A Brief History of Chapbooks

In the broadest sense, chapbooks are small, cheap-to-produce booklets that touch on a single subject. Historically, they were printed on a single sheet that was folded into octavo or duodecimo formats and held poems, folk stories, ballads, and topically relevant issues – politics, social affairs, religious tracts, etc. They were extremely important for the dissemination of popular literature among the lower classes, for whom traditional books were prohibitively expensive. Today, the chapbook still exists, although its role has been greatly diminished as the affordability of mass-market paperbacks has dominated the market. The collectible market for chapbooks typically spans from the 16th-19th centuries in both England and America, although 20th century chapbooks of poetry and some single-subject niches are slightly collectible as well.

Early Broadsides: The Popular Ballad

The chapbook grew, in part, out of broadsheets and broadsides, which were printings on single sheets of paper that were posted in public forums. Although they served civic and political functions, the most popular broadsides were ballads. Also popular were folk tales, popular poetry, and highly imaginative texts – dirty stories, or stories told from unusual perspectives. These reached wide audiences and were important in transcribing the oral history of the local population in type, much as Homer wrote down the oral histories of archaic Greece.

These broadsides were eventually folded into fourths, eighths, or sixteenths, becoming what today we call chapbooks. Many broadsides relied strongly on visual imagery, as literacy rates were still low at the time, and typically had a large woodcut followed by a line or two of memorable type. This emphasis for visual stimulation carried into chapbook production, although the woodcuts were extremely low-quality and were frequently reused.

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The Printer, the Peddler, and the Purchaser

Chapbooks were printed often anonymously and on dubious copyright grounds. Printers would produce anything they thought they could sell, and so chapbooks by their very nature appealed to the lowest common denominator of audience. In order to remain affordable, they were printed on the cheapest available materials and in the lowest quality possible, simply bound and lacking any unnecessary effects or ornamentation. Their subject matter varied, although it was typically popular ballads, like earlier broadsides, or religious in nature. Some were gossipy, and others were stories for children. Those that were illustrated were done so with easy-to-make woodcuts instead of the costlier, though better quality, metalcuts, and the woodcuts were often reused across a variety of books – which, in turn, degraded the wood, decreasing the quality of the images over time.

The low quality of early chapbooks, necessary by design, means that they were treated more as ephemera than as books, and despite the vast quantities produced, not many survive. Those that do are often partly disintegrated or in pieces, although there are rare exceptions.

Once printed, chapbooks would be sold to transient salesman called chapmen, of whom chapbooks get their name (themselves named after the marketplace themselves, or the “cheap,” where good prices were “good cheaps” and bad prices were “dear cheaps”). Chapmen were a common sight in the streets of16th century Britain, peddling whatever cheap wares they could get their hands on, whether it was pieces of string, scraps of cloth, tools, or chapbooks. Chapmen were regarded as shady or roguelike figures, and perhaps doubled as pickpockets in bigger cities, but they also served an important function in the early dissemination of literature. Chapmen, with their small libraries of chapbooks, were an important link between cities and rural villages, were they would travel both to escape trouble and to find new markets. For many rural villagers, chapmen were the only link with the outside world, and chapbooks the only source of literature.

The purchaser of the chapbook would often be the one who would trim the pages of chapbook (which were simply folded broadsides for many years) and sew them together, and for many an individual chapbook would be a primary source of entertainment for both themselves and those around them, leading to heavy usage and, as a result, general deterioration.

Literature for Everyone, Especially Children

Perhaps above all else, chapbooks were a phenomena of populist literature. They came to cover all possible subject manner – from lewd pornography to travel guides, fantasy to biography, bedtime stories to social commentary, they were snippets of the wide range of daily life that came to characterize a modernizing world. In England, the rise of newspapers in densely-populated urban centers mitigated the role of chapbooks, but in Scotland – where literacy rates were high and the population was more spread out – chapbooks continued to thrive. Likewise, the rest of the world – from the Netherlands to China – all had similar movements of popular literature.

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With the colonization of America in the 17th and 18th centuries, chapbooks were some of the earlier works to be produced by American presses, serving much the same functions as they did in Britain and the rest of the world. They continued to democratize literature, spreading popular songs, poems, religious tracts, political polemics, news, geography, history, and all other sorts aspects of the modern world to the people at large, cultivating culture and lending substance to otherwise transitory and fading oral traditions and disappearing folklore.

In the 18th and 19th centuries chapbooks became more dominantly religious and political in nature, and many surviving chapbooks from the 19th century are religious tracts, collections of prayers or psalms, hymnals, and other devotional texts. As regular books became more affordable and common, chapbooks were directed towards children, and began to focus more on children’s stories, lullabyes, and educational aids. Throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th, chapbooks became commercialized under the influence of toy-makers and other companies, specially created based on popular toys and heavily illustrated in sponsorship of the product being sold. Advertisements subsidized the costs of the chapbooks and became a regular sight on the back cover as well as the inside pages.

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Chapbooks in the 20th century: Poetry, Punk Rock, and Letterpress

The need for chapbooks gradually disappeared in the 19th and 20th centuries, and by the early 20th century they were gone from the popular consciousness almost entirely. In the 20th century they survived in large part as books of poetry, especially in the 60’s and 70’s, where poets of all manners of popularity published small collections or individual poems in limited-run editions of chapbooks. In Britain, chapbooks saw a revival in the 70’s and 80’s thanks to the punk scene, where chapbooks became an important pre-internet means of forming and spreading punk culture, like zines and other sub-mainstream distribution channels across the world. These were often xeroxed, at later dates, printed from home printers and staple-bound.

A Cultural Dictionary of Punk

Today, chapbook production is a niche market that really only exists in literary circles among self-publishing writers and small, independent fiction publishers to whom the intimate, affordable nature of the chapbook is still appealing. Co-opted by the fine press movement, chapbooks are also favored by letterpress printers, where the task of hand-setting type is prohibitively time-consuming for whole books but bearable when it comes to chapbook production. Thus the chapbook survives not as a democratizer of popular literature and cultural odds-and-ends, but as a refuge for the unique and carefully-curated offspring of the newest generation of writers and printers.

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