For the People . While Mathew Carey and Isaiah Thomas created a publishing industry and prided themselves on the printer’s craft, they also sold popular works at low cost. Throughout the country small presses turned out “chapbooks,” small, relatively cheap editions of books printed on inexpensive paper. Some booksellers, such as Chapman Whitcomb, spent most of their time traveling and selling copies of their books for a few pennies a copy.
Itinerant Bookseller . Graduating from Dartmouth College in 1785, Whitcomb became a minister but did not succeed as one, either through his lack of faith or his eccentric nature. He taught school for a while and supplemented his income by collecting rags to sell to a local paper maker. Selling rags to make paper led Whitcomb into the other end of the paper industry, writing books. His several dozen books were printed in Leominster, Massachusetts, by Charles and John Prentiss. Whitcomb not only wrote poetry, but also the popular adventure stories and captivity tales. In 1800 he revised two books—the narrative of Mary Rowlandson, who was captured by Wampanoag Indians in 1676, and an English chapbook relating a robbery titled The Farmer’s
Daughter, of Essex: Being a History of the Life and Sufferings of Miss Clarissa Dalton. With a stock of chapbooks in hand, Whitcomb walked through rural New England selling his wares.
Circulation . Most copies of these chapbooks have long since disappeared, though Isaiah Thomas made an effort to collect and preserve them in the American Antiquarian Society. Small presses such as that of the Prentiss brothers in Leominster turned out these cheap editions, and itinerant booksellers such as Whitcomb revised popular works and sold them in new areas. In the seventeenth century stories of colonists captured by Indians attracted readers, not only for the excitement but also for the moral lessons they conveyed. In the years 1785 to 1815 stories of Americans captured by Algerian pirates were also popular. In 1807 a Boston publisher printed History of the Captivity and Sufferings of Mrs. Maria Martin, who was Six Years a Slave in Algiers, which was reprinted in Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Ohio before 1816. One publisher bound this tale of captivity and suffering together with a Short Account of Algiers, originally published in 1793 by Mathew Carey; a rural New England printer, finding the two books bound together, printed Carey’s Short Account of Algiers separately, but listed Maria Martin as the author. Because distances were so great between Philadelphia and the New England backcountry, Carey did not attempt to retrieve his book or to extract royalties from the small press running off copies.
Common Themes . Aside from its publishing history, the Maria Martin chapbook shares a common theme
with other popular stories. A young woman goes to sea with her husband and is shipwrecked. Captured by corsairs, she becomes a slave to a Turkish governor in an Algerian province. She resists his sexual advances and is put in solitary confinement. Just as her mind is about to break, she has a vision of salvation and is rescued. She returns home, where her father faints upon seeing her after seven years of absence. The story ends with Maria Martin returning to sea to find her husband. This was a powerful story of endurance and survival. It was similar to Abraham Panther’s A Very Surprising Narrative of a Young Woman, Discovered in a Rocky Cave, which was reprinted by many small presses between 1786 and 1816. Another popular chapbook was the Famous History of Whittington and his Cat, which had at least nineteen editions between 1770 and 1818. It related the story of Dick Whittington, a poor English boy who arrived in London with nothing but his cat and wound up becoming the city’s Lord Mayor. A rags-to-riches story, the reasons for its popularity in American society are clear.
Significance . Magazines in this period were launched and quickly sank. Newspapers devoted most of their pages to affairs of state. Chapbooks were perhaps the most significant means of spreading ideas and culture through American society. Sold by traveling salesmen such as Whitcomb, these inexpensive books circulated throughout rural America, as well as in cities, and were meant to be read until they fell apart. The messages they conveyed—self-reliance, resistance to tyranny, family loyalty, and hard work—were the vital principles of American society.
Victor Neuberg, “Chapbooks in America: Reconstructing the Popular Reading of Early America,” in Reading in America: Literature and Social History, edited by Cathy N. Davidson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).
CHAPBOOKS , popular literature in pamphlet form formerly hawked by chapmen or peddlers. Little attention has been paid to these in connection with Hebrew bibliography. Given the fragile nature of things, such flimsy, unbound publications tended to be thumbed out of existence, in many cases leaving no trace. It is probable, nevertheless, that from the 16th century chapbooks were produced by Jewish printers in Italy and the Balkans and hawked around the local fairs: few, however, have survived. In the 19th and 20th centuries very large numbers of such publications, crudely produced on the cheapest paper, were published in Eastern Europe for hawking by itinerant peddlers. These would consist in part of seasonal liturgical works (the *Haggadah before Passover, sometimes crudely illustrated; Penitential Prayers (Seliḥot) before New Year; the Book of Lamentations and kinot before the Ninth of *Av), sometimes accompanied by Yiddish translations for the benefit of the women and the ignorant. Other works produced in this fashion were accounts of the "wonders" of Isaac *Luria or *Israel b. Eliezer Ba'al Shem Tov, books of wondrous stories ("Mayse Bikhlekh"; see *Ma'aseh Book), mainly Yiddish dicta of *hasidic rabbis, model letter books, simple ethical works, and divination handbooks (Sefer Goralot). With the development of Yiddish literature, cheap novels, whether original or in translation, were distributed in the same fashion. Similar works were produced in Ladino in Salonika up to the 20th century, and in Judeo-Arabic both in North Africa and Iraq until the 1940s.
CHAPBOOKS were cheap, popular pamphlets, generally printed on a single sheet and folded to form twenty-four pages or fewer, often crudely illustrated with woodcuts, and sold by chapmen. Published in the tens of thousands in America until about 1850, these books were most numerous between 1800 and 1825. For over a century, chapbooks were the only literature available in the average home except the Bible, the almanac, and the Newspaper. They contained fairy tales, biographies of heroes and rascals, riddles, jests, poems, songs, speeches, accounts of shipwrecks and Indian activities, tales of highwaymen, deathbed scenes, accounts of executions, romances, astrology, palmistry, etiquette books, letters and valentines, and moral (and sometimes immoral) tales.
R. W. G.Vail/a. e.
See alsoAlmanacs ; Literature: Children's Literature, Popular Literature .
chapbook, one of the pamphlets formerly sold in Europe and America by itinerant agents, or "chapmen." Chapbooks were inexpensive—in England often costing only a penny—and, like the broadside, they were usually anonymous and undated. The texts were similar to those of current tabloid newspapers and therefore reveal much about the popular taste of the 16th, 17th, and 18th cent. The term is occasionally used to refer to old manuscripts showing national character through the use of vernacular expressions.