World Building and the Building World

Building World no. 76, 27 March 1897

The single issue of the Building World we have on this site comes from the second periodical of this name. The original had finished in 1892, having started as Reynolds’s Building Trades Circular in 1876, and changing name the following year to the Building World. To avoid confusion it is as well to state that this Reynolds was not the popular author and editor G.W.M. Reynolds but a builder who started the journal to promote his own work.

The second Builder’s World by contrast was not indigenous to the building trade at all. Rather it was just one of the wide-ranging portfolio of the large company Cassell & Co.  which had been originally founded in 1848. It is clear from the sheer number of advertisements here that, in common with many of its ilk, the Building World sustained itself through advertising income rather than cover price. Cassell probably started it for its potential as a money-spinner through advertising.

While we can easily see that the last five pages comprise adverts typical of the florid style of the 1880s and 90s, advertising seems to determine almost every aspect of the magazine so the world it builds is rigorously coherent, cohesive, and exclusive of other possible ways of being.

This strenuous cohesion is evident in how readers are not treated as “other” to the magazine. They do not oppose or criticise its basis, but are incorporated into it, and indeed, into producing it.

Building World no. 76, 27 March 1897

The magazine’s dependence on readers’ interactions (or at least the appearance of readers’ interactions) is clear on even a cursory glance. Almost the entirety of the 5th page of the issue here (p. 397 in the volume number as a whole) comprises a series of letters from readers about practical problems they faced from how to paint a rusty drinking water tank to how to apply “polishes, varnishes, and stains.” As always in “Letters to the Editor”, it is difficult to work out which letters are genuine and which are made up by the editorial team.

For example, while the letter headlined “’Building World’ calculated to raise the standard of efficiency in workmen” may or may not be genuine, it certainly does serve as an self-advertisement for the “most excellent trade paper” which “in these competitive days supplies a long-felt want… a great boon to all who study its interesting pages.” It’s clear that the criterion of efficiency is being prioritised here as the factor that will sell the most copies (efficiency in workers as opposed to, say, their happiness or their creation of beautiful things).  The letter makes a revealing suggestion when the writer (certainly the voice belong to a man) says he’s willing to distribute the journal amongst “country mechanics”. That implies that workers in towns will have no problem accessing the journal, while even as late as 1897, the standard commercial distribution networks for print (through newsagents)  may not reach into smaller towns and villages. Presumably the idea was that once the “country mechanics” had read a free copy of the Building World, they would happily subscribe and get the paper delivered to them through the post. A very efficient and rational method of planting ideas in readers’ minds, which does, nonetheless rely on the free gift of the writer’s labour to distribute the paper. Efficiency – and profit –  it seems, requires sacrifices, in this case willing sacrifice of time.

We see advertising again when a Joiner writes in on the same page:  the Editor (at the bottom of the right-hand column) responds by pointing to a handbook recently published called Work which readers are told is advertised “on page 11 of supplement” (of which, alas, we could not find a copy to digitise).

Building World no. 76, 27 March 1897

The following page (page 6 of the issue) runs “Questions and Answers.” This time the questions are contributed by readers – readers determine the content in a consumer-led model of what a periodical should be. The same, in a much more telegraphic form, is continued on the next page by “Answers to Correspondents” – a kind of interaction that popular fiction periodicals had been engaged in since at least the 1840s, if not earlier.  The difference between “Questions and Answers” and “Answers to Correspondents” is length and detail of reply. As we might expect, advertising in the guise of information is common:  L.J.R. (Dover) is told in “Answers to Correspondents” to read issue no 387, p. 83, of Work (another Cassell publication) ; W.J.D. (Wigan) is referred to an article (in the Building World) in issue 68, while “Improver (Bayswater)” is sent to issue 75. There are many other such.

Efficiency of the advertising relies on iteration and the cohesive cross-referral practices of such magazines. Such tiny seeming unimportant gestures create a self-referring, self-confirming world where certain practices and values are considered the only valid ones at the expense of others.

Emphasis on the value of efficiency in a “competitive world” inevitably relies on its opposite – failure – and failure is a constant worry, though usually corralled and contained into separate sections, as if it might infect the rest. The Law Cases (pp. 7-8) and, above all, the list of bankruptcies (p. 10) are where these anxieties surface most spectacularly (see the short story about looming bankruptcy  inspired by the Building World for the resonance of these worries today). Of course, one can argue that readers rationally need to know who is a reliable supplier or firm and who is not: they need to protects their assets and profits and not waste them on bankrupts. But that “rational” reason is built on emotion – the fear of failure.

Trade magazines have traditionally not dealt only in failure of course: they usually give positive as well as a negative reasons to buy.  In fact we see a mixture of hope and anxiety built into the industry the Building World is part of in the several columns on pp. 9-10 devoted to competitive bids for contracts and the competition results (“Contracts Open” and “Contracts Closed”).

It is as if the whole magazine were structured around the well-known two-stage advertising narrative of “state the problem;  the product gives the answer.” The Building World engenders the fear of failure and at the same time offers a comforting solution to this – ways of acting ever more “efficiently.”

In the moving-image ads we are familiar with today, this fear-rescue narrative is presented linearly over time; in print, that temporal sequence does not need to be followed, especially if the print text reiterates the same fear-rescue week after week, month after month.

It looks as though the Building World was less concerned with the abstract and modernising aim of setting the standards of disciplinary or professional excellence (as professional magazines have been presented) than with what students of fantasy literature call world building – a sense of place which is convincing and immersive, and in which the hero or heroine can prove their ability to act independently. The Building World constructs a realist, consistent, self-confirming world for its readers, a world that feeds and contains the dragon of failure and the crown of success. It would never claim that its world was a fantasy, but the thinking is uncannily similar.

There is a lot more to be said about this world-building function of a trade journal. For now, it’s enough to conclude that Cassell & Co. knew very well what they were doing.