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The Book as Print Culture: The 18th Century

bookstoreDuring the 18th century, the book publishing business began to take shape.

No longer was the printer also the author, publisher, and bookseller. Instead, a wide range of career paths emerged in the book trade.

The role of publisher separated from printer and bookseller. The growth of printing allowed authors to profit from their work. In addition, authors began receiving credit for their work and some even saw fame.

Over its first four centuries the number of books printed grew tremendously. With each century the output more than doubled. This resulted in a huge increase in access to books as well as the availability of books at a lower cost.

outputPublishers recognized the need for a variety of publications to meet the diverse interests of their clientele. According to Harthan (1981, 141),

"the upper classes and rich financial families (who did not come from the hereditary aristocracy) developed a taste for finely produced, elegant books which diverted rather than edified their owners - novels, fables, plays, and verses with small/scale illustration made playful by erotic undertones. Such books provided appropriate furnishings for the petits appartements which were found more comfortable and private than the large, formal rooms created by Louis XIV at Versailles."

John Boydell (1720-1804) was a publisher known for his reproductions of engravings. In the shift from oral to print culture, the works of William Shakespeare were increasing in popularity in a printed form. To capitalize on the popularity of Shakespeare, Boydell published an illustrated version of the plays showcasing. British painters and engravers. He chose Shakespeare scholar George Stevens to supervise the text and mezzotints created by well-known painters of the time. The multiple volume set known as Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery was published in London beginning in 1791 through 1805.

The image below is from Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery.


Age of Reason and Enlightenment

During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, educated people continued to support advances in science. Nearly three centuries of printed works were available in private and public libraries, so scientists could easily build on the work done by previous generations. For instance, Carl von Linne (1707-1778) created the Linnean classification system for cataloguing living things published in his book Systema Naturae (1735). This work is based on the work of the Bauhin brothers published in the 16th century. Gaspard Bauhin (1560-1624) had published Pinax Theatre Botanici in 1596 classifying thousands of plants.

The images below are from Systema Naturae.

linlin 2

Scientists of the 18th century were also laying the foundation for future scholars. For instance, Georges Buffon (1707-1788) wrote Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière between 1744 and 1788. He used existing printed works to compile a history of the natural world up until the 18th century. This book along with others laid the foundation for the work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882).

try itTry It!
Throughout history, the knowledge found in books have laid the foundation for future generations of scholars. Select a topic of interest. Can you follow the development of this field through authors and their works?

This Enlightenment period focused on reasoning and the pursuit of truth is reflected in the works of John Locke in the area of political philosophy. Voltaire (1694-1778) and others stressed the importance of freedom of religion and expression. This emphasis on the inalienable rights of people was supported by a wave of books by writers like Denis Diderot (1713-1784), Rousseau (1712-1778), and Montesquieu (1689-1755.

The Rising Middle Class and Expansion of Book Sales

With the lapse of the Licensing Act of 1662, governmental restrictions on printing ended. Despite the efforts of the Stationers' Company to regulate the book trade, an open, competitive commercial model was emerging (Siskin & Warner, 2012). According to Cochrane (1964, x), the eighteenth century

"produced a growing middle class with the means and the leisure to buy books and read them, and it put very little restriction on what the trade could print and sell to this new public. It saw the final emancipation of the writer from the position of an amateur or a hack to that of an often highly paid professional."

The bookseller James Lackington (1792, 386-387) pointed out that

"I suppose that more than four times the number of books are sold now than were sold twenty years since. The poorer sort of farmers, and even the poor country people in general, who before that period spent their winter evenings in related stories of witches, ghosts, hobgoblins, and c. now shorten the winter nights by hearing their sons and daughters read tales, romances, and c. and on entering their houses, you may see Tim Jones, Roderick Random, and other entertaining books stuck up on their bacon racks, and c. If John goes to town with a load of hay, he is charged to be sure not to forget to bring home "Peregrine Pickle's adventures;" and when Dolly is sent to market to sell her eggs, she is commissioned to purchase "The history of Pamela Andrews." In short all ranks and degrees now READ. But most rapid increase of the sale of books has been since the termination of the late war."

In the article Recovering The French Convert, Thomas Kidd (2004, 109) explored the book trade in early America by examining a single book.

"The French Convert was uniquely suited to take advantage of the developing print market of eighteenth century America, which was becoming more integrated with Atlantic world trade systems. This trade increasingly demanded tales of adventure and virtue, which helped Britons and Americans categorize the ongoing violence and ideological conflict between them and the French empire, or between them and the enemies of democracy. Despite the changing views of the French and the use of anti-Catholicism, the story of Bernard and Deidamia persisted in popularity, revealing again how books cannot be taken out of context but must be understood as they are written, produced, sold, and read in ever-shifting print domains."

