Last month, WhatTheyThink Grand Overlord Eric Vessels and Frank Romano chatted about Chatbooks, a new service that allows users to upload digital photos from Instagram, Facebook, or their phones and print a custom photobook. The name of the company reminded me—at least for the purpose of this essay—of what was once called a chapbook, which was a roughly similar kind of publication that dates back to the 16th century. The chapbook is also related to something you may be giving or receiving (ideally both) sometime this weekend. And the chapbook itself arose thanks to perhaps the earliest music distribution system.
Five hundred years before Spotify—or the compact disc or even the vinyl record—songs were distributed on paper. No, not like output from Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s phonautograph; rather, the lyrics to a song would be printed and distributed as “broadside ballads.” Also called “broadsheet ballads,” they were little ditties on such disparate topics as love, religion, drinking, wars, current events, and so on, that were printed on a single sheet of paper. At the time, just after the invention of the printing press, you could print a single-sided sheet (aka a broadsheet) pretty inexpensively, so people would compose ballads or other bits of doggerel, have them printed, and then sell them for a penny or halfpenny. They usually included just the lyrics, and specified a pre-existing tune to which the words would be sung. (If “Weird Al” Yankovic had been around in the 16th century, this is probably how he’d have distributed his song parodies.) One broadside ballad from circa 1660 called “A Constant wife and a kind wife,/A loving wife and a fine wife,/Which gives content unto mans life” begins, to the tune of “Locks and Bolts Do Hinder”:
YOng-men and Maids lend me your aids
to speak of my dear sweeting,
It shews how fortune hath betrayd,
and often spoyld our meeting
She likely was for to be rich,
and I a man but meanly,
Wherefore her friends at me do grudge,
and use me most unkindly.
It gets better after that.
For those who are less romantically inclined, there is one from 1681 called “A Congratulation on the Happy Discovery of the Hellish Fanatick Plot,” and I think we’ve all had at least one Valentine’s Day like that.
It’s been estimated that as many as 400,000 broadsides were printed each year, until they declined in popularity after their peak in the mid-17th century (the Bodleian Library at Oxford University has a collection of about 30,000 of them). They were often sold by itinerant chapmen or hawkers, who sang the songs to attract the attention of potential customers. (Etymological note: “chap” as in “chapman” came from the Old English céap, or “deal,” from which also came the word “cheap,” as in the phrase “a good cheap,” which meant “a good deal.” It means a good deal more than that today.)
Pardon the imposition, but it was soon discovered that a single broadsheet could have a number of pages printed on it, and then be folded into booklets of anywhere from eight to 24 pages. These were called chapbooks, and although the word itself was not coined until the 19th century, it came from the “chapman” who sold these publications (be he named Graham or not).
By the 17th century, chapbooks had become a popular form of literature (although one uses that word advisedly when talking about chapbooks), and virtually any kind of content was published—songs, children’s literature, folk stories, poetry, political and religious treatises, you name it—and they were often illustrated with crudely rendered woodcuts. They were cheap, which was the point, so the printing and paper—like the content—were not exactly of the highest grade. Indeed, there is evidence that chapbooks, presumably after they were read, came in handy during a trip to the loo.
Only a small fraction of all the chapbooks ever produced have survived (after the previous sentence, perhaps we should be glad), and the majority of those were thanks to diarist and essayist Samuel Pepys (pronounced “peeps,” although there is no evidence that he was filled with marshmallow), who amassed a large collection of them between 1661 and 1688. The National Library of Scotland has an archive of about 4,000 Scottish chapbooks out of the approximately 50,000 that were produced.
Between the 1790s and 1850s, one of the biggest printers/publishers of chapbooks in Britain was John Fairburn. He also produced prints, pamphlets, maps, and other items and, in fact, there was a dynasty of Fairburns—many named John—who opened multiple print shops around London. Chapbook content in general was not exactly highbrow, and an example of one that Fairburn printed was a cheery little 1817 true crime story called Horrible Rape and Murder!! The Affecting case of Mary Ashford, A beautiful young Virgin, who was diabolically Ravished, Murdered, and thrown into a Pit… Fairburn’s press was notorious for churning out that kind of thing, as well as politically rabble-rousing tracts, but he also published children’s chapbooks and other more upmarket titles. (At the time, most commercial printing—chapbooks especially—was produced via letterpress because it was the cheapest printing method, but when Fairburn printed a copy of the Ten Commandments, the word of God demanded intaglio.)
But it wasn’t all ravishing, murdering, and being thrown into a pit. In 1787, Fairburn produced what is believed to be the oldest printed Valentine’s Day card. (We think of Valentine’s Day as a modern “Hallmark holiday,” but the association with St. Valentine, his feast day, and the celebration of romantic love dates back to Geoffrey Chaucer in the Middle Ages.) Fairburn’s printed Valentine was hand-illustrated and colored, and perforated to simulate lace. He likely printed many of them, but the one that survived was sent from Catherine Mossday to a Mr. Brown in London, and included a boilerplate verse:
Since on this ever Happy day,
All Nature’s full of Love and Play
Yet harmless still if my design,
‘Tis but to be your Valentine.
Miss Mossday also personalized it with a handwritten note:
As I have repeatedly requested you to come I think you must have some reason for not complying with my request, but as I have something particular to say to you I could wish you make it all agreeable to come on Sunday next without fail and in doing you will oblige your well wisher.
Sounds like Mr. Brown had less of a Valentine and more of a stalker.
Today’s photobooks—and indeed Chatbooks—are the modern digital equivalent of the chapbooks of yore. How many will end up in the library collections of the future? And if Catherine Mossday were around today, would her photobooks consist entirely of photos of Mr. Brown?
“John Fairburn: A Regency Era Publisher and Printer,” Bishopsgate Institute, http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/gallery_album.aspx?albumid=34.
Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/ballads/ballads.htm.
Castle Museum York, “World’s first printed Valentine’s Card,” A History of the World, British Museum/BBC, 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/L1NM_6mWRymAMKXcRDlXJA.
Ken Giese, “High and Low: John Fairburn’s Curious Printing of The Ten Commandments,” Between the Covers, June 18, 2010, https://betweenthecoversblog.wordpress.com/2010/06/18/high-and-low-john-fairburn’s-curious-printing-of-the-ten-commandments/.
Nicholas Hausman, “Chapbooks: Definitions and Origins,” MIT, http://web.mit.edu/21h.418/www/nhausman/chap1.html.
“Chapbooks,” The National Library of Scotland, http://www.nls.uk/collections/rarebooks/collections/chapbooks.
English Broadside Ballad Archive, University of California, Santa Barbara, http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu.
“Broadside (music),” Wikipedia, last modified on July 18, 2015, retrieved January 25, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broadside_(music).
“Chapbook,” Wikipedia, last modified on December 23, 2015, retrieved January 25, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chapbook