GUEST CURATOR: Kathryn J. Severance
What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“TO BE SOLD … the following BOOKS.”
This advertisement sold different types of books, from Bibles (“royal Families Bibles”) to history books and geography (“Histories of the late War” and “History of Austria”), a science book (“Winkler’s natural Philosophy”), and sets of books about warfare (“Sieges and Battles”) to novels. (Skome also sold Stoughton’s Elixir, a patent medicine.)
The advertisement also mentions “Stackhouse’s Life of Christ, Folio.” In today’s world, “folio” refers to the page numbers that appear in books. However, in the eighteenth century, a folio was a type of book that was larger than average and also more expensive, made of a piece of paper that had been folded just once, resulting in two pages. Other book sizes included quartos, octavos, and duodecimals. Quartos are slightly smaller than folios due to the fact that the paper that was used to form them was folded four times instead of two. Octavos are even smaller, as the paper used to form them has been folded eight times. Duodecimals are even smaller than octavos since they have twelve pages per sheet. One famous example of a work that was distributed as a folio was a 1623 edition of Shakespeare’s works.
For more information on the history of books, check out this syllabus for an online course on “The Book: 1450 to the Present.”
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
The eighteenth century was an age of revolutions. This blog explores the consumer revolution every day, one advertisement at a time. In many instances, the guest curators and I have linked the appeals made in those advertisements to the political revolution brewing in England’s American colonies. Today’s advertisement, however, called attention to another revolution that occurred throughout the eighteenth century.
Note that Skome’s lists several kinds of reading material, starting with bibles and other devotional works and concluding with “A Number of curious and entertaining NOVELS.” A number of histories, geographies, and other reference works appeared in the middle of the list. In choosing to list his titles in this order, Skome created a hierarchy that reflected many colonists’ attitudes toward the reading materials available to them, including a suspicion and hostility toward novels.
So, what does this have to do with some kind of revolution? A revolution in reading took place during the eighteenth century. Colonists’ reading habits shifted from intensive reading of a small number of printed works – primarily bibles and other texts about religion – to extensive reading of a great number of genres, including histories, travelogues, economics, poetry and other literature, and novels. The consumer revolution and the reading revolution converged as colonists purchased and read a greater variety of books than bibles and almanacs.
This greater variety included “curious and entertaining NOVELS.” Some colonists were not happy with that development, even as they cultivated an appreciation for other printed works. Most books possessed at least some redeeming content, but critics believed that the fictional tales of romance and scandal in novels promoted salacious behavior in real life. Such critiques had a gendered component as well: in a patriarchal society, many men worried about what kinds of ideas women and girls might develop when left to their own devices to read possibly unsavory novels without appropriate supervision.