Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


THE SITTING room at 221b Baker Street, London, contained bookshelves, of course. But what were the books that Sherlock Holmes and his chronicler Dr. John H. Watson had on these shelves?

I commend here the exemplary research and illustrative powers of Russell Stutler. He offers a depiction of the first floor (i.e., Brit for one level above Mrs. Hudson’s ground floor) of 221b; Watson’s bedroom is above, on the second floor.


221b Baker Street, illustration by Russell Stutler. I recommend Stutler’s website.

What follows is a sampling of the books at 221b, based on Canonical references, Stutler’s work, some Googling and a bit of Sherlockian deduction.

For example, commonplace books made an appearance in “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger.” Noted chronicler Watson, “… Sherlock Holmes threw himself with fierce energy upon the pile of commonplace books in a corner. For a few minutes there was a constant swish of the leaves, and then with a grunt of satisfaction he came upon what he sought.”


Holmes and his commonplace books. Image by Frank Wiles for “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger,” the Strand Magazine, February, 1927.

“Commonplacing,” what we might call scrapbooking, was the pre-Google analog of Googling, and taken seriously indeed. Even Oxford University offered instruction in the proper accumulation of facts for future needs.


A typical commonplace page. Image from dougj.

To the right of the fireplace at 221b, behind Holmes’ chair, were shelves crammed with reference books. Watson chronicled Holmes’ action as he sought the identity of a mysterious lord: “He picked a red-covered volume from a line of books of reference beside the mantelpiece.” A footnote in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Four Novels and the Fifty-Six Short Stories Complete (2 Volume Set) offers several choices for this lordly research, Burke’s Peerage, Doyle’s Official Baronage or Robson’s The British Herald.

The shelves were also likely to contain a set of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Bibliophiles consider the 9th edition, 1875-1889, to be a landmark in scholarship and literary style.


Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th edition, 1875-1889. Image from Lori and Tim in the UK.

Several Bradshaw Guides would have been there too. These railway timetables and guide books were first published in 1839 and continued until 1961. According to “The Train-ing of Sherlock Holmes: The Railway in Victorian England,” the Canon contains no less than 39 references to railway travel. Holmes would have consulted a Bradshaw and said to Watson, “A train leaves Charing Cross Station at 8:45—the game is afoot.”


Bradshaw Railway Timetable and Guide.

Diagonally across from the reference library was Holmes’ chemical corner, an acid-charred bench of laboratory paraphernalia, a wall of scientific charts and, to the left, shelves of chemicals and chemistry books.

In researching late Victorian chemical tomes, I hit the jackpot at eBay: The Techno-Chemical Receipt Book: Containing Several Thousand Receipts, Covering the Latest, Most Important and Most Useful Discoveries in Chemical Technology, and their Practical Application in the Arts and the Industries, edited chiefly from the German of Drs. Winckler, Elsner, Heintze, Meirzinski, Jacobsen, Koller and Heinserling, with additions by William T. Brannt, Graduate of the Royal Agricultural College of Eldena, Prussia, and William H. Wahl, Ph.D. (Heid.), Secretary of the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia; author of “Galvanoplastic Manipulations,” illustrated by seventy-eight engravings, Henry Carey Baird & Co., 1890.


The Techno-Chemical Receipt Book.

They don’t make title pages like that anymore. And, in fact, the book may already be gone, U.S. $399.99.

To put late Victorian knowledge in perspective, science of the era included coca tinctures used in throat surgery (c. 1850), Dmitri Mendeleev proposing his periodic table (1869), English race-walkers chewing coca leaves to improve performance (1876), Ludwig Boltzmann describing entropy (1877) and Sigmund Freud recommending cocaine to treat a variety of conditions (1884).


Dmitri Mendeleev’s Periodic Table of the Elements.

Opposite Holmes’ chemical corner, behind their breakfast table, was Watson’s bookcase. In “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” he described one of the books there: “From my small medical shelf I took down the Medical Directory and turned up the name. There were several Mortimers, but only one who could be our visitor.”

In “The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips,” Holmes says, “Kindly hand me down the letter K of the American Encyclopædia which stands beside you.” He peruses the volume and says, “In this way you see K.K.K. ceases to be the initials of an individual, and becomes the badge of a society…. Have you never heard of the Ku Klux Klan?”

There’s a bibliocryptic aspect here: A Baring-Gould footnote suggests the cited volume is the International Encyclopædia, New York, 1885. However, Wikipedia offers an American International Cyclopaedia, 1884, largely a reprint of Alden’s Library of Universal Knowledge, this one a reprint of the British Chamber’s Encyclopædia with American additions.

Last, in several tales Watson writes of a lumber room, upstairs adjacent to his bedroom. The lumber room hasn’t books, but it’s packed with piles of daily papers and bundles of manuscripts. These appear to have been strewn randomly, but woe be to anyone moving anything without Holmes’ okay. And, certainly, none of it is ever tossed away.

Gee, it sounds like home. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015

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