-Guest Blog Post by Lauren O’Hagan
My name is Lauren O’ Hagan and I am a postgraduate researcher in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University. My project is entitled ‘Class, Culture and Conflict in the Edwardian Book Inscription’ and essentially uses book inscriptions to explore social class in early-twentieth- century Britain.
My project would not have been possible without the wonderful Bookbarn International! Having regularly shopped here since 2000 when they operated out of a bricks and mortar bookshop at the Paintworks, I knew that when I needed to collect my dataset of 3,000 book inscriptions, this paradise for bibliophiles was the only place to look!
The CEO, Fenna Leake, was so lovely and accommodating, giving me free rein of
Bookbarn’s humongous warehouse and allowing me a sneak peek behind the scenes in the online business – somewhere I’ve also wanted to enter!
Three years on, I am coming to the end of my project and I am keen to share some of my findings with you all!
What I did:
My research set out to explore three things:
The types of inscriptions that Edwardians used in their books
The ways in which inscriptions and book ownership varied according to gender, age
The communicative purposes of book inscriptions
The study involved the following steps:
1. Manually searching the shelves of Bookbarn for Edwardian books (it’s actually easier than you think! Edwardian book spines are notoriously colourful and decorative!)
2. Photographing the book, inscription and any bookseller stamps/labels inside
3. Creating a database of information on each inscription
4. Using archival documents (i.e. census records, birth/marriage/death certificates etc.) to investigate the background of each inscriber
5. Investigating patterns and trends in the data
What I found out
Before I tell you what I found out, you may be wondering what was so special about the
Edwardian era. The years between 1901 and 1914 marked a high point in the history of
book ownership in Britain. Growing literacy rates and the dramatic decrease in production costs meant that for the first time, books became increasingly accessible to all classes in society. Furthermore, the early twentieth century marked a sharpening of class
consciousness: the upper classes wanted to preserve the “hallowed structure”, while the
lower classes wanted a sweeping reconstruction of social hierarchy. For this reason, an
exploration of book inscriptions and their manipulation by users has the potential to reveal important information regarding the class conflicts and social tensions that existed in Edwardian Britain.
Types of Book Inscription
There were five main types of book inscription in Edwardian Britain:
Ownership Inscription, Gift Inscription, Author Inscription and Bookplates.
This was the most basic declaration of book possession. As it only required a writing implement to create, it tended to be favoured by groups in Edwardian Britain that were
located at the bottom of the social hierarchy: working-class adults, females and children.
Despite their humble appearance, the mere fact that these groups were able to inscribe
marked a symbolic change in the rigid structures of Edwardian society. These marginalised groups were empowered by three important acts – the 1870 Education Act, the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act and the 1908 Children’s Act – which respectively increased levels of literacy, ensured women’s legal right to possession and protected young people. Prior to these acts, many working-class adults lacked the knowledge to read, let alone, own books, while women and children were totally excluded from owning possessions.
While examples of gift inscriptions appear across all class groups, they are favoured by the lower-middle class. As a newly emerging group who were conscious to carve their niche in Edwardian society, this group were particularly susceptible to the commercialisation of gift-giving and saw it as part of a social obligation and necessity to retain social status. Amongst working-class Edwardians, gifts were only given to children – perhaps a reflection of the limited disposable income available.
While in the nineteenth century, book owners primarily obtained author inscriptions from attending public lectures or contacting publishing houses, by the mid-Edwardian era, department stores, such as Selfridge’s, had popularised the modern-day concept of book signings. These events were typically frequented by upper-middle- class men and women, whose increased leisure time and disposable income were major pull factors.
Bookplates were typically used by upper-class, middle-aged men. This was partially due to their expensive cost of commissioning, as well as the fact that the coats of arms that figured so prominently on them were limited to male usage only. However, by the beginning of the Edwardian era, the surge in consumerism and the desire for cheaper products led to the emergence of the mass-produced pictorial bookplate. As these bookplates were priced at a substantially lower cost than their privately commissioned counterparts, they granted some working-class and lower-middle- class Edwardians access to bookplates for the first time.
In Edwardian Britain, awarding books as prizes was a standard practice for most schools, Sunday schools and other institutions. Prizes were typically awarded in recognition of an outstanding achievement or contribution, but the books they were given also served a secondary function of moral education and were often used by educational and religious institutions as tools to disseminate approved fiction. For this reason, working-class children were the predominant recipients of prize inscriptions.
Edwardian Reading Habits
The reading habits of working-class and lower-middle- class children was influenced largely by the prize book movement. Religious fiction by such authors as Charlotte B. Yonge, Hesba Stretton, Bessie Marchant and E.E. Green was most frequently owned by girls, while adventure fiction by W.H.G. Kingston, G.A. Henty, R.M. Ballantyne and Gordon Stable was favoured by boys. Other popular books include Pilgrim’s Progress, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, Westward Ho! and Little Lord Fauntleroy – many of which are still classics today.
Amongst working-class and lower-middle- class adults, books from J.M. Dent’s Everyman’s Library series were particularly favoured, which attests to the growing self-education movement in Edwardian Britain. Other popular books amongst these two groups include Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and poetry volumes by Tennyson, Browning, Wordsworth and Longfellow.
Upper-middle and upper-class Edwardians particularly enjoyed the biography genre. Life of Gladstone, Evelyn’s Diary and Dr. John Brown all regularly reoccur, as well as novels by Walter Scott, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson – typical authors of the literary canon. These groups also owned many books in the Macmillan & Co.’s Highways and Byways travel series.
The differences in books owned by each class group becomes apparent through their
formats and bindings:
Lower-Class Prize Books and Everyman’s Library Books
Upper-Class Vellum and Leather-Bound Books
Despite their class differences, most Edwardians bought their books from W.H. Smith and Foyles:
Most books were purchased within one year of publication. This suggests that books had
reached such economic prices during the Edwardian period that most people were able to buy them as soon as they were released rather than having to wait for second-hand copies or cheap editions.
Communicative Functions of Book Inscriptions
While the chief purpose of a book inscription is to express ownership, marking possession is, in fact, just one of its many communicative functions.
I have discovered that book inscriptions can be used as:
1. Identity markers:
Name, terms of address, education, religion, occupation, relationship status etc.
2. Speech acts:
Expressing gratitude, begging forgiveness, saying farewell, congratulating, wishing good
luck, giving advice, insulting, warning, gift giving (birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Lent, Saints’ Days, Bar Mitzvahs, New Year, in memoriam), recording past experiences etc.
3. Creative mediums:
Bubble writing, calligraphy, sketches, water colours, pen-and- ink drawings etc.
4. Diary entries
5. Reminders to future self
6. Recontextualised spaces (i.e. taking texts or images from their original context and
introducing them into a new context)
7. Face-saving devices (i.e. to promote a positive image of oneself)
Some of my favourite examples are below:
I would like to end with a short story of one of the Edwardians which particularly struck a chord with me.
This inscription was made by Edith Buller, the daughter of Maria Buller, a lower-middle- class housewife from London. Maria was diagnosed with tuberculosis and kept the severity of her illness a secret from her daughter for as long as possible. Finally, on April 10 th 1913, she entered Prior Place sanitorium in Camberley, giving her copy of The Ministry of Comfort (a book about coming to terms with death) to her daughter before leaving. Just over two weeks later, Edith died. Her daughter’s inscription above really captures her private thoughts at this time and is a wonderful yet tragic example of the ways in which books were, as Roger Chartier states, “companions of choice in a new kind of intimacy.”
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