The American Boy’s Handy Book: What to Do and How to Do It by Daniel Carter Beard first hit bookstores in 1882, almost 30 years before Beard helped co-found the Boys Scouts of America. Something of a precursor to both Scouting For Boys and the Boy Scout Handbook, the 408-page tome was loaded with hands-on activities and projects ⏤ not to mention illustrations and schematics ⏤ designed to keep young boys from getting bored while teaching valuable outdoor skills. The activities varied in complexity and the book left not topic untouched, covering everything from war kites and fishing rods, to knot tying, boat building, and how to set traps. While the book is still sold online and in stores today, technically it’s out of copyright and can be downloaded for free.
Which is why we thought it would be fun to excerpt a chapter or two showcasing some of the book’s easier or more fascinating projects that parents could try with their kids. And what better way to kick off the warmer months than by learning how to make a water gun from the early 1880s? Here it is.
Sometime during the summer of each year, a boy used to appear with a squirt-gun made of a piece of cane. Squirt-gun-time then commenced, next day four or five guns might be seen on the playgrounds, and before a week had passed the curbstone in front of the little frame school-house presented a line of boys all busily engaged in seeing who could shoot the greatest distance; the dusty macadamized street registered every drop of water by a muddy spot. I found that by adding a quill as a nozzle to my ‘squirt’ it would throw water much further than the others. It is a very simple thing to make a good squirt-gun, and one may be manufactured in a few minutes.
First cut a joint from a piece of an old cane fishing-pole, being careful not to disturb the pithy substance that almost closes the hollow at the joints. Insert a quill for a nozzle at one of the joints and see that it fits tightly; leave the other end open. With your pocket-knife fashion from a piece of pine or cedar the plunger (B, Fig.132); leave the wood a little thicker at both ends and wrap a rag around one end, making It just thick enough to fit snugly in the cane after wetting it. This completes the ‘squirt’ (A, Fig. 132).
To use it, immerse the quill in water, first push the plunger in, then draw it out slowly until the gun is filled with water. Take aim, and when you push the plunger back again the water will issue from the quill In a sudden stream, traveling quite a distance. One of these water-guns is quite useful in the garden by its means the insects Infesting the rose bushes and other shrubs may be knocked off in no time. When the owner of an aquarium finds dead animals or plants that should be removed, located in some crack or cranny that is difficult to reach, the squirt-gun is just the thing to dislodge the objects without disturbing the surrounding rocks or plants.