A Set of Dickens on the Whatnot

I run a small museum. It’s a museum on the history of the book, and of bookbinding, and one of the things we talk about when talking about the book as object, is about its meaning as an object.

Only a couple of centuries ago, most people in Europe could go through their entire lives without seeing a book. Books were irrelevant to their lives. More than that, books were insanely expensive; they were investments, luxuries. Granted, after Gutenberg comes along with the press, the price of books dropped roughly 80%–which means they went from astronomically expensive to merely prohibitively expensive. As long as books were individually hand-bound, ownership was out of the reach of most people (it’s why subscription libraries flourished in England–when a 3 volume set of Sense and Sensibility cost the equivalent of $100, it was easier to pay a subscription fee and have access to all the latest poetry, essays, and fiction).

After the British burned down the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson famously sold them his library as a “starter” to rebuild on. And turned around and used the money to buy himself more books, because… well, books. Books were wealth of a sort; you could sell them to raise money (or use them as collateral for loans). Having a library–even a collection of a few books–marked you as a person of property, even if you didn’t own your house or your land.

As with so much else, the Industrial Revolution changed that. Once books became affordable to the middle class, the meaning of book ownership changed.

Beyond mere investment, ownership of a book could signal a wealth of things:

  • I’m literate
  • I have leisure to read
  • I have the money to buy a book or books
  • I have the good taste to buy work by this author
  • I have the money to buy a handsomely-bound work
  • I value knowledge
  • I (as an immigrant) have imbibed the values of my new society
  • I (as an immigrant) have learned the language of my new home
  • I (as an immigrant) am trying to figure out the customs of my new home

That’s a lot of weight to put on a stack of paper between book-board covers. And yet, that set of Dickens, or Trollope, or the Brontës, could bear the weight. Especially if they were nicely bound. Even after the industrial revolution, the wealthy could still buy hand-bound, hand-covered, hand-tooled books; but publishers cannily realized that their audience wanted books that looked high-end, even if they were less expensive. The book-cover above would have been made separate from the binding of the book, and decorated using gold foil and a heated embossing press. It would still have been an expensive volume, but it was within the means of a middle class household.

What if you didn’t have the money for a beautifully bound book? There were editions for the budget conscious, less decorated, perhaps on flimsier paper. I found an ad for a complete set of Dickens for $0.48. I am reasonably certain those books, paper covered, were not the volumes you displayed on your mantel to virtue signal. And below those cheaply bound books were dime novels, stapled and bound in paper, and magazines, and tracts, and pamphlets. Arguably, these cheaper books were more about access: to story, to culture, to language, to information. Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches narrative was promulgated through such books: hard work and virtue could change your fortune!

And if your fortune changed, perhaps you, too, could have a set of Dickens on the mantel to signify that you had arrived. And perhaps even to read.



About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


A Set of Dickens on the Whatnot — 10 Comments

  1. “Dime Novels” usually carried the same connotation that literary types sneeringly assign to genre books today. (There’s a line about that in “The Music Man”) Westerns got their start as dime, or pulp fiction. In the Jurassic when I was a child they’d graduated to $0.25. But I had to pay an entire $0.99 for a Nancy Drew mystery because they had a more substantial cover.

  2. Thank you for this! I have just enrolled in a course for the next year on this very subject. I’m hoping it will help me along in my life-goal to become a resident library cat. At the Library of Trinity College Dublin, of course.

    I just have to learn how transform myself into an Animagus…

  3. Gutenberg is overrated.

    Those who talk about him generally entirely omit the discovery of ways to make cheap paper. All the printing presses in the world would do no good if the first consideration for making a book (one copy!) was “How many ewes should we breed?”

    • Not to mention, vellum and parchment were harder to print on than paper. Although paper was no slouch in terms of rag requirements: even when the first paper mill in America opened up in 1690, they still had to import rags from Europe: the colonies weren’t producing enough.

  4. Technically, I’d argue that going to church will invalidate your statement about ‘never seeing a book’.
    I’d also like to know where (farmers’) almanac’s fit into your scheme – they’ve been printed since the 15th century, after all, and were famously popular in the 17th century… I’d assumed they were book bound, but I am not that familiar with the genre.

    Last but not least, I am not convinced about the general illiteracy of at least German 17th century peasants – the profusion of handbills (gods, were there handbills) seems to argue against ‘nobody can read’.

    • I think I should have said it more clearly: most people did not see books up close, or interact with them, until universal schooling became a thing. Until the Protestant revolution, many smaller churches did not own a Bible or other supporting texts. Those were generally concentrated in seats of ecclesiastic power (abbeys, monasteries, etc.). Even after that, most of the books owned by a church were kept out of the hands of Your Random Reader.

      I’ve been trying to research the Almanac for exactly that reason: I suspect, as it was published annually, that they were not given a particularly sturdy binding or printed on the best paper, so they might have been more ephemeral. And they may have been owned/read by the owner of the manor/farm, and information promulgated to the actual workers by his factor. But as I say, I’m researching.

      Literacy is a squishy topic–what was considered “literacy” varied hugely from place to place and time to time (I can sign my name! or I can read my name! or I can keep my books–numeracy was bundled in with literacy very often. Supposedly one country (Sweden, I think) boasted 100% literacy because all adults could read one specific psalm; how many people simply memorized the thing to regurgitate it when asked, we cannot say. Protestantism, with its emphasis on a personal relationship with God and the Bible, caused an uptick in literacy.

      I suspect it’s a little like early 19th century London, which was plastered with handbills and pamphlets which were background noise to a good chunk of the populace who could not read them.

      • If you go to an old church you will occasionally see a board at the front, with numbers. These show the text and psalm for the day. The psalms were read antiphonally, and the congregation essentially is the chorus, repeating a line (something like ‘we cry unto thee O Lord’ or something) while the cantor read the verses. The lectionary ensures that the same texts are used in a cycle, so in a year or so you’d have heard them all and could repeat.
        In other words, you didn’t need a book and you didn’t need to read, in church. The other major aid to the illiterate was stained glass windows. The whole point of them was to be a sort of comic book — you can see the story of Jesus in graphic form from window to window.

  5. (sigh) We should have had a long comfortable coze before I began writing these books, which involve a publisher. His grandfather began by printing religious leaflets, and it snowballed into thriller fiction. Although it is not in period I have made him his fortune by having him pioneer the art of gluing an image onto the board covers of a cheap edition. These images are always lurid and action-filled — lions, warriors with pistols, bandoliers and swords, etc.

    Do you remember, in the LITTLE HOUSE books, when little-girl Laura insists she can read and tries to prove it by opening a novel and reading the first few lines? Her Ma points out that she isn’t really reading, she just has memorized it after being read to.