Olmsted, Frederick Law

views updated May 23 2018

Olmsted, Frederick Law


Born April 26, 1822, in Hartford, CT; died, August 28, 1903, in Waverly, MA; married, 1859; wife's name, Mary; children: John C., Frederick Law, Jr.


Worked as a surveyor before turning to landscape architecture; in partnership with Calvert Vaux to create Central Park, New York, NY, 1858-72; continued the practice with his son. Cofounder of Nation magazine.


Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, Putnam (New York, NY), 1852, reprinted, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 2003.

A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, with Remarks on Their Economy, Dix and Edwards (New York, NY), 1856.

A Journey through Texas; or, A Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier: with a Statistical Appendix, Mason Brothers (New York, NY), 1859, published as Olmsted's Texas Journey, Time Life (New York, NY), 1982.

A Journey in the Back Country, Mason Brothers (New York, NY), 1860.

Cotton Kingdom, Mason Brothers (New York, NY), 1861, published as The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller's Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States, Based upon Three Former Volumes of Journeys and Investigations, S. Low (London, England), 1861, reprinted, DaCapo Press (New York, NY), 1996.

Civilizing American Cities: A Selection of Frederick Law Olmsted's Writings on City Landscapes, edited by S. B. Sutton, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1971, reprinted, DaCapo Press (New York, NY), 1997.

Forty Years of Landscape Architecture: Professional Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, Volume 2: Central Park, edited by Theodora Kimball, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1973.

The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted: The Formative Years, 1822 to 1852, edited by Charles Capen McLaughlin, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1977.

The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted: Slavery and the South, 1852-1857, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1981.

The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted: Creating Central Park, 1857-1861, edited by David Schuyler and Charles E. Beveridge, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1983.

The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted: Defending the Union: The Civil War and the U.S. Sanitary Commission, 1861-1863, edited by Jane Turner Censer, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1986.

The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted: The Years of Olmsted, Vaux and Company, 1865-1874, edited by David Schuyler and Jane Turner Censer, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1992.

The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted: Supplementary Series: Writings on Public Parks, Parkways, and Park Systems, edited by Carolyn F. Hoffman and Charles E. Beveridge, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1997.

Contributor of articles to American Architect.


Frederick Law Olmsted was the father of American landscape architecture. He is credited with planning, designing, and constructing public parks throughout America, including New York City's Central Park, and for designing the landscaping of the grounds for the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, for the U.S. Capital in Washington, D.C., and for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Malcolm Jones, Jr., in Newsweek commented that "Olmsted not only designed the nation's most famous public spaces, he introduced America to the whole idea of public parks." In addition to championing the idea of public parks within the nation's cities, he was instrumental in promoting the idea that the Yosemite reservation in California be set aside as a national park. More than any other American of his generation, Olmsted represented a belief in the power of landscape to provide a refuge for urban residents. At a time when most urban land was in the hands of private speculators, he symbolized a belief in the civic good and the necessity of urban planning. According to Charles Beveridge, writing in Natural History, Olmsted was "the most influential landscape architect in the history of the United States."

Olmsted was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on April 26, 1822, the son of a prosperous dry-goods merchant. His family's material wealth and deep roots in the community gave Olmsted both the economic freedom and the personal confidence to pursue a leisurely course toward his major life works. His mother died when he was four years old and he was raised by a stepmother, Mary Ann Bull. From an early age, his family encouraged Olmsted to have a love for nature. He was sent away to various schools in New England, where he often combined his studies with walks in the countryside. When he was fourteen years old a severe case of sumac poisoning partially blinded him, and for several years thereafter he had poor eyesight. Doctors recommended that he do little reading, so he postponed entering college as he had planned to do in 1837. He attended lectures at Yale University intermittently, studying agricultural science and engineering, and then undertook practical training as a farmer on 130 Staten Island acres purchased by his father. As he became absorbed with scientific agriculture, Olmsted began to publish articles on rural subjects and drifted toward a career as a writer.

