Eighteenth Century Chap-Books and Broadsides

By Will Bradley

From the time of their first issue up to that when, early in the nineteenth century, they were superseded by Chamber’s and the penny magazines, chap-books and broadsides formed the sole source of printed literature in the homes of the people. To realize what this literature must have meant to these homes and to appreciate its typographic form, one should consider the conditions existing at the time of its publication, also the conditions which led up to such publication.

Before the issue of chap-books, the only literature possessed by the common people was oral and consisted of such traditional songs and tales as King John and the Abbot, The Robin Hood Ballads, Jack and the Giant Killer, Red Riding Hood and many another widely known today. This literature the people had only in such form as it had been handed down by word of mouth from parent to child.

Originally all literature was oral and a common possession of the folk as a whole, but with the advent of learning in reading and writing, there came into existence a new literature based in great part upon those early traditional tales, but unlike them knowing direct composition and authorship. This new literature became the exclusive possession of the cultivated classes and much of it, together with some of the earlier, has known preservation in the beautiful vellum manuscripts wrought with such patience by the learned monks.

With the introduction of printing into England, when Caxton set up his press in Westminster Abbey, texts from some of these written manuscripts were put into type. Wynken de Worde, following Caxton, gave to others a similar treatment

Eventually, publishing became an established business, and concerned itself not only with the past, but also with contemporary authorship. Up to this time, a written or printed book must needs have been so much a matter of luxury as to appeal only to the well-to-do classes. Practically, then, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, people of cultivation were supplied with reading, while uncultivated or illiterate had only the oral traditional literature which, through its disregard by the higher classes, had become their own peculiar heritage.

With the growth of printing, there had also been a development of learning among the masses, so that many learned to both read and write. While this class shared in the oral literature and possessed it to a certain extent in written form, there naturally arose a demand for a more universal form of literary entertainment, which could only be met through printing. To supply this demand, there were then issued little publications which soon became known by the name of chap-books and broadsides.

The first of the chap-books were size that of a thin quarto. They were printed upon what was then the cheapest grade of paper, but which, being handmade and of rag stock, was superior to much of more pretension in use today. The printing compared with that of other books in the same period was crude — the type being worn — while the wood cuts which served to illustrate were battered blocks which had done service in earlier work. The literary contents were chosen from such books either printed or written as offered material likely to prove popular, in most cases the text being greatly abridged.

It would seem that the little books in this first form were meant to sell at the various stalls within the cities, their wider circulation and the name eventually given them being due to the perception of that early merchant or pedlar who hawked his wares from village to hamlet and from farmstead to shepard’s cote. This man, because of his trade, was called a chapman, the prefix “chap” meaning cheap or cheapen, as buying and selling. Thus, the process of merchandizing was called “cheapening.” In the vernacular of today, cheap would mean “of little cost.” Inasmuch as the chapman’s pack was made up to appeal to those of little ready means, it may be assumed to have contained only what could be sold in small amounts. Therefore, chapman might well have meant “cheap man,” and the chap-book, costing as it did but a penny, “cheap book.”

The chapman was quick to see the value to his pack of this little book, and found for it a ready sale. Straightway then more subjects were sought and these, as was natural, were chosen from the seemingly inexhaustible store of traditionally oral literature of the folk. It may be assumed that much of this literature was collected and supplied to the publisher by the chapman, who by his migratory occupation, had abundant opportunity for its gathering. In fact, if the life these men lead, as has been told by one of their number, John Cheap, be true — and it is like in this essential it was — many a bed at night and breakfast in the morning at some outlying farmstead was paid for by no other coin than the singing of these same ballads or telling of these tales. The farmer and his good wife belike thinking the pay full plenty, whereas isolated as they were, they knew little of doings in the outer world, only as it was related to them by these same chapmen.

This new production, much as it meant to the people, was not without its troubles to the publisher. The new material demanded new illustration, and for these, the shops were scoured for all available cuts which, bearing as they did no relation to the text, seem today most humorous.

The increasing demand brought about a change of size, thus chap-books during the eighteenth century, the period of their greatest popularity, were in size about 4 x 6H inches, and usually contained twelve, sixteen or twenty-four pages. Broadsides, which were issued extensively at the same time, were single sheets about 12 x 15 inches, printed broadwise of the paper as a rule, and on one side only. Chap-books in this reduced size, besides being less expensive to produce, probably admitted of more readily handling by the chapman.

At this time, with some publishing shops devoted exclusively to chap-book production and with an issue of thousands, it became evident that the original source of both text and illustration was no longer adequate. For new text, a demand was now made on Grub Street, where hack writers dressed anew the old, and also created much that was original. In this new material, which is greatly inferior to the old, there is seen reflected the tastes, habits and customs of the lower classes of the eighteenth century, as they are to be found nowhere else.

The new illustrations followed in the same path as the text. At first, there was merely a rough copying of what already existed, such as where in many cases are found rough woodcuts taken from copperplate portraits of Queen Elizabeth, now doing service in such songs as ‘The Cruel Schrow: or the Patient Man’s Woe.’ Later, the blocks were evidently intended as illustrative of the text, and often met with fair success. As engravings, however, the work remained very crude up to that time when the art took a new life, and found a master in Thomas Bewick

The work of Bewick as it appears in the little juveniles issued by Rusher, and known as the Banbury Chap-books, is such a marked improvement over all the engravings in use up to that time, as to be in a class quite apart. These little books too, containing as they do such text as Goldsmith’s ‘Goody Two Shoes,’ seem almost the beginning of a new development in book production.

Among the best examples of the true chap-book, those which probably held first place in a business sense, were the productions of William and Cleur Dicey — afterward C. Dicey only — at 4 Aldemary Churchyard, London, who later removed to Bow Churchyard, close-by. Many interesting books came also from Newcastle, the woodcuts in which, though exceedingly crude, are nevertheless very quaint.

The list of imprints would seem to indicate that every town of any size in both England and Scotland had its chap-book publishers. The business was not without good remuneration, as is seen by the estates left by some men whose sole source of income seems to have been the publishing of these little penny-worths.

Interesting as is the growth of these little books, it is in the relation that they bear to printing, that they most appeal to the modern printer. In such a study, it must be remembered they were made for the masses, and took such form as made them both convenient and cheap. The compositor with such material as he had at hand, and with such time as was at his disposal, dressed his work in way best calculated to attract the eye, and certainly wrought with good judgement. His models, it is plain, were the best books of his time; his use of borders gave to the page a pleasing variety, and he has so placed his larger types in display, using with them italic and text, as to carry the desired impression to the reader. Not only did the compositor of that time convey information, but he also made a demand for attention and probably realized, as does his brother of today, that there are pictures in types, for as a rule he so arranged his title pages as to produce quite the desired impression.

Printers of today will be interested no doubt in the examples reproduced in the supplement and in the parallel treatment as applied to modern work, showing as it does the source of so much of what has proven popular in latter day composition.

Source: Bradley, Will. ‘Eighteenth century chap-books and broadsides.’ The American Chap-Book, vol. 1, no. 1. Jersey City: American Type Founders, Sep 1904.


Citation: Lindsay, Martin S. Eighteenth Century Chap-Books and Broadsides. Website: WillBradley.com. Accessed 18 Jan 2020, <https://willbradley.com/words/eighteenth-century-chap-books-and-broadsides/>. Bibliography. References.