Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Chapbooks were the popular reading for the common people from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. (Via Hermes) Many popular fairy tales were spread by such a means, as well as news and sermons. According to the National Library of Scotland:
Chapbooks are small paper-covered booklets, usually printed on a single sheet or portion of a sheet, folded into books of eight, 12, 16 and 24 pages, often illustrated with crude woodcuts. They were in circulation from the 17th to the 19th centuries, sold by travelling hawkers, pedlars, street-criers or 'chapmen' for a penny or less on the streets and at markets and fairs. The word 'chapman' is related to the word 'cheap', but it is probably also related to the Anglo-Saxon 'ceapian', meaning to barter, buy and sell. The quality of paper used was invariably coarse; chapbook printers frequently employed worn and broken type and it was not uncommon for the illustrations to bear no relation to the text.

Chapbooks, along with broadsides, comprised the staple reading matter of the 'common people' in an age well before the arrival of harbingers of modernity such as the telegraph, the train, the telephone and the mechanised printing press. The subject matter of chapbooks was quite broad - sermons of covenanting ministers, prophecies, last words of murderers, songs and poems by Robert Burns and Allan Ramsay, biographies of famous people such as Wallace, Napoleon and Nelson, romances, legends, not to mention manuals of instruction and almanacs. One of the features of this type of publication is the proliferation of provincial imprints - chapbooks were printed in places such as Fintray, Newton Stewart and Inveraray, as well as Edinburgh, Falkirk and Glasgow. Chapbooks were read, or perhaps more accurately, read out to people of all ages, though few publishers catered specifically for children. James Lumsden of Glasgow was an exception - he produced good quality chapbooks for children in the early 19th century. Chapbooks gradually disappeared from the 1860s onwards, not only because of the explosion in the amount of cheap printed matter available but also due to strong competition from religious tract societies such as the Stirling Tract Enterprise which regarded many chapbook publications as 'ungodly'.


1 comment:

Julygirl said...

You always come up with new and interesting tidbits on your Blog.
Most likely more people read in those days than they do now, (with the exception of your readers.)