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
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
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
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.
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.