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Circulating libraries in the 18th and 19th century were associated with leisure, and were found  in cities and towns with a population of 2,000 and upward. They were as much of an attraction in wealthy resorts, where people came to relax and look after their health, as in cities and small towns, like Basingstoke, where Jane Austen subscribed to Mrs. Martin’s circulating library.

In 1801, it was said that there were 1,000 circulating libraries in Britain. Book shops abounded as well, but in 1815 a 3-volume novel cost the equivalent of $100 today. Such a price placed a novel beyond the reach of most people. Worried about a second edition for Mansfield Park, Jane Austen wrote in 1814:

“People are more ready to borrow and praise, than to buy –which I cannot wonder at.”

Circulating libraries made books accessible to many more people at an affordable price.  For two guineas a year, a patron could check out two volumes. Which meant that for the price of one book, a patron could read up to 26 volumes per year.

By 1800, most copies of a novel’s edition were sold to the libraries, which were flourishing businesses to be found in every major English city and town, and which promoted the sale of books during a period when their price rose relative to the cost of living. The libraries created a market for the publishers’ product and encouraged readers to read more by charging them an annual subscription fee that would entitle them to check out a specified number of volumes at one time. – Lee Ericson, The Economy of Novel Reading

The leisurely classes had plenty of time for reading, late 18th c.

The practice of borrowing books was not a new concept in the Regency era. Records from the 17th century show that people were borrowing books from booksellers. As early as 1735, Samuel Fancourt advertised a circulating library in Salisbury for his religious books and pamphlets.

Circulating libraries attracted many patrons, even those who did not necessarily come to borrow or book or read, for they were also places for fashionable people to “hang out” and meet others.

In the resorts the circulating libraries became fashionable daytime lounges where ladies could see others and be seen, where raffles were held and games were played, and where expensive merchandise could be purchased.  – Lee Ericson, The Economy of Novel Reading

Jane Austen well knew the attractions of libraries at sea side resorts. Mrs. Whitby’s Circulating Library operated in Sanditon, and Lydia visited one in Brighton.  In her letters to Cassandra, Jane frequently mentioned circulating libraries, in particular visiting one in Southampton.

Circulating Library and Reading Room, Milsom Street, Bath. Image, Tony Grant

Circulating libraries tended to be located in a convenient location in the center of a resort. Newcomers would find out about them from guide books, such as the one in Brighton. The Royal Colonade Library advertised itself as thus:

MESSRS. WRIGHT AND SON’S ROYAL COLONADE LIBRARY, MUSIC SALOON, AND READING ROOMS.

This establishment is situated in North-street, at the corner of the New Road, and contains between seven and eight thousand volumes of History, Biography, Novels, French and Italian, and all the best Modern Publications. The Reading Room is frequented both by Ladies and Gentlemen, and is daily supplied with a profusion of London morning and evening papers, besides the French and weekly English journals, magazines, reviews, and general popular periodicals. – Brighton As It Is, 1836

In 1836, Cassandra Austen would have been familiar with the costs associated with the Royal Colonade Library’s terms of subscriptions:

Terms of subscription

By the end of the 18th century, Scarborough, a resortt located in the county of North Yorkshire, boasted several circulating libraries. The town’s population had risen to 7,067 by 1811, and one can imagine that, with the many leisurely hours available to tourists and visitors, these libraries managed a booming business.


A circulating library in Scarborough around 1818, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough

The Poetical Sketches of Scarborough, first published in 1813, features twenty-one illustrations of humorous subjects about the many features available in the resort, including a satiric poem about the Circulating Library:

As in life’s tide by careful fate
The mind is made to circulate
Just so each watering place supplies
It’s CIRCULATING LIBRARIES:

Where charming volumes may be had
Of good indifferent and bad
And some small towns on Britain’s shore
Can boast of book shops half a score
Scarbro and with much truth may boast
Her’s good as any on our coast
AINSWORTH’S or SCAUM’S no matter which
Or WHITING’S all in learning rich
Afford a more than common measure
Of pleasant intellectual treasure

One wonders if the following publication could be checked out a Scarborough circulating library at the turn of the 19th century, for the book was written by a local schoolmaster:

A Short Grammar of The English Language. In Two Parts By John Hornsey. Schoolmaster, Scarborough.

THE publick are much indebted to Mr Hornsey for this able and excellent compendium of English grammar. We acknowledge that we perused it with singular satisfaction; and are well persuaded that a more useful introduction to the English language cannot be placed in the hands of our youth. That this work should reach a second edition, did not excite our wonder; may it pass through many succeeding ones!- The Nichols, John.Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol 86, 1799, p 1144.

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