An Overview of the 19th Century Chapbook

The exact definition of a chapbook is notoriously difficult to ascertain. Nowadays, the term “chapbook” is used to describe small, “covetable” texts with a limited printing, typically no more than a few hundred copies (Charter). Independent poetry collections and “zines” are two popular forms modern chapbooks may take. Generally, the size and quantity of chapbooks makes them attractive for self-publishing or serving a niche market. Even with the proliferation of literary databases, allowing us to access millions of texts with just a few clicks, there remains a vested interest in the chapbook (Rourke)

Figure 3.”The Cook-Maid’s Garland” is an example of an 18th century broadside ballad. Like chapbooks, these often employed woodcut illustrations and long, descriptive titles.

Of course, during the chapbook’s humble origins, there was nothing like Project Gutenberg or Google Books. Print was the only viable medium for reading. During the 16th century, chapbooks first appeared amongst the ever-growing deluge of “street literature” (Shepard 26; 35). As the name implies, street literature refers to reading material sold on the street to the masses, unlike large and expensive books which only the elite could afford (13-4). In a sense, the early chapbooks occupied a place between books and broadside ballads, an extremely popular form of street literature (26-8). These ballads, which could describe everything from a topical change in monarchy to the opening lines of Shakespeare’s “King Lear, were printed on a single piece of paper. In contrast, chapbooks had multiple pages, usually between eight to thirty-two (26). Victor Neuburg suggests that the book-like qualities of chapbooks allowed them to compete with broadside ballads in the marketplace:

“It is probable … that the proliferation of pamphlet literature during the English Civil War and during Commonwealth days had given ordinary men a taste for something more substantial in form than a single sheet with a ballad printed on it; and an even more fruitful line of inquiry would be into the nature of the chapbook as one manifestation of the growing interest in books, with the consequent spread of literacy amongst all sections of society, including the poorest classes.” (5)

Figure 4. “A Little Book for Little Children” is an early 18th century chapbook designed to instruct children. It uses woodcuts and rhyme to make the material somewhat more interesting.

While chapbooks were not the only form of street literature available to the masses, they were one of the few that could approximate or even replicate the experience of reading an actual book.

However, once books could be mass-produced and sold for a reasonable price, the popularity of the chapbook began to rapidly decline (Shepard 30). The chapbook was widely distributed from the 16th century until the 19th. Its peak was during the 18th century, wherein it overtook the broadside ballad as the most popular form of street literature. During the 19th century, the chapbook was increasingly marketed towards children rather than adults (Grenby, “Chapbooks” 289). Many of these chapbooks featured knightly romances, fairy tales, adventure stories, nursery rhymes, paraphrased classics like Robinson Crusoe, and other lively, entertaining material. Moreover, chapbooks of the time would be filled with woodcut illustrations, thus making them valuable to children struggling or yet unable to read.

Essentially, a woodcut is a block of wood with a design carved on one end. To use a woodcut as an illustration, ink is applied to the design and then the design is pressed onto a piece of paper. Where the design contacts the paper will show up as the ink’s colour, most likely black. Where the design recedes will be blank space, most likely yellow or white. Technically speaking, a woodcut is “a type of relief painting” (Cummins 29). For a printer of chapbooks, the value of a woodcut lay in its ability to be reused multiple times. This number could extend into the thousands. In addition, woodcuts were easier to incorporate in the printing process than copper engravings (Grand, “Woodcuts”). Already popular with various forms of street literature, woodcuts were an easy fit with the chapbook.

So, the question remains: how do we define the early chapbook? The most straight-forward and general definition comes from Ruth Richardson: “Chapbooks were small booklets, cheap to make and to buy.” However, as we try to narrow the chapbook’s definition, problems inevitably arise. These problems are largely temporal, as a 16th century chapbook is different than a 19th century one. To date, M. O. Grenby has produced the most exhaustive definition of an early chapbook, which is divided into four “strands.” Each of these strands identifies a feature which may be important to a chapbook at a given time period:

“The first is its physical form: small in size, short in length, usually made from a single sheet of paper folded into twelve or twenty-four pages, and frequently including crude illustrations alongside the letterpress. The second is that it was cheap, often a penny or even less, and very seldom more than sixpence. The third strand is its distribution, characteristically by itinerant peddlers, or ‘chapmen’. Last, and most problematically, the contents are important: chapbooks were often abridged from longer works and their texts usually carried plebeian associations.” (278)

For a 16th or 17th century chapbook, Grenby asserts that the third strand, distribution, is most important. Chapbooks can easily be identified based on whether or not a chapman was involved. For a 18th century chapbook, the first and fourth strands take priority. Chapbooks here require a certain “plebeian tone … [to] the text and images.” Reaching the 19th century, Grenby identifies content as crucial to the chapbook’s definition, more so than any other of the four “strands”:

“[Now chapbooks] were sold, almost always, not by travelling chapmen, but through the normal range of retail outlets or direct from their publishers or printers. … They usually comprised eight, twelve, or, at the most, sixteen pages. They generally included a woodcut on every page, and these could be dab- or stencil-coloured. … They were slightly smaller than earlier chapbooks, usually 6–9 cm high by 4–6 cm broad. And they were generally better printed than earlier chapbooks, although they were still cheap, costing only a halfpenny or a penny. But it is the change in content that is most significant.” (291)

This definition of the 19th century chapbook gives some idea of the marketplace James Kendrew was involved in. Moreover, it gives an impression of the conventions Kendrew’s “We are Seven” chapbook was expected to adhere to. Its page count, frequent use of woodcuts, and size would be normal in this kind of marketplace. Most striking, however, is this issue of content. Wordsworth’s “We are Seven” was not written for a child audience, nor was it first sold this way. The poem first appears in the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, and, although children do feature prominently, the collection is intent on an adult audience. Perhaps because the Kendrew chapbook seems like children’s poetry, “We are Seven” thus becomes children’s poetry in the eye of the consumer. At the very least, the association between the 19th century chapbook and the child audience is not one that can be easily discarded.