What Is a Chapbook?
Growing out of an earlier tradition of inexpensive ballad literature, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century chapbooks were small publications that contained songs, poems, political treatises, folk stories, religious tracts, and all manner of short texts. Their (often anonymous) printers produced what they thought would sell, even if that meant “borrowing” from other sources. (The eighteenth-century poet Allan Ramsay wrote in his “Address to the Town Council of Edinburgh” of the chapbook printer “Lucky Reid” who “spoil’d my sense, and staw my cash.”)
Printers sold their chapbooks to itinerant peddlers called “chapmen,” who in turn sold them to consumers. These chapmen, who hawked all manner of small goods for their livelihood, were often roguish figures who lived on the margins of society.
In general, chapbooks were inexpensive publications designed for the poorer literate classes. They were typically printed on a single sheet of low-quality paper, folded to make eight, sixteen, or twenty-four pages, though some examples were longer still.
Closely related to the chapbook were two other forms also hawked in the streets during the same period. Broadsides were texts printed on one side of an entire sheet of paper. Smaller slip-poems were printed on a long strip of paper cut from a larger sheet.
Rather than using relatively expensive etchings, chapbook printers illustrated their wares with crude woodcuts. Many of these woodcuts were reused in multiple chapbooks, a single image serving to depict several different persons, places, or events. They were usually sold without covers (though many are today found regathered into volumes, the legacy of generations of collectors). This combination of low-quality paper, crude illustrations, and no cover made for a very “cheap book” that was affordable for the ever-increasing number of working-class readers.
In Scotland, where literacy rates tended to be higher than elsewhere in the British Isles, chapbooks were particularly popular. Whereas England, with its large cities, supported a thriving newspaper industry, Scotland’s rural nature discouraged the production of inexpensive periodical literature to compete with chapbooks. Glasgow and Edinburgh in particular became centers for chapbook publication, with smaller cities such as Paisley, Kilmarnock, Stirling, Falkirk, and Dumfries also contributing to the trade. Cities just south of the border, such as Newcastle, Carlisle, and Penrith, published as much for a Scottish audience as for an English one.