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these little works were likely intended for any poor reader whose skills were rudimentary”

Ruth Richardson, Chapbooks, British Library

In circulation 17th-19th centuries. Main source of reading for general public – better education by this point – or read out to them. They were sold by chapmen, travelling peddlars, along with a variety of other items. Cheap to produce and buy.

Contents include:

  • sermons, prophecies, hymns, and other religious matter
  • crime stories and murderers’ final words before executions
  • ‘urban myths’ and sensational stories
  • abridged fiction
  • songs, ballads and poems (Robert Burns, Allan Ramsay etc)
  • biographies of famous people past and present
  • romances, legends, fairy tales, ghost stories
  • alphabets, nursery rhymes
  • instruction manuals and almanacs.

Appearance: folded single sheet of coarse paper, woodcut illustrations (not always related to text), very flimsy and ephemeral (easily falling apart after a few uses)

Chapbooks not often specifically published for children although there are exceptions e.g. James Lumsden, Glasgow

Approximately 15,000 chapbooks published in Scotland, with 200,000 printed annually in Scotland in the 18th century (V&A).

Chapbooks evolved over time and could be seen as the ancestor of comics.

Hornbooks and Battledore

Hornbooks and a battledore [Public domain]

Hornbooks and a battledore [Public domain]

Hornbooks were sheets of paper covered with alphabet, numbers and prayers or other religious material pasted on to wood (often with a handle for easy holding) and protected with a veneer of horn. Simple primers. Known to be produced in Scotland from 1588.

Battledores are associated in my mind with ‘and shuttlecock’ which is an early game of badminton, and the primer was probably named after the game’s racquet which is a similar shape. They were made of cardboard or paper and were similar in content to hornbooks, but with more space they could also contain pictures and stories i.e. entertainment and not just instruction.


National Library of Scotland. Chapbooks  http://www.nls.uk/collections/rare-books/collections/chapbooks.  Accessed 8th November 2015Chapbooks

National Library of Scotland. Children’s books in the national Library of Scotland. http://www.nls.uk/collections/rare-books/collections/childrens-books Accessed 9th November

Richardson, Ruth. Chapbooks.  http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/chapbooks. Accessed 8th November 2015

Scottish chapbooks. http://melissamcafee.omeka.net/. Accessed 30th November 2015

The Thomas Fisher Chapbook Collection.  https://archive.org/details/thomasfisherchapbooks. Accessed 8th November 2015

University of Glasgow Special Collections. Scottish Chapbooks Catalogue Information  http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/chapbooks/help.html. Accessed 30th November 2015

University of Glasgow Special Collections. Children’s chapbooks   http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/may2008.html. Accessed 30th November 2015