Saturday, September 10, 2016

Before comic books there were....


“Chapbook” is often the moniker for a smallish publication containing poems or perhaps short stories or other material, often cheaply published and/or self-published.

The word itself was introduced in the early 19th century, although the genre of chapbooks has been around since the 16th century, when printed books started to become affordable after Gutenberg invented the European printing press in the middle of the 15th century.

Scottish chapbook

Small books with modest (or no) covers, and perhaps up to 24 pages, circulated for hundreds of years, boosting the availability of almanacs, children’s stories, folk tales, poetry, and political and religious tracts.

In the early 19th century, in England, the books were distributed by peddlers or other salesmen known as “chapmen,” thus the books were “chapmen’s books” and you can take it from there.

Some modern chapbooks can be very expensively produced with handmade papers and such, but more typically they are modest publications with limited press run, produced by folks who want to publish but can’t find a commercial publisher.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

“Blood-and-thunder” for only 10 cents

There were “westerns” before John Wayne put his mark on them.

The men in blue and gray in the Civil War—the ones who could read, and the ones who had buddies who could read—were avid fans of the dime novel.

New printing technologies in 1860 made it possible to churn out an endless succession of the cheap (10 cents, hence “dime novel”) so-called “blood-and-thunder” stories, often about heroes of the American West like Kit Carson.

 These dime novels in the mid-19th century were the ‘westerns” before Hollywood invented the movie genre of the same name in the early 20th century.

The flood of cheap books was unleashed by improvements in the steam printing press and stereotype plates, the cast metal plates that used a reversed image of a full page on the press. The resulting increase in productivity and cost reduction permitted publishers to do huge press runs of the formula “western” novels that were written by assembly lines of writers. Some of the more respectable authors cranked out a new book every three months. Some of the hacks claimed to be able to produce a brand new novel in 24 hours. As you might guess, originality and quality weren’t the principal standards of excellence.

Jill Lepore, in The Story of America: Essays on Origins, notes: “Blood-and-thunders were ‘sent to the army in the field by cords, like unsawed firewood,’ one contemporary reported. After the war, dime novel westerns cultivated a vast, largely eastern, and altogether male audience: they were the first mass market fiction sold to men and boys.”(1)

Dime novel readers who weren’t Kit Carson (1809-1868) fans must have been a rare breed. Between 1860 and 1900, the American frontiersman was the hero of more than seventy of the popular books.

(1) Jill Lepore, The Story of American: Essays on Origins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 212, 217.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.