Saturday, May 14, 2016

Prompt #254 – Chapbooks: When Less Is More

I recently decided that my many bookcases needed to be “reorganized” and that at least a few of my hundreds of books might be given away or donated to the local library. The latter didn’t happen, of course I kept everything, but in the process of organizing books by subject and author, I discovered that I have a substantial collection of chapbooks. Coincidentally, a few days later, I read a great chapbooks article in THEthe Poetry Blog by my good friend and colleague Michael T. Young.

A chapbook is a mini collection of poetry, typically no more than 20-40 pages in length. Many chapbooks center on specific themes and are generally saddle-stitched (stapled like a pamphlet or magazine). They are suited to small print runs and can serve as effective introductions to your work.  

I know many poets who have chapbooks among their credits. Many of these are beautifully designed and produced and contain superb poems. If you have a small collection of poems that work well together and form a cohesive “collection,” you may want to consider looking for a chapbook publisher. Sometimes less really is more!

One of the chapbooks in my collection is a chapbook on chapbooks that I wrote for Muse-Pie Press in 2009. To get an idea of the chapbook's historical relevance in literature, I thought you might be interested in reading excerpts from that little book (after reading Michael's article, of course).

The following is excerpted from Chapbooks: A Historical Perspective
Muse-Pie Press. Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved.

A chapbook is, by definition, a small book or pamphlet that contains compact literary works. Originally called “small books” or “merriments,” the term chapbook, coined by nineteenth century bibliophiles, came into familiar usage long after this type of book became popular. The root word chap derives from the Old English word cēap that referred to trade. Interestingly, chap was first applied not to the books but, rather, to the men who sold them.

Beginning during the 1500s, small books were sold by itinerant peddlers called chapmen (also colloquialized as cheapmen) who traveled through England’s rural villages typically hawking their wares door-to-door, on street corners, and at markets and fairs. Most carried these small-sized, easily portable, and inexpensive books in boxes and sold them for a groat or less each (a groat was a British silver fourpence piece used in trade during the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries). Chapmen were characteristically nomadic, wayward figures who lived on the margins of society. The typical chapman was described in an 1890 Harper’s Magazine article as one who “stood in the social plane upon neutral ground between respectability and roguery…living the irresponsible life of a gypsy….”

Early chapbooks were waistcoat pocket-sized and crudely made. Usually produced from rag paper and printed on both sides, they were folded to resemble small books and simply stitched with the outside pages serving as covers (special cover stocks were not typically used, making the first chapbooks distinctively coverless). For the most part, early chapbooks were produced in printings of eight, twelve, sixteen, or twenty-four pages.

Concurrent with chapbook production were broadsides (texts printed on one side of a single sheet of paper) and slip-poems (printed on long strips of paper cut from larger sheets). All were early print media products intended for the intermediate and poorer classes who were literate enough to possess some measure of reading ability but who were not affluent enough to afford the larger, bound books that were purchased and prized by the wealthy.

Because chapbook readers were typically less learned than their richer and better educated counterparts, early chapbook content was geared to semi-literate tastes and included popular ballads and songs, tales of medieval times, courtly love, poetry, almanacs, guides to fortune telling and magic, political treatises, religious tracts, and sometimes downright bawdy stories. Paper quality was of the poorest (it is reported that early chapbooks were sometimes purchased as a paper source for wrapping and as “bum fodder” or toilet paper), and illustrations were limited to the crudest quality “recycled” woodcuts that were often incongruously reused in several chapbooks regardless of their relevance to the text.

Of little interest to the elite and to the up-market literati, chapbooks became the poorer person’s form of printed literature, historical information (often unreliable), and entertainment. Costly bound books were available only to the wealthy while chapbook versions were accessible to larger numbers of people. Eminently affordable, chapbooks became “everyman’s” literature of choice primarily by economic default. According to Howard Pyle (Harper’s, June 1890), “Once upon a time the chapbook was as common to find in the farm-house and the cottage as is the weekly paper or the almanac nowadays; you came upon it at every fireside; you found it lying upon every corner shelf.”

Chapbooks figured to a significant extent in the transition from sung ballads to printed texts as evidenced in the story of Guy of Warwick. This story originated during the Middle Ages and was originally sung as a heroic ballad that was widely known among all classes of people. At some point between 1200 and 1400, it was written as a manuscript available only to the scholarly and to the rich. During the first decades of the 1500s, it was printed for the gentry, and later in the 1500s it was abridged into broadside format as a ballad meant to be sung. By the late 1600s, the story of Guy of Warwick appeared as a twenty-four-page chapbook with a target audience of lower class readers. While the upper classes and members of established literary circles would have seen this as a vulgarization, chapbook versions brought Guy’s narrative to a wider readership and secured the story’s place in both literary history and popular culture.

Chapbooks saw an increase in status between the 1500s and the 1700s as literacy rates rose. By the 1600s there were more schoolteachers than ever before; however, full literacy was tempered by the need for child labor, and often young children received just enough education to enable them to read without being able to write before they were pressed into labor to augment family incomes. For such children, chapbooks provided a singular source of education and entertainment.

Early chapbook popularity may be measured by a few surviving records. It has been noted that Oxford bookseller John Dorne documented in his 1520s day books that he had sold up to 190 ballads a day at a halfpenny each, and as many as 400,000 almanacs were printed annually by the 1600s. In 1664, the probate inventory of printer Charles Tias (owner of The Sign of the Three Bibles on London Bridge) included printed sheets to make about 90,000 chapbooks and 37,500 ballad sheets. In 1707, printer Josiah Blare (of London Bridge’s The Sign of the Looking Glass) listed 31,000 books and 257 reams of printed sheets. Such printers either sold chapbooks to chapmen cheaply or supplied them on credit that was paid off when the books were sold.

