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The Book as Print Culture: 19th Century

In his book Print, Manuscript, and the Search for Order: 1450-1830, McKitterick (2003, 9) provided an overview of print culture during this time period including

"driven by cost (no least the rates of pay for compositors) and by a new awareness in an industrialized world of the relationship between production and increased demand and consumption, a revived interest in speed, in the technical possibilities of new inventions and in their social and interpretive implications."

Piper (2009, 4) concluded that this period "witnessed a remarkable social investment in books, both materially and imaginatively."

Mass Production

At the turn of the 19th century, publishing houses around the world were churning out books. Major publishers in London, New York, Paris, Berlin, and in other areas were increasing production through innovations in technology. They were also looking for new ways to attract customers. Critical editions, gift books, illustrated works, penny novels, and translations all added to the variety of options across social and economic classes.

People living during this book frenzy were aware of these changes. Wolfgang Menzel (1798-1873) was a literary historian. In 1828, he observed,

"If a citizen of the next century were to look back at the current moment in German history, he would say that we had slept and dreamt in books."

Mass production allowed readers to become part of a shared experience. Emily Todd (2009, 100-101) notes that in the 19th century,

"even though the novels (Waverley novels by Sir Walter Scott) appeared insignificant in form... (they were characterized) as foundational to the country's literary culture. The books were catalysts for collective experience - everyone waited for them, everyone wanted them, and everyone talked about them...they became American books and animated the literary marketplace, as publishers raced to print them, booksellers and 'besieged' libraries stocked them, and men and women, as well as boys and girls, read them hungrily."

To learn more, browse Todd, Emily B. (2009). Establishing routes for fiction in the United States: Walter Scott's novels and the early nineteenth-century American publishing industry. Book History, 12, 100-128. IUPUI students can view the article online.


The Book Profession

According to Andrew Piper (2009, 3), during the nineteenth century

"one could also observe the rising social prominence of a number of bibliographically oriented individuals: not just authors, but also editors, translators, booksellers, printers, librarians, critics, and bibliographers all assumed an elevated professional status. Booksellers in particular would become some of the most powerful financial actors in European and American societies by 1800, with extraordinary capital investments and elaborate international networks of trading partners."

Books and Leisure

Andrew Piper (2009, 3) noted that the advent of mass printing was a contributing factor in the creating of a "bookish" culture. He states that

"It was a period that saw the rise of a variety of social practices and spaces centered around the organization of books, whether it was the emergence of the public lending library, the private family library, the reading club, or the expansion of gift-giving rituals involving books."

The image below shows a gift book from the 19th century.


According to Harthan (1981, 172),

"reading was an important leisure activity, both in private and aloud in the family circle, and one of the tests of a good or successful book in England was its suitability for family reading."

During the Victorian era of British history from 1837-1901, literature continued to be popular across social classes. Authors like Charles Dickens (1812-1870), Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), and Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855) were popular.

The study of natural history was a popular leisure activity including books on birds, butterflies, seashells, insects, and flowers. Many books were published by "Gentleman scientists" like Charles Darwin.

Tourism ignited the growing need for atlas and travel guides. Romantic writers also contributed to the surge in popularity of reading.

Gothic Literature

The Gothic novel often focused on horror themes or sensational settings. In the United States, Gothic literature continued to be popular in the 19th century with authors like Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, and James Fenimore Cooper. Old Christmas from the Sketchbook of Washington Irving (1886) illustrated by Randolph Caldecott is an example of how many books were reprinted with new illustrators.

The image below is the frontispiece and title page to Old Christmas from the Sketchbook of Washington Irving.


According to Kennedy and McGann (2012), publishers liked to reprint works that contained "generic Gothic settings" because they appealed to a broad audience across America. While many of the new literary styles stressed the politics or history of specific locations, Gothic works contained vague settings and used metaphysical narratives that transcended a particular place or time.

Edgar Allan Poe felt strong that reprintings of works were the key to success. In a letter from Edgar Allan Poe to Thomas W. White (April 20, 1835), Poe stated that "to be appreciated you must be read". Kennedy and McGann (2012, 5) note that Poe "embodies the very principle of a print culture predicated on popular interest and republication."


The emphasis on nationalism in the 18th century continued in the 19th century. This focus was reflected in a shift toward books that reflected a particular country and its history. Authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson admonished young scholars who "listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe." According to Kennedy (2012, 16), "advocates demanded 'materials' representative of New World experience... nationhood for early advocates implied a strictly Anglo-Saxon model of history."


Beginning in the late 18th century, the Romantic literary movement took hold in Europe. With an emphasis on emotion and aesthetic experiences, the new literary form of the novel took hold and gained popularity. Romantic writers focused on the psychological development of their characters. During this time authors were seen a displaying "original genius" in building creative works.

A wider audience that included women and a wide range of classes encouraged publishers to print the work of female authors like Jane Austen and new types of writing.

In English literature the works of William Wordsworth, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and William Blake took center stage. Romantic literature placed emphasis on human emotion, criticism of the past, and a new kind of hero such as an isolated artist, woman, or child.

In America novel authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville became popular. Romanticism in America focused on the individual and independent thinking. A focus on Transcendentalism in New England impacted the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Antebellum Print Culture

According to J. Gerald Kennedy and Jerome McGann (2012, 3-4), during the Antebellum period "texts circulated freely and authors (as well as editors) often moved from place to place, seizing new publishing opportunities... Print media proliferated at a furious pace. Many civic and reform groups had their own presses, placing in circulation placing in circulation pamphlets, reports, books."

To learn more, browse Beidler, Philip D. (2012). First Books: The Printed Word and Cultural Formation in Early Alabama. University of Alabama Press. Preview Available:

Read LeFavour, Cree (2004). "Jane Eyre Fever": deciphering the astonishing popular success of Charlotte Bronte in Antebellum America. Book History, 7, 113-141. IUPUI students can view the article online.


Realism was a literary movement that attempted to represent subjects in a truthful, direct manner. French novelist Louis Augste Bisson (1799-1850) published La Comédie humaine between 1799 and 1850. This multi-volume set of novels was intended to provide a real-world glimpse of French society. Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) was a French author who published Madame Bovary in 1857. This novel was known for its realistic narration.

Realism was reflected in authors around the world in books like Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) and War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). English novels like Middlemarch (1871-1872) by George Eliot (1819-1880) and American works like The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) by William Dean Howells (1837-1920) and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) by Stephen Crane (1871-1900) also focused on realist themes.

Social Issues

Although many benefited from the shift toward industrialization, others wrote about poverty and the inequalities experienced in society. Social injustices such as poverty and child labor were slowly being acknowledged by society. Books by authors like Charles Dickens contributed to public awareness.

Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Henry David Thoreau, and Harriet Beecher Stowe produced works that addressed issues of social injustice including women's rights and slavery.

The nineteenth century also brought a new generation of social philosophers with radically different thoughts including Herbert Spencer's works on individualism and Karl Marx's emphasis on socialism.

Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution of the late nineteenth century brought a staggering number of publications related to science and technology.



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