A Wind of Change – in the Nineteenth Century

Ralph Rochester, Writer and poet

A wind of change is gusting through the world of books.  Basic terms are redefined, a new vocabulary is born. To read a book, to write a book, to publish a book, to be literate, to market and distribute literature, all are assuming new and different meanings.   As with any great change our age, as well as being fraught,  is an age of great opportunity.   What follows is a brief look back to the revolutionary changes in the production and consumption of books that took place in the nineteenth century.   Is there anything to be learned from the way those changes were implemented and received?  They certainly had far reaching commercial, social and political consequences for this nation and the world.

After Gutenberg had perfected his presses in Mainz in 1450 the art of printing developed at a turtle’s pace and for four hundred years the printing process shuffled along.   Books were arduously printed in small editions for a relatively tiny number of readers.   They were often beautiful, polished, gilded and expensive treasures, crafted by hand, and far too rare and wonderful to fall into the horny hands of the common man.   In any case the common man, by and large, was too busy and quite unable to read them. Then with the nineteenth century came change.   This was to be the century of machines and engines, the century that would see mechanization transform the manufacture of all manner of goods.   There was a revolution in the world of books.  The hand press and the printer’s workshop gave way to the great printing presses that would supply books by the thousand to a literate nation.   There was a consequent revolution in the world of ideas.  The great causes of the age, the abolition of slavery, catholic emancipation, the great Reform Bill that rid the country of rotten boroughs, all were popular causes won against fierce reaction at least in part because of the busy, popular presses.

In 1825, Lord Brougham founded the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and, in the same year, published his Observations on the Education of the People.  Up until this date men and women were content to lead their lives and raise their families and follow their trades without much benefit of books.   Books were there of course and newspapers and journals but, until the coming of the steam powered printing presses, these had been beyond the reach of many.  Booklearning and reading for pleasure was not only the privilege but the mark of  a small literary class and, as so often in life, the haves were not over willing to share with the have nots.  By the middle of the century, however, thanks mainly to the new technology, books were becoming as cheap as chips.   Universal literacy seemed a possibility.

There was naturally reaction.   “God bless my soul, sir!” exclaims the Reverend Doctor Folliott in Peacock’s Crotchet Castle, (1831)  “I am out of all patience with this march of mind.  Here has my house been nearly burned down, by my cook taking it into her head to study hydrostatics, in a sixpenny tract, published by the Steam Intellect Society.”

But the march of mind was not to be stopped and reactionary parsons and lawyers and gentlefolk watched in some alarm as relatively cheap and popular books flooded the market. The cognoscenti sneered at the quality of the mass produced books with their library bindings.  It was not what they were used to.  Their idea of a book was a leather bound volume with marbled endpapers, thick paper, wide margins and pages that needed to be opened with a knife.  But the cloth bound books of the new age were built to last and  many of them are still in circulation today.

Before long the Mechanic’s Institutes, with their libraries, flourished everywhere in Great Britain and an enlightened government established free public libraries by Act of Parliament in 1850.  At about the same time the new Reading Room at the British Museum was built to hold a million books and  Karl Marx came there to change the world by writing on behalf of the traditionally dependent class that was growing more and more independent.   The men and women who had created the wealth of the nation were becoming a competing, alternative, literate society and the writers were appearing who would woo the working man and point a finger at perceived injustices.   In 1852 Mrs Stowe’ Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published and 300,000 copies were sold in the first year.   The book created a wave of sympathy for the American slaves.  Charles Dickens, himself reared in poverty, wrote his hugely popular  novels throughout the middle years of the century and addressed abuses in education and the legal system and exposed hypocrisy wherever he saw it.  Books had become small bombs.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century there was another significant technological advance, the introduction of monotype and linotype typesetting machines that allowed complete pages of lines of type to be created by a typesetter operating a keyboard.   In the eighties and nineties there was an unprecedented explosion of publishing.   The millions of readers of a new more democratic age were hungry for information.  Many books of the time were popular works of reference, dictionaries, encyclopaedias,  atlases, gazetteers.  Many were the books that found their way into the homes of the sons and grandsons of men who had not been able to sign their own name.  Books were to be found everywhere.  An age of, more or less, universal literacy had arrived.

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