The Penny Histories

Victor E. Neuburg
Neuburg’s book The Penny Histories is divided into two halves. The first half contains five chapters about the history of the chapbook, while the second half contains seven facsimiles of chapbooks. Chapter one titled “The old classics of the nursery,” delves into the popularity of the chapbook in the eighteenth century. The author states that the chapbooks of the day were much more interesting than the other texts available, that children preferred the latter. Many of these early cheap books were based on medieval romances, for example the tale of Guy of Warwick. Chapter two goes into the various printers of chapbooks and how widespread their books traversed. Many of the earlier printers are said to be the writer, publisher, and printer of the texts. The third and fourth chapters tell of printing in the provinces and America, respectfully. Printing in the provinces essentially covered information about printing in England, not including London. While printing chapbooks in the provinces was popular, it did not achieve the same popularity in America. The earliest chapbooks in America were imported from the popular presses in England until the mid-eighteenth century. American chapbooks were often adventurous and predecessors of the modern day ‘western’ adventures. Many of the tales related fictional events between colonials and American Indians. The fifth and final chapter of the book tells of a reprieve in chapbooks sales by the hand of James Catnach. This man changed the target audience for chapbooks from adults to children. The history portion of this book ended by stating that while chapbooks themselves are no longer printed, the stories continue through the decades.
The seven facsimiles included in the book are: The History of Guy, Earl of Warwick; Fairy Stories; The Interesting Story of the Children in the Wood; An Elegy on the Death and Burial of Cock Robin; A Peep at the Various Nations of the World; Toads and Diamonds; and The Rod.
While written in a formal tone, Neuburg’s The Penny Histories was very easy to read. This book condenses the history of the chapbook into seventy-seven pages. While I typically do not enjoy non-fiction works, the text flowed easily enough that it made this an intriguing book. I appreciated the anecdotes the author included. They give more to the history than just spitting out facts. Because this work was written by a scholar for other scholars, I was surprised by how comprehensive and understandable the book was. People looking for information on the history of chapbooks, or people who want to read a few chapbooks would be interested in this book. While the first half containing the history of chapbooks was interesting, my favorite part of the book was the second half that contains facsimiles of chapbooks. I was amazed by the language used in chapbooks. Before reading this book I had not realized that the primary audience was adults. After reading a few of the facsimiles I can understand that adults were the audience based on the language used. The first chapbook included The History of Guy, Earl of Warwick was one in which I can see adults being the primary audience. While the story is nothing a children would not like, the word choice is a more advanced. On the other hand the fourth chapbook included, An Elegy on the Death and Burial of Cock Robin, is obviously written for children. The shorter sentences and rhymes made it more appropriate for children learning how to read. This one is very similar to current children’s books.
If someone intended to find this book and purchase it, they would have to do a bit of searching. While major booksellers like Amazon.com and Barnes and Nobles do not carry the book, it can be located at half priced books online. Their website is hpb.com.

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