Book Clubs

Lackington (1792, 388) states that

"a number of book clubs are formed in every part of England, where each member subscribes a certain sum quarterly to purchase books; in some of these clubs the books after they have been read by all the subscribers, are sold among them to the highest bidders, and the money produced by such sale, is expended in fresh purchases, by which prudent and judicious mode, each member has it in his power to become possessed of the work of any particular author he may judge deserving a superior degree of attention; and the members at large enjoy the advantage of a continual succession of different publications, instead of being restricted to a repeated perusal of the fame authors; which must have been the case with many if so rational a plan had not been adopted."

Children and Reading

Lackington (1792, 390-391) realized that reading the Bible wasn't always the best way to help children read.

"It is worth remarking that the introducing histories, romances, stories, poems, and c. into schools, has been a very great means of diffusing a general taste for reading among all ranks of people, while in schools, the children only read the bible (which was the case in many schools a few years ago) children then did not make so early a progress in reading as they have since, they have been pleased and entertained as well as instructed; and this relish for books, in many will last as long as life."

Sunday Schools

Lackington (1792, 389) notes that

"The Sunday-Schools are spreading very fast in most parts of England, which will accelerate the diffusion of knowledge among the lower classes of the community, in a very few years exceedingly increase the sale of books. - Here permit me earnestly to call on every honest bookseller (I trust my call will not be in vain) as well as on every friend to the extension of knowledge to unite (as you I am confident will) in a hearty AMEN."


Nationalism involves personal identification with a particular country. The term was coined by Johann Goffried Herder in the 1770s. Prior to the emphasis on nationalism, individuals were loyal to a a particular religion or leader in charge such as a King. The combination of the printing press, nationalistic books, and literacy may have contributed to this shift in the 18th century.

Some scholars have identified the shift from printing book in Latin to publishing in national languages as a contributing factor in the rise of nationalism in Europe. Others have stressed that the printing press allowed individuals to more easily publish books stressing regional and national topics. Many intellectuals of the day published works supporting their political views leading to both the American Revolution and the French Revolution.

According to Downs (2004), the French Revolution resulted in ending feudalism, supported the rise of the middle class, established the principle of majority rule, and strengthened the idea of nationalism. The rise of the middle class brought an emphasis on capitalism and individualism. Writers like Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus provided the foundations for the field of economics. Authors in America were writing a national constitution and sharing thoughts on democracy.

Revolutionary Ideas

During the 18th century, intellectuals used books and other print communications to spread revolutionary ideas. Many of these writings were published anonymously by people like Benjamin Franklin. This was possible because of the relatively few controls on the press during this time. James Otis (1725-1783) is an example of an early advocate of independence. His pamphlet The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764) stressed the important of human rights. Common Sense by Thomas Paine (1737-1809) published in 1775 provides another example of how a single document focusing on freedom can impact citizens. It focused Colonial America's attention on the idea of freedom. With a half million copies printed during the pre-revolution era, most people would have become familiar with the document.

After the American Revolution, the print media was used to convince the people to support the ideas found in the United States Constitution. The Federalist Papers (1788) were printed both as newspaper articles and as a book.

The African American Experience

Much of the research devoted to print culture of the 18th century, focuses on the upper and middle class Anglo-Saxon population. However to understand print culture, it's essential to explore lesser recognized populations such as African Americans during this time period. The African American experience during this time provides a stark contrast to Anglo-Saxon experiences.

Read Jackson, Leon (2010). The talking book and the talking book historian: African American cultures of print-the state of the discipline. Book History, 13, 251-308. IUPUI students can view the article online.

The Rise of the Novel Worldwide

Although the novel was introduced in the 17th century, it wasn't until the 18th century that it took hold as a popular literary genre. It wasn't until the end of the eighteenth century that the term 'novel' became full established (Watt, 2001). Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) is an excellent example of the growing popularity of adventure novels.


For the first time, novels became a favorite leisure activities of the middle class. English author Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) wrote novels focusing on dilemmas of moral choices, love stories, and the middle class. Novels like Pamela (194) found immediate success and became popular throughout Europe.

The images below are from Pamela.


According to Cathy Davidson (2004, 4),

"The early American novel soon became the single most popular literary genre of its day. Circulating libraries boasted about (and exaggerated) the number of 'novels' they stocked in order to draw in new members. One reason, I argue, for the popularity of early American novels was the way they coupled sensational plots with problems that were very much part of the nation-building enterprise (diffuse, varied, and often disharmonious) engaged in by Americans across the spectrum of class, region, religion, ethnicity, race, occupation, age, and gender in the 1790s."

Davidson (2004, 5) argues that reading a novel was

"a way of participating in national debates on a range of problems that were both included and overlooked in the nation's founding documents. Novels addressed ideas (such as abolitionism and female suffrage) that did not survive the secretive and partisan process of compromise, codification, and ratification that resulted in adoption of the final draft of the Constitution. Novels, in a sense, were the rough drafts for a range of problems vital to everyday life, both in and out of the public sphere."


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