A period of intense travel began in 1843, when Olmsted sailed aboard the Ronaldson for China in search of adventure; he was to spend a year in China before returning to New England. In 1850, he and his brother spent several weeks on a walking tour of England and the Continent. Olmsted's account of the journey, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, was published in 1852. The book was well received and demonstrated his aptitude for keen social observation. It is also significant that Olmsted was quite favorably taken with the landscape and rural life of the country, reflecting his continuing interest in the scenic. Henry J. Raymond, editor of the New York Times, then commissioned Olmsted to travel to the Southern states and write about his impressions of slavery for his Northern readers. Olmsted was chosen because of his connections among rationalist intellectual circles, his moderate antislavery views, and his established literary reputation. Although the publisher of the New York Times was himself a moderate Free-Soiler, Olmsted was not chosen primarily because of his views on slavery but because of his reputation as a perceptive observer who could produce an objective report on the "peculiar institution," as slavery was sometimes called by Northerners. Accordingly, in December of 1852, Olmsted began a fourteen-month tour that took him through much of the South and as far as Texas and across the Rio Grande. He sent back lengthy letters over the signature "Yeoman," which were published on the first page of the newspaper, beginning in February, 1853. These were followed by several volumes under various titles, which were finally distilled into his classic two-volume work, The Cotton Kingdom. Olmsted's works were immediately hailed by contemporaries as the most important sources of objective information about the life and customs of the slaveholding states and became significant references as Europeans discussed the relative merits of the Northern and Southern causes in the American Civil War. Olmsted's works remain essential sources for modern historians, who regard them as classic contemporary portrayals and analyses of the plantation slavery system of the antebellum South. If Olmsted had done nothing else, his descriptions of slavery would have established his lasting reputation, but, remarkably, even as he was producing these works, he was embarking upon a second career for which he would become even better known.

Central Park

In 1857, because of his continuing interest in landscape, Olmsted accepted the position of superintendent of the preparatory work on Central Park in New York City. Soon after, with his partner Calvert Vaux, Olmsted won the competition to provide a new design for the park. He signed his plans with the title "Landscape Architect" under his name, supposedly becoming the first to use this title formally. In 1858, he became the park's chief architect and began to implement his and Vaux's plan to make the park both materially and artistically successful. His work was interrupted during the Civil War as Olmsted received an appointment as general secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a forerunner of the American Red Cross, then went to California as administrator of the forty-four-thousand-acre Mariposa Estate. While there he became a leading figure in the movement to set aside the Yosemite and Mariposa "big tree" reservations which culminated in the establishment of Yosemite Park. Yosemite eventually became part of the national park system. When he returned to New York in 1865, he and Vaux were reappointed landscape architects for Central Park.

In his design for Central Park, Olmsted started from the premise that it is essential for man to maintain a balance between civilization and nature in his life and that for the city dweller, particularly, it is imperative that places should be provided as a retreat from the pressures of overcrowded, overly civilized urban existence. While he had an appreciation for nature in the raw, "wilderness," Olmsted's real preference was for the pastoral, a natural environment which was ordered, designed, structured, but which provided the illusion of nature's own handiwork. Central Park "represented a major shift from the traditional style of landscape gardening," explained Vicky Hallett in U. S. News and World Report. "Instead of the manicured lawns and orderly rows of flowers found in European gardens, Olmsted and Vaux insisted that every detail from shrubs to stones appear as if it were untouched from the beginning of creation." When the project was begun, the site was an area containing pig farms and squatters' shacks which had no distinguishing physical features. Thus, the construction of Central Park would involve the movement of tons of dirt, the creation of lakes, sunken roads, bridges, and other features to manufacture the illusion of nature for the city dweller. More than thirty-eight hundred workers were required for the project. "Some 5 million cubic yards of rock and soil were moved during the construction," Hallett noted.

