Chapman Selling Chapbooks
From Their Cheapjack Stalls.
By Paul Dickfoss
Around 1775 chapbooks, or small cheaply published books, reached their height of popularity with an estimated 200,000 a year being published. This paper is an introduction to chapbooks, giving re-enactors more background on the life and times of the lower sort and how chapbooks may be used to involve the public in our events.
Most popular in Scotland, a chapbook, also commonly called a garland in the 18th century, was a single sheet of paper printed on both sides to be folded into 4, 8, 12 or 16 pages by the customer (Neuburg, 1969) or bound by the publisher. A single sheet was roughly 12 by 7 inches but some were as large as 16 by 13 inches (Swindells, undated). The garland could then be stitched or pinned together. Some of these books were only 2 1/4 by 2 * inches when stitched (Anonymous, early 19th century) but most were around 4 by 6 inches. The paper may be white but was often dirty earthy colors such as light grays, or tans but some in the 19th century were very light hues of green or blue depending on the publisher. In the 18th century, the paper was sometimes very rough with bits of what appear to be the outer shell of flax included in the paper. Chapbooks were often illustrated with many cheap woodcuts, the distributors sometimes boasted of this. As with broadside ballads, the woodcuts not necessarily related to the subject and occasionally one woodcut was used for more than one book (Opie, 1980).
Although chapbooks were published for and sold mainly to the poor for a penny each, wealthy people occasionally gathered many chapbooks and bound them in marbled paper and tooled red or brown leather covers to form larger books (Anonymous 2; Anonymous 3; Tuer, 1968; and see quote by Boswell below).
Wealthy people (moving onto a more smelly subject) may have used this type of cheap literature for another purpose. Sir William Cornwallis kept “pamphlets and lying-stories and two-penny poets” in his privy to be read and then used (Spufford, 1981, p. 48-49). I always wondered what people did before toilet paper was sold. Remember Cornwallis was a man of means, not of the lower sort. This would be too expensive for the lower sort. But what was it Cornwallis and others found so interesting in these books?
Chapbooks commonly included songs, stories, histories, fairy tales, religious works, poems, almanacs, ABCs and riddles (Tuer, 1968; Weiss, 1969; Stockham, 1974a and b; and knowledge gained from Lilly Library, IU). The fairy tails are often very different from the clean Walt Disney versions we are familiar with. Songs were printed without music since the customer was expected to know tunes the songs could be sung to. Riddles are still just as fun and interesting today as they were in the 18th century and can provide a means for interaction with the public.
So many chapbooks and broadside ballads were sold in the 18th century that our early understanding of literacy rates may be underestimated. Many of the chapbooks were directed toward poor children and included the ABCs. In light of this, some authors have struggled to get a better idea of literacy rates in the 17th and 18th centuries (Spufford, 1982).
Further research needs to be done to determine which books were published in or imported to the American colonies. This may be very difficult since inventories rarely list items as inexpensive as chapbooks (Spufford, 1982) and printer advertisements rarely name each cheap publication they have to sell.
They “used to be sold at our village fairs, in stitched sheets, neither untitled not undecorated, though without the superfluous costs of a separate title page.” Colderidge in The Friend referring to his childhood in the 1770s to 1780s.
“I have always retained a kind of affection for them [chapbooks], as they recall my early days." James Boswell written on the flyleaf of a bound volume of his chapbooks, 1763, as sited in Neuburg (1969, p.1).
“There are ushered into the world of literature Jack and the Giants, The Seven Wise Men of Gotham, and other story books which in my dawning years amused me as much as Rasselas does now. I saw the whole scheme with kind of romantic feeling to find myself really where all my old darlings were printed. I bought two dozen of the story-books and had them bound up with the title Curious Productions.” Written by James Boswell in 1763 when he went to the Dicey printing office in Bow Church Yard, London as sited in Spufford (1981, p. 75)
“It is indeed a great Blessing of God, that Children in England have liberty to read the holy Scriptures, when others abroad are denied it. And yet alas! how often do we see Parents prefer ‘Tom thumb,’ ‘Guy of Warwich’, or some such foolish Book, before the Book of Life! Let not your Children read these vain Books, profane Ballads, and filthy songs. Throw away all fond and amorous Romances, and fabulous Histories of Giants, the bombast Achievements of Knight Errantry, and the like; for these fill the Heads of Children with vain, silly and idle imaginations.” Written in an anonymous book The History of Genesis, 1708 as sited in Nueburg (1969, p. 19-20).
“Of all Histories of this nature [contained in chapbooks], this exceeds, being held in such esteem in Ireland, that it is of the chiefest use in all the English Schools for introducing Children to the understanding of good Letters.” from a 17th century chapbook contained in Samuel Pepys’s collection as sited in Spufford (1981, p. 74).
Chapbooks are one pathway re-enactors may use to involve the public in the life and times of the lower sort. This may be done through informing the public you cannot read, either because you never learned or don’t have glasses, and ask them to read a section for you. In a coffee house, re-enactors might take turns reading histories or riddles allowing the public to listen or respond. Songs might be sung with re-enactors providing words to the public. Chapbooks offer many possibilities for the interaction with and education of spectators.
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