A century ago, World War I brought devastation and violence to Europe and other regions of the world, in many cases upending previously dominant political, social, and cultural orders. For women in large parts of the Western world, the end of the war saw a historical achievement, the right to vote.1 Suffragist activists had fought for this right for the better part of the previous century. They employed a wide range of tools, organizing rallies and marches, founding political organizations, and even conducting hunger strikes and rare acts of violence. Newspapers and magazines such as The Suffragist in the United States were common tools for spreading information and knowledge, building networks, and encouraging and motivating readers. Part of a broader history of the politicization of women and their bodies, the history of the suffragist movement was local and global, national and transnational.2 Female political activism did not end with the right to vote or with standing for and holding office, however. It took up voter mobilization and women’s political and civic education.
In 1878 Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800–1882), probably the most famous nineteenth-century German-Jewish painter, created a work entitled The Heder, or Jewish Elementary School, which re-imagined his first school in Hanau near Frankfurt am Main in the early 1800s.
Manuals and handbooks are widely disseminated tools in the production and circulation of knowledge, used not only in education, science, and technology, but also in broader social and cultural contexts, such as the arts, religion, business, and politics. Undertaking to present a concise body of knowledge on a specific subject, they serve as reference and instructional works about particular subjects and related practices and procedures. Originally in the form of compact books or brochures, they were easy to carry around, ready to use when needed. The claim to present the most comprehensive knowledge on a particular topic also produced less handy versions of handbooks, however, even multivolume reference works. In recent years, many handbooks have morphed into electronic tools accessible on our mobile devices, available almost everywhere.
Commenting on his famous work Le Penseur, or The Thinker, a century ago, the French sculptor Auguste Rodin described his subject in terms of its utter (masculine) physicality. “What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.”1 Rodin’s corporeal Thinker embodies the tension between thought and action, spirit and body. It reminds us that thought and knowledge are crafted not only in one’s mind but though ones actions and experiences. Moreover, one’s physical existence impacts how one interacts with the world, how this knowledge is formed, and how it becomes manifest, that is, how one displays and conveys it.
In 1903, the Austrian journalist Emil Löbl observed that “many of today’s readers” see their newspaper as a “universal encyclopedia,” the study of which, they believed, satisfied their duty as “cultivated people” (Kulturmenschen) to stay informed. Whether or not this was a positive development, journalists needed to recognize that “modern readers expected of newspapers the greatest degree of universality, the widest variety, the most complete abundance of content.”
My year began with a session at the 131st Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association on “the dynamics of religious knowledge” in the modern era, a panel I organized with Simone Lässig. The three papers—presented by Anthony Steinhoff, Jana Tschurenev, and myself—approached developments in religious knowledge as manifestations of social and cultural change in the long nineteenth century. The studies explored a variety of religious groups in a broad array of historical configurations, from nineteenth-century Jewish religious education to the multireligious setting of Alsace Lorraine after 1870 and anticaste and feminist critiques of Hinduism in colonial India.