At Central Park Olmsted demonstrated that even undistinguished sites could be completely transformed to create the illusion of naturalistic landscapes; that parks had an important social function in offering places of release for urban residents with no access to the countryside; and, of great interest to politicians, that these ends could be achieved without cost to the city, since parks generated more in increased tax revenues from surrounding property than their actual cost. Central Park established Olmsted's reputation and became the prototype for urban parks across the United States. His services were now much in demand, and he moved on to design additional parks for New York City and other cities across the nation: the Capitol grounds in Washington, DC; a preservation plan for the Niagara Falls area; the Emerald Necklace in Boston; Prospect Park in Brooklyn; South Park in Chicago; Belle Isle Park in Detroit; Mount Royal Park in Montreal; and the Boston and Buffalo park systems. Olmsted's other projects included the Stanford University campus and the Biltmore Estate outside Asheville, North Carolina. Some consider his design for the system of lagoons, wooded islands, and plantings in Chicago's Jackson Park for the Columbian Exposition in 1893 his crowning achievement. He also became a fervent advocate of suburban living, balancing the features and values of both city and country in new planned communities on the borders of older urban centers. Olmsted and Vaux designed suburbs for several cities, the most famous being Chicago's Riverside, which opened in 1869.

As a leader in the new and often misunderstood profession of landscape architecture, Olmsted sought to define its philosophy through his work and writing, while his quandary regarding the identity of the profession was clearly revealed in correspondence with Vaux. There he pondered an appropriate name for this innovative discipline, which combined aspects of fine art, horticulture, natural science, social science and architecture, but surpassed them all in scope. The diversity of projects in which Olmsted engaged during his professional life attests to his devotion to those social and environmental missions that remain the philosophical underpinnings of landscape architecture. Parks planning was to him a form of progressive city planning through which human moral character could be uplifted, while improving urban health and safety. His scheme for the park system in Boston, the famed Emerald Necklace, best illustrated this twin mission. Originally intended to form a continuous crescent from the Common to the Neponset River, this system located recreational areas close to neighborhoods throughout the city, while at the same time managing problems of flooding and sewage pollution. The most important gem on the necklace, Franklin Park, was to be a bit of country in a stressful city.

If you enjoy the works of Frederick Law Olmsted

If you enjoy the works of Frederick Law Olmsted, you might want to check out the following books:

Tom Christopher, Architecture in the Garden, 2003.

Gertrude Jekyll, The Making of a Garden, 1985.

Witold Rybczynski, A Clearing in the Distance, 2000.

Besides all of the cities and towns that were permanently improved through his skill and perseverance, Olmsted's greatest achievement was establishing a professional firm that trained future leaders of landscape architecture, such as Warren Manning and Henry Hubbard, and perpetuated the sound principles upon which his practice had been built. After ending his partnership with Vaux in the 1870s, Olmsted worked informally with other designers, including Weidenmann, until his son John C. Olmsted became a partner. It was John and his younger brother Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., who eventually perpetuated the firm, which existed into the 1950s as Olmsted Brothers. Throughout Olmsted's later years, as mind and body began to fail under the strain of almost fifty years of hard field work, his thoughts were constantly on continuation of the firm and advancement of the profession. It was as though he knew that the physical works of design to which he had dedicated his energy were minor achievements compared to the multifaceted discipline for which he, in large measure, could take credit for pioneering. According to Witold Rybczynski, writing in the Wilson Quarterly, Olmsted "left an unmistakable imprint on the American landscape."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Barlow, Elizabeth, Frederick Law Olmsted's New York, 1972.

Beveridge, Charles, and Paul Rocheleau, Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape, Rizzoli (New York, NY), 1992.

Condit, Carl W., American Building Art, 1960.

Conkling, Edgar C., Frederick Law Olmsted's Point Chautauqua, Canisius College Press, 2001.