While chapmen facilitated extensive distribution of the first chapbooks, they also provided printers with information on which subjects were “best sellers.” Accordingly, the trendiest chapbooks were reprinted, edited, pirated, and reproduced in numerous editions. Printers and publishers often issued catalogues, and some are recorded in the libraries of provincial gentry and yeomen. Extant records suggest that chapbooks were important to the people who owned them: in one example, Quaker Yeoman John Whiting, while imprisoned in Somerset during the 1680s, had his chapbooks sent from London by carrier and held in keeping for him at a nearby inn. 

The chief center of chapbook production was London (at least until the time of the Great Fire in 1666), and most of the chapbook printers were based in the area around London Bridge. However, numerous smaller-city chapbook printers joined ranks with city publishers and catered to the more rural public.

By the nineteenth century and the reign of Queen Victoria, chapbooks entered a more modern incarnation. At that point in its history, the chapbook was included among various ephemera or disposable printed materials, including pamphlets, political treatises, religious tracts, nursery rhymes, folk tales, children’s literature, almanacs, and poetry. Most (improved in quality and appearance and with covers) were illustrated with popular prints of the Victorian era and are an example of the commercial nature of chapbook trade at the time.
Chapbooks also saw a transition from adult to children’s literature during the nineteenth century. Neuburg suggests that literate adult Victorians had outgrown their fondness for the medieval romances and other reading material printed in earlier chapbooks and looked for literature that would explain the rapidly changing and often perplexing Victorian world. As adult reading preferences changed, chapbook publishers, aware of a less interested market, began to accommodate young readers, and chapbooks were printed to delight, entertain, and instruct children.

During the mid-nineteenth century, industrialization brought about a dramatic change in labor economics and with it the development of a “white collar” non-manual working class.  The emergence of this new moneyed, middle class generated a relaxation in class structure that admitted well-paid, working “gentry” to refined society. Conditional with admission to polite but not refined society came aspirations and social affectations borrowed from their social “betters.” For a time, Queen Victoria’s ever-increasing number of children became prominent in Victorian hearts and headlines. Consequently, an important Victorian refinement to be cultivated was “childhood,” and the entire “estate” of childhood was sentimentalized and cherished in art, literature, and contemporary culture.

“Childhood” required a new philosophy and mind-set, special arrangements, special equipment, and special rules, all of which presented an especially potent response to children’s literature – for the less than elite and wealthy in the form of chapbooks. The middle class was a new social phenomenon, and middle class parents paid more attention to the diet, education, moral and social development, and entertainment of their progeny than had hitherto been awarded. Like wealthy children, middle class youth were better educated and child-specific reading materials were widely welcomed. For parents who could not afford expensively bound books, chapbooks were an acceptable substitute.
Unlike the offspring of the wealthy and middle classes, economically underprivileged children were not permitted the extravagances of play, immaturity, and irresponsibility. Most poor children faced working days that saw them rise before dawn six days a week and trudge off to paid employment in conditions worse than those we pillory in the sweat-house factories of Third-World countries today. They were not categorized as children but, rather, as cheap labor, and many worked in factories alongside their parents. For those who could at least read, chapbooks provided respite from farm, household, and employment obligations. This, however, was not true for all working children. Nineteenth-century publishers began to produce colored chapbooks for young readers, often employing children to painstakingly hand-color illustrations. It is ironic and sad (and like so much that was paradoxical in Victorian England) that many poor children worked long, arduous hours, often in the meanest conditions, coloring illustrations in chapbooks that were supposed to amuse and entertain them. For children employed in the book industry, it is unlikely that the chapbooks they worked to color brought them any pleasure at all. 

Although chapbooks were especially popular in England and Scotland, they were also published in the United States and across the globe in such countries as Russia (where they were linked to the rise in literacy after the emancipation of serfs in 1861). As the nineteenth century progressed through the dawning Age of Industry and the irrevocable changes wrought by constant innovations in production techniques, commerce, and economy, the chapbook’s popularity began to fade. Advancements in printing techniques and lithography, inexpensive reproduction of important artworks, amplified production of bound books, and improved transportation systems powered mass distribution of newspapers and periodicals and buttressed cheap production and dissemination of hard bound books. These provided uncompromising competition for the humbler chapbook.

Chapbooks enjoyed a more contemporary renaissance during the latter years of the twentieth century. Promoted in part by low-cost copy centers, chapbooks appear in huge numbers today. The term chapbook currently describes small, inexpensively-produced books, usually about 4½ by 5½ inches in size, and saddle-stitched (stapled) rather than hard or perfect bound.

Of special interest to poets, especially those who have experienced the difficulty of placing poetry manuscripts with major publishing houses, chapbooks provide an accessible and cost-effective alternative to more conventional publishing. In response to the proliferation of chapbooks, a number of established chapbook publishers have initiated chapbook series and contests that focus on producing chapbooks that contain works by both known and novice poets alike.

Today’s chapbooks offer more to entertain the eye and refined taste than prototypes of earlier centuries did. Antique chapbooks, however, have an artistically “organic” nature and, today, scholars and book lovers increasingly recognize the importance of early chapbooks as collectible documents that record cultural history. A kind of folk art, these small books remain a time-honored literary and social tradition worthy of preservation and protection.


Chapbook Publishers:


  1. Adele,

    Such an informative piece about Chapbooks! So many aspects of the subject that I had not even considered.

    I am honored that I am included in the list of your favorite chapbooks, in the company of poets I admire!
    Basil Rouskas

    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Basil! I'm glad you enjoyed the post (as I enjoy both of your chapbooks).

  2. Hello from not-anonymous-at-all Jamie Morris! I'm having a hard time posting a comment, but I wanted you to know how much I enjoyed this informative post. Thanks, Adele!