he small size of the chapbook — a small, paper-covered book or pamphlet generally measuring three and a half by six inches — makes a sharp contrast with its importance to the English reading public, and throughout the nineteenth century, English children continued to rely upon it for reading material. From evangelical exhortations sponsored by the Religious Tract Society to crude retellings of Medieval romances and fairy tales to nursery rhymes and spelling lessons, the diminutive chapbooks represented a wide array of subject matter and varying interests.
Originally only adults read chapbooks, and in fact, not until the nineteenth century were they intended for children. The market for chapbooks really begins in the political and religious freedom following the abolishment of the Star Chamber in 1641 (Darton 69), and for the next two centuries, chapbooks formed the primary reading matter for the inhabitants of England, especially for the poorer classes who could afford these cheaply priced, readily available books. Although chapbooks often contained political or religious matter, a great many also catered to popular interests by retelling medieval ballads such as the exploits of Guy of Warwick or Bevis of Southampton, preserving folk and fairy tales or relating jests and ballads. In his study of chapbooks, Victor Neuburg claims that chapbooks were "the most important and numerically the most considerable element in the printed popular literature of the eighteenth century" (3).
Chapbooks appealed to both adult and young readers alike with their simple bold-faced texts and woodcut illustrations. They were also widely available in the packs and wagons of roaming pedlars or other itinerant merchants. However, chapbook publishers in the earlier centuries produced very few works aimed at young readers. The Dicey family remained one of the largest producers of chapbooks for much of the eighteenth century, yet, according to Neuburg, they only produced three intended for young readers:
- Cock Robin, a pretty gilded Toy for either Girl of Boy, suited to children of all ages
- The Tragical Death of A, Apple Pye, who was cut in pieces and eat by twenty-five gentlemen, with whom all little people ought to be well acquainted
- The House that Jack Built; a diverting story for Children of all ages; and the history of Gog and Magog. [Neuburg 28,29]
The lack of other entertaining reading material for young readers and the popular subject matter of melodramatic duels, battles between knights and dragons, deals with wily fairies and true lovers meant that children often partook of chapbook literature. Autobiographers fondly recall the chapbooks of their childhood. James Boswell, writing in July, 1763 wrote, "I have always retained a kind of affection of affection for [chapbooks], as they recall my early days" (Neuburg 1).
A page from a chapbook adaptation of Robinson Crusoe and a detail from this page. [Click on the thumbnails for larger images.]
By the nineteenth century, the hey-day of chapbook publication for adults was largely over. Neuburg suggests that the Victorian literate adult had outgrown his or her penchant for medieval romances and instead sought reading material that would explain the rapidly changing world of nineteenth-century England (62). Chapbook publishers instead, and for the first time, catered directly to young readers. This shift is also apparent in the woodcuts that invariably adorn the chapbook's pages. Whereas earlier woodcuts primarily depict only adults, nineteenth-century chapbooks represent both old and young characters pictorially. Moreover, nineteenth-century publishers began to produce colored chapbooks, often employing children to color illustrations by hand. The Victorian writer, James Hain Friswell highlights the irony inherent in employing child labor to produce materials to entertain the young, he writes of the young Bones children,
not more than five years old . . . [who] colour prints, maps, or children's books from morning till night, and never play or chat about them. To them "Jack the Giant-Killer" is but so much work; and as each stands with his little colour-sauver before him, laying almost perpetually one streak of bright colour on the sheets of pictures which are before them, he wonders how happier children can take any pleasure in them, or think them pretty. 
That these later chapbook producers catered directly to the young Victorian appetite for these cheaply produced and acquired books is also apparent in the rhymes that appear as advertisement and text within their pages. Rusher's Banbury Press, a prolific producer of children's chapbooks, printed the following rhymes in their Penny Books:
Three chapbooks. [Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.]
At Rusher's fam'd Warehouse,
Books, Pictures and Toys
Are selling to please all
The good girls and boys.
For youth of all ages There's plenty in store, Amusement, instruction, For rich and the poor.
Here's something new Dear child for you, I will please you in a trice A halfp'ny chuse, Now don't refuse, A penny is the price.
Tho' basely born Pray do not scorn A Tale no worse than many For I'm afraid More say in trade, A halfp'ny's made a penny. [Pearson 24,25]
Both entertaining in their own right and reflecting the nature of the material in their pages, these rhymes illustrate the commercial nature of the chapbook trade in the nineteenth century, and also speak to the young reader's pleasure in these pages.
Darton, F. J. Harvey. Children's Books in England. 3rd ed. revised by Brian Alderson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Friswell, James Hain. Houses with the fronts off. London, 1854.
Neuburg, Victor E. The Penny Histories. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1969.
Pearson, Edwin. Banbury Chap Books and Nursery Toy Book Literature with Impressions from Several Hundred Original Wood-Cut Blocks.. London, 1890.
Last modified 12 July 2007