Fabos, Julius G., Milde, Gordon T., and Weinmayr, V. Michael, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., Founder of Landscape Architecture in America, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1968.

Fein, Albert, Frederick Law Olmsted and the American Environmental Tradition, Braziller (New York, NY), 1972.

Hall, Lee, Olmsted's America: An "Unpractical" Man and His Vision of Civilization, Bulfinch (New York, NY), 1995.

Huth, Hans, Nature and the American: Three Centuries of Changing Attitudes, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1957.

International Dictionary of Architects and Architecture, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1993.

Johnston, Johanna, Frederick Law Olmsted: Partner with Nature, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1975.

Kalfus, Melvin, Frederick Law Olmsted: The Passion of a Public Artist, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1990.

Klaus, Susan L., Modern Arcadia: Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and the Plan for Forest Hills Gardens, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 2002.

Messer, Pamela Lynn, Biltmore Estates: Frederick Law Olmsted's Landscape Masterpiece, Worldcomm Press, 1993.

Mitchell, Broadus, Frederick Law Olmsted, Johns Hopkins Press (Baltimore, MD), 1924.

Moe, Christine, Frederick Law Olmsted: Landscape Architect, Urban Planner, Vance Bibliographies (Monticello, IL), 1979.

Newton, Norman T., Design on the Land: The Development of Landscape Architecture, Belknap Press (Cambridge, MA), 1971.

Olmsted, Frederick Law, Jr., and Kimball, Theodora, editors, Frederick Law Olmsted, 1822-1903, 2 volumes, Putnam (New York, NY), 1922-28.

Roper, Laura Wood, FLO: A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1973.

Rybczynski, Witold, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century, Scribner (New York, NY), 2000.

Stevenson, Elizabeth, Park Maker: A Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, Transaction, 1999.

Todd, John Emerson, Frederick Law Olmsted, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1982.

Wurman, Richard Saul, Alan Levy, and Joel Katz, The Nature of Recreation: A Handbook in Honor of Frederick Law Olmsted, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1972.

Zaitzevsky, Cynthia, Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System, Belknap Press (Cambridge, MA), 1982.


Historic Preservation, January, 1972, G. M. Smith, "Belle Grove's Olmsted Papers," pp. 24-27.

Journal of the American Institute of Architects, December, 1965, William H. Tishler, "Frederick Law Olmsted: Prophet of Environmental Design," pp. 31-35.

Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Number 32, 1973, Cynthia Zaitzevsky, "The Olmsted Firm and the Structures of the Boston Park System," pp. 167-174; March, 1987, Francis R. Kowsky, "Municipal Parks and City Planning: Frederick Law Olmsted's Buffalo Park and Parkway System," pp. 49-64.

Natural History, August, 1983, Charles E. Beveridge, "A Park for the People," p. 28.

Newsweek, February 24, 1997, Malcolm Jones, Jr., "Scenic Overlooks: Frederick Law Olmsted's Landscapes Have Taught Us How to Think about Nature for 100 Years," p. 70.

U.S. News and World Report, June 30, 2003, Vicky Hallett, "Parks for People," p. 37.

Wilson Quarterly, summer, 1999, Witold Rybczynski, "Why We Need Olmsted Again," p. 15.


Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site Web Site,http://www.nps.gov/frla/ (September 15, 2003).

Frederick Law Olmsted Web Site,http://www.fredericklawolmsted.com/ (September 15, 2003).

Friends of Belle Isle Web Site,http://www.fobi.org/ (September 15, 2003).

National Association for Olmsted Parks Web Site,http://www.newbedford.com/olmsted.html/ (September 15, 2003).

National Park Service Web Site,http://www.cr.nps.gov (September 15, 2003).

Olmsted Parks Society of Atlanta Web Site,http://www.mindspring.com/~olmstedatlanta/ (September 15, 2003).

