An entertaining History of Chapbooks!
“If you want to buy, I’m your chap” - that was my predecessors’ famous cry … They were chapmen – itinerant pedlars and hawkers – who cheerfully sold anything useful they could carry at fairs and markets, on street corners in towns and door-to-door in the countryside. Their wares included lots of printed ephemera – like chapbooks … What’s that you say? Some of you haven’t heard of chapmen and chapbooks! Well now, let’s see …
I must admit I’ve found they’ve both become relatively unknown – but they are, nonetheless, very influential and still extant in their own curious way. Chapbooks were how we learned to read and how we read to learn… Originally chapbooks were called “small books” or “merryments”. They became, by demand, the Chapman’s stock in trade – and over time, to be known as chapbooks. They were waistcoat pocket-sized, very cheap, crudely made and definitively coverless. Usually just a single sheet of rag paper – printed on both sides, folded and simply stitched to make 8, 12 or 16 little pages – the outside ones thus doubled as their own book cover. They were usually incongruously illustrated with splendid impartiality using recycled woodcuts. For our pre-printing, oral culture the advent of these “small merry books” in the 1500s was literally “made the word real” … they were the only form of – and format for – literature.
Like the internet today chapbooks were treated as very dangerous by the political and religious authorities because they distributed new ideas – Tom Paine’s second edition of “The Rights of Man” came out as a sixpenny chapbook and eventually sold 2m copies. A fear of enlightenment atheist philosophies precipitated the inception of religious chapbooks, nicknamed “godlinesses” and “Sunday schools”.
Looked down on by the literary establishment, which called them “penny dreadfuls”, chapbooks evolved into magazines and comics on the one hand and on the other (smaller) hand into children’s story books. In form and content there are still “godlinesses” echoed today in the likes of the free, cheaply-produced pamphlets like War Cry from The Salvation Army or the Jehovah’s Witness’ Watch Tower. Contemporary merryment-style booklets include the Reader’s Digest and People’s Friend.
Chapbooks were usually eagerly anticipated serialised episodes and in that spirit they’ve digitally evolved into the ether unnoticed as TV soaps.
One could actually say, the modern online descendant of the chapbook is the blog!
Excerpted from an article in “The Guardian” by Chris Morton.