

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We’re used to accessing nearly all of the world’s information on our smartphones. But not that long ago, if it was knowledge about the wider world you sought, you might have had to trek down to your local supermarket — and not just once, but for 27 weeks in a row.

This odd fact was brought to mind by a recent The New York Times obit for Stanley Moser, who the paper of record dubbed a “virtuoso encyclopedia marketer.” (Not a title you’re likely to see bestowed on many other people in 2020.)

Mr. Moser was a long-time executive for Funk & Wagnalls, a more-affordable rival to the famous Encyclopedia Britannica. What’s the big deal? Well, in the days before anyone had heard of the Internet, these hard-bound, multi-volume sets were practically mandatory in American homes.

Among the adults in the house, they might be used to settle the occasional dispute over, for instance, the years when such-and-such served as secretary of agriculture. But they found the most use among the young, who could pull a volume off the shelf when a paper about the migratory habits of the sandhill crane was due on the teacher’s desk the next day.

Funk & Wagnalls were already sold in many American supermarkets in the 1970s when Moser had the bright idea of pricing the first volume at a mere nine cents. “People thought he was crazy for doing something like that,” the Times reported one admiring colleague recalled.

Moser perhaps sensed that middle-class parents, anxious their kids didn’t fall behind their peers in the knowledge game, would willingly pony up a little more money for each following installment of the 27-volume set. They were and they did. “He was an innovator,” his peer said.

The last Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia was printed in the 1990s. Today, you can learn about the yellowing pages of this piece of history at Wikipedia. There, you’ll find a gloat-free article about the old encyclopedia brand that Wikipedia and other Internet tools helped make obsolete.

But information moved much more slowly in the 20th century. You’d have to wait a week for the next encyclopedia volume to go on sale at your favorite grocer. And, if you missed a week, you could end up with a gap in your encyclopedia set.

This could be a grave liability if, for instance, someone at work made reference to the Second Boer War of 1899-1902 (as people often did back then), and you clearly had no idea what she meant. (“Wait, there were two of those stupid wars?”) It was then painfully obvious to all your co-workers that your household was missing Volume IV (“BETH” through “BUBE”).

If she exhibited high emotional intelligence (a concept which, actually, hadn’t been invented yet), your co-worker might thoughtfully have turned the subject to the Peloponnesian War of 431–404 BC, because she recalled you had boasted of picking up Volume XIX (“P” through “PORG”) at Kroger the previous week. And such was the way we shared information in the old days.

Moser, who passed away at 88 from complications due to COVID-19 (the same cruel disease had recently taken his wife of 67 years), clearly was a “virtuoso” in knowing how to market good content. Sadly, there is no entry (yet) for “Stanley Moser” on Wikipedia. But it seems to me that, had he been born to a later generation, Moser might have contributed some clever ideas to marketing content in our era of e-commerce and e-learning.

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