Nineteenth-century print culture was a product of and participant in
the dramatic changes taking place throughout English society. The growth
of literacy greatly increased the number of readers, especially among
the middle- and working-classes, while industrialization in every sector
of the book trade reduced production costs for books, pamphlets,
newspapers, and periodicals and made very large print runs possible. The
production of all forms of printed materials, from religious works,
political tracts, and children's books to fiction and poetry grew
dramatically. Estimates are that the rate of publication was
approximately 500 titles a year at the beginning of the nineteenth
century to about 4,000 by mid-century and around 10,000 a year by 1914.
Perhaps no other genre of publication was more affected by this
growth than the periodical, s works intended to be published at regular
intervals for an indefinite period of time. The Waterloo Directory of English Periodicals and Newspapers, 1800-1900
estimates that the project will identify approximately 125,000 titles.
Many famous works of nineteenth-century poetry appeared in periodicals
before their authors were able to find a publisher; and later in the
century fiction became a staple of the periodical press.
Existing forms of publishing continued and many new ones emerged.
Some books were still published by subscription, a model in which
subscribers paid for their books prior to publication to cover the costs
of production. Publishers increasingly took on this risk and authorship
became a more viable profession. By mid-century, publication in parts
and cheap reprints made fiction and the works of older authors available
to a vast audience. Nineteenth-century anthologies of classic and
contemporary writers provide a window on the taste of the era. And in
literary criticism that appeared in periodicals of every political
perspective, in prefaces, biographical, and theoretical works, writers
from Wordsworth and Coleridge to Matthew Arnold explored the nature of
poetic genius and the place of literature in society.
During the nineteenth century, poets achieved a level of stature and
celebrity unknown before or since, both for their works and their lives.
This would not have been possible without a robust print culture that
brought both to the attention of an eager reading public.
The Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center