There is a considerable amount of contention over the true source of the word “chapbook.” Scholars of Anglo-Saxon history and language contend that the prefix “chap-” is derived from the ancient word “ceap,” while others maintain it is merely a corruption of “cheap;” however, most attribute the word’s popularity to the chapman—European peddler, reporter, and rogue-of-all-trades from the 16th to at least the 18th century. During the intervening years, the chapbook morphed in size and intention to its modern form: a slim, inexpensive poetry volume of interest to casual readers and avid collectors alike.
Since the Middle Ages, the chapman had been a vital link between the rural towns and hamlets of the European countryside and the rest of the “civilized” world. Criminals though some may have been (some chapmen were reported to have been moonlighting as pickpockets and highwaymen), they nevertheless brought every manner of household necessity in their packs: sewing kits, ribbon, small tools, ink, and assorted miscellany. The chapman’s skills also included reportage, as inhabitants of each town were relatively isolated and lusted for news and entertainment from the outside world.
As time wore on, the public’s tastes began to shift. In 1693, England repealed the Act of 1662, which had placed strict limitations on the number of Master Printers in the country; as a result, the publishing trade began to expand by leaps and bounds. The late 17th century also saw the rise of “charity schools”–educational institutions readily available to the poor and working classes—throughout Europe, greatly increasing the literacy rate across the continent. By 1700, chapmen had begun to carry small books and pamphlets of less than 20 pages with them, costing one or two pennies apiece and containing every kind of popular literature, entertainment and reference material required by the rural masses. For their part, the masses seemed to have developed a voracious appetite for reading—several tears after the publication of The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine reported that a cheap version was highly in demand across Scotland and in varying parts of England, recommending that small print runs be made in country presses to satisfy the reading public. Commoners now had the resources to establish libraries of their own.
The lure of these chapbooks was not merely due to their inexpensive price. A typical chapbook could contain information about any number of things: travel almanacs and tales of adventure in far-off lands; household guides; reference materials on religion, superstition, and the occult; bardic collections of songs, jokes, and riddles, the direct predecessors of the Elizabethan jest-book; and, often, tales of romance, comedy, drama, and sundry works of prose fiction. Without copyright law or any way to enforce such a thing, however, piracy was a commonplace problem. Often, woodcuts and chunks of copy would be lifted directly from one chapbook and deposited into another, then sold by a rival publisher in a different area of the country. Not that the customers minded; as long as the chapbooks were made available at low prices, the originality of their content was rarely (if ever) called into question.
Ultimately, the chapman and his sack of supplies and books went the way of the dinosaur, and the chapbook—in its original form, at any rate—went with him. The Industrial Revolution brought drastic change to Europe in many different forms, not least of which were the laws banning public solicitation and hawking of wares—laws which almost single-handedly put chapmen out of business themselves. Advances in printing presses made newspapers much easier to produce, reducing the demand for cheap reference guides. Readers across the globe began to shift their allegiance to the novel as a more accepted form for popular literature. For all these reasons and countless more, chapmen could no longer make a living and chapbooks were no longer the coveted resources they had once been. For some time, they languished, as Victor Neuberg put it, in “a barely tolerated existence in the form of comic postcards…in the windows of stationers’ shops”.
When a majority dismisses something as useless, however, a minority will often pop up nevertheless to force it back into usefulness. In the early 20th century, the chapbook was revitalized as a tool of the offbeat Dada movement and avant-garde artists in Russia to make their art and messages more widely heard. Though the chapman was no longer a valid means of distribution, the concept of a cheaply printed book that could be made readily available for lower classes with small purses held an undeniable appeal.
That appeal was not lost on the American Beat poets of the 1950s and 60s, who were themselves poor and without access to high-quality printing apparatuses. As was the case so long ago, however, the draw was not merely financial; there was certainly something to be said for the idea of printing short pieces of writing in a similarly small format. Using mimeograph machines and the cheapest paper and cardstock available, the beats were able to present their often obtuse verse in more easily-digestable chunks. Though they were longer than their old European ancestors, often clocking in at just under 50 or 60 pages, the price was still right for young beatniks and members of the counterculture. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was originally published in this manner—a small, square, black-and-white volume with great ambition but no grandeur. The modern poetry chapbook had been born.
As the decades passed, further advances in technology allowed these new chapbooks to be produced in an ever-expanding variety of ways. Soon, mimeographs had been rendered obsolete by public copy centers, which were eventually made irrelevant themselves by the advent of commonly available digital printing. In the age of the Internet, we have seen the rise of “online chapbooks,” which are not proper “books” at all, but rather collections of poetry of comparable length to most print chapbooks of previous years but only available for viewing on the Web. In cases such as these, the issue of cost has sometimes been done away with altogether, producing an egalitarian chapbook made specifically for public consumption as a way of popularizing the poet’s work. Though the original chapbooks may be out of favor today, their mutated grandchildren are celebrated by poets and their fans worldwide.
While the content and methods of production of chapbooks has changed wildly, their bindings have changed even more so. The publishers of the first chapbooks had thrift ever in the forefront of their minds, and it showed in their binding. Most consisted of a single twelve-page signature, loosely sewn together, occasionally with a moderately stiff paper cover attached for a bit of added protection. Sometimes, the books went entirely unbound, remaining simple collections of folded paper. The poor, after all, would buy whatever was made available to them.
Today, however, we enjoy many more options when considering how our chapbooks shall be constructed. The most common chapbooks are still single-signature affairs, which can be mass-produced with only a cardstock cover and two staples along the crease. (A saddle- or long-necked stapler can be used.) This is the most cost- and time-effective method of contemporary chapbook manufacturing. Should a more classical and durable aesthetic be desired, there is always the option of classic saddle-stitch binding, wherein the signature is sewn together along the crease rather than stapled. This method is more time-consuming, but produces a product that may be more durable than simple stapling.
If a spine is required or desired for the finished product (especially when there are multiple signatures), the publisher may opt to just have the chapbook Perfect-bound. In this case, after the signature(s) is/are compiled and arranged together, the folded edges are machine-cut roughly and then rubbed in hot glue, after which they are immediately stuffed into their paper cover. Though impractical for self-publishers, this is an attractive option for those who can afford large publishing machinery, as the process can be completely automated with little fuss, eliminating human error and increasing profit.
Chapbooks are now one of the most widely-accepted forms in which contemporary poetry is published. The prolific combination of desktop publishing programs and high-quality digital printing has struck millions of people with the ability to affordably publish a small book of poetry, prose, or anything else they desire (though poetry chapbooks have dominated the field for decades). Some chapbooks are issued in limited runs, often signed in the case of more famous writers, for collectors and devotees. This has led to a lively trade in antiquarian and modern collectable chapbooks, and today these slender tomes are appreciated by readers of every class—something the simple chapman, peddling his wares through the English countryside, would have thought ridiculous so many centuries ago.