Yosemite Park Web Site,http://www.yosemite.ca.us/ (September 15, 2003), "Yosemite History: Frederick Law Olmsted, Landscape Architect."*

Olmsted, Frederick Law (1822-1903)

views updated May 29 2018

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903)


Landscape architect

Significance. Frederick Law Olmsted was Americas foremost landscape architect in the late nineteenth century. More than any other American of his generation Olmsted represented a belief in the power of landscape to provide a refuge to urban residents and succeeded in planting the romantic ideal in the heart of some of the nations largest cities. At a time when most urban land was in the hands of private speculators, he symbolized a belief in the civic good and the necessity of urban planning.

Restless Beginnings. Olmsted was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on 26 April 1822. When he was fourteen years old a severe case of sumac poisoning partially blinded him, and for several years thereafter he had poor eyesight. Doctors recommended that he do little reading, so he postponed entering college and traveled in the northeastern United States and Canada with his father, a wealthy merchant. He then worked for a New York importer (1840) and traveled to China (1843). Upon his return to the United States he briefly studied scientific farming at Yale University and did some publishing and editorial work. Between 1852 and 1854 he traveled through the South and wrote extensively on the region, submitting stories to the New York Daily Tribune. (The stories were compiled and published as The Cotton Kingdom in 1861.) Olmsted received an appointment as general secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission during part of the Civil War (1861-1863), then went to California as administrator of the forty-four-thousand-acre Mariposa Estate (1863-1865).

Landscaping Genius. Olmsted was an early American observer of British and of continental parks; he admired the eighteenth-century English garden and skillfully used open areas and natural watersheds in his designs. He developed his style of landscape design in response to urban needs; he was the first to call himself a landscape architect rather than a landscape gardener. With his partner, Calvert Vaux, he designed New Yorks 840-acre Central Park (1858-1861) and landscaped New York City north of 155th Street. Olmsteds style in turn inspired many city and national parks that followed. He also planned the Emerald Necklace (Boston), Prospect Park (Brooklyn), South Park (Chicago), Belle Isle Park (Detroit), Mount Royal Park (Montreal), the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, and the Boston and Buffalo park systems. His other projects included the Stanford University campus (1886) and the Biltmore Estate outside Asheville, North Carolina (1888). One of his last major projects was as chief landscape planner for the 1893 Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Olmsted died on 28 August 1903.


Charles E. Beveridge and Paul Rocheleau, Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape (New York: Rizzoli, 1995);

Robert L. Gale, The Gay Nineties in America: A Cultural Dictionary of the 1890s (Westport: Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992).

Olmsted, Frederick Law

views updated May 14 2018

Olmsted, Frederick Law (1822–1903). One of the most important landscape-architects of C19 after Downing's death, he developed the C18 English Picturesque style of landscape, and was an innovator in the design of public parks, much influenced by Paxton's Birkenhead Park, Ches. (1847), as is clear from his admiration for English landscape-design, expressed in his Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England (1852).

With Calvert Vaux (who had been associated with Downing) he created Central Park, NYC (from 1858), an ingenious scheme with a wide variety of types of landscape, including rock-work with cascades, meadows and water, and traffic-routes sunk from view, with paths over and under them as the grade required. He designed the campus for the College of California at Berkeley, Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, CA (1864), and proposed creating a nature-reserve in the Yosemite Valley, a precedent for the National Parks movement. Again with Vaux he designed Prospect Park, Brooklyn (1865–73), resumed work on Central Park, and planned Riverside, near Chicago, IL (1868), which proposed dwellings around common land, parks, and the beginnings of a scheme that anticipated pedestrian routes. He began the landscaping around the Federal Capitol, Washington, DC (1874), his work being completed by his son F. L. Olmsted, jun. (1870–1957), in the 1920s, who continued to practise with the elder Olmsted's adopted stepson, John Charles Olmsted (1852–1920).

