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Street Literature of the Long Nineteenth Century: Producers, Sellers, Consumers

Thursday, October 26, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rosalind V. Rini Larson
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For centuries, street literature was the main cheap reading material of the working classes: broadsides, chapbooks, songsters, prints, engravings, and other forms of print produced specifically to suit their taste and cheap enough for even the poor to buy.

Starting in the sixteenth century, but at its chaotic and flamboyant peak in the nineteenth, street literature was on sale everywhere—in urban streets and alleyways, at country fairs and markets, at major sporting events and holiday gatherings, and under the gallows at public executions. For this very reason, it was often despised and denigrated by the educated classes, but remained enduringly popular with the ordinary people.

Anything and everything was grist to the printers’ mill, if it would sell. A penny could buy you a celebrity scandal, a report of a gruesome murder, the last dying speech of a condemned criminal, wonder tales, riddles and conundrums, a moral tale of religious danger and redemption, a comic tale of drunken husbands and shrewish wives, a temperance tract or an ode to beer, a satire on dandies, an alphabet or “reed-a-ma-daisy” (reading made easy) to teach your children, an illustrated chapbook of nursery rhymes, or the adventures of Robin Hood and Jack the Giant Killer.

Street literature long held its own by catering directly for the ordinary people, at a price they could afford, but, by the end of the Victorian era, it was in terminal decline and was rapidly being replaced by a host of new printed materials in the shape of cheap newspapers and magazines, penny dreadful novels, music hall songbooks, and so on, all aimed squarely at the burgeoning mass market.

Fascinating today for the unique light it shines on the lives of the ordinary people of the age, street literature has long been neglected as a historical resource, and this collection of essays edited by David Atkinson and Steve Roud is the first general book on the trade for over forty years.

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