Persuaded to settle in Massachusetts by H. H. Richardson (with whom Olmsted had collaborated on the design of the State Asylum for the Insane, Buffalo, NY (1871), and on other projects) in 1881, Olmsted had commenced designs for the system of parks in Boston in 1878, a brilliant scheme forming a meandering trail of greenery and water connecting Charles River to Franklin Park. He contributed to the designs of the campus of Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA (1886), worked with Vaux on the Niagara Falls Reservation, NY (1887), and designed the Louisville Park system, KY (1891). His last large scheme was the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago (1893), where he created a sylvan setting for the Neo-Classical buildings of McKim, Mead, & White, Daniel Burnham, and others. Olmsted's system of transport, roads, and jetties for water-borne visitors was, like most of his work, forward-looking, imaginative, and inventive. He was a prolific writer, and published numerous works of considerable importance.


Beveridge (1995);
Burley et al . (1996);
C. Cook (1972);
I. Fisher (1986);
L. Hall (1995);
LeG&S (1996);
McLaughlin (ed.) (from 1977);
Olmsted & Hubbard (eds.) (1973);
Placzek (ed.) (1982);
Roper (1973);
E. Stevenson (2000);
Sutton (ed.) (1979);
Todd (1982);
Jane Turner (1996);
W&S (1994)

Frederick Law Olmsted

views updated May 17 2018

Frederick Law Olmsted

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), American landscape architect, was prominent in promoting and planning recreational parks across the country.

Frederick Law Olmsted was born at Hartford, Conn., on April 26, 1822. He did not matriculate at college because of weak eyes, but he attended lectures at Yale University intermittently and became an honorary member of the class of 1847. He also studied engineering. In 1844 Olmsted decided to become a farmer and, after getting practical experience, settled on Staten Island, where he operated a farm until 1854. In 1859 he married Mary Cleveland Perkins Olmsted, the widow of his brother; the couple had two children.

In 1851 Olmsted visited Andrew Jackson Downing, who with others had conceived the idea of creating a vast park in New York City. Before realizing his dream, Downing died. Olmsted kept the idea alive and in 1857 was appointed superintendent of what became Central Park. He and Calvert Vaux then won the design competition for the park, and in 1858 Olmsted was advanced to chief architect of Central Park. During the Civil War he resigned his appointment over political differences and in 1863 accepted the superintendency of the Frémont Mariposa mining estates in California.

When Olmsted returned to New York in 1865, he and Vaux were reappointed landscape architects for Central Park. The Olmsted firm became the foremost landscape architects in America. Their projects included Prospect Park, Brooklyn (1865); the village of Riverside near Chicago (1868); Mount Royal Park, Montreal (1873-1881); the grounds of the Capitol, Washington, D.C. (1874-1885); the Boston park system (1875-1895); Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif. (1886-1889); and Jackson Park, Chicago (1895). Olmsted's most important late work was the design for the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago (1890-1893).

Restless by nature, Olmsted traveled frequently and often published his diaries and talks. He wrote Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England (1852), A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856), A Journey through Texas (1857), and A Journey in the Back Country (1860).

Always interested in publishing, he and C. S. Sargent founded the journal Garden and Forest. Olmsted further encouraged park planning by publishing Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns (1871) and A Consideration of the Justifying Value of a Public Park (1881). He died on Aug. 28, 1903, having witnessed the enthusiastic development in American cities of public park systems.

Further Reading

There is no definitive study of Olmsted's work. Important as source material is Frederick Law Olmsted: Landscape Architect, edited by F. L. Olmsted, Jr., and Theodora Kimball (2 vols., 1922-1928), which contains many of his papers and emphasizes Central Park. Julius G. Fabos and others, comps., Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.: Founder of Landscape Architecture in America (1968), is a brief, well-illustrated survey of Olmsted's career; it contains illustrations of his projects, an appendix listing his major works, and a chronology of his life. See also Broadus Mitchell, Frederick Law Olmsted: A Critic of the Old South (1924). □

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