A Good Read

Author Susan Berg on what the 18th century read for work and for fun.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. Have you ever wondered what the Founding Fathers were reading? Author Susan Berg joins us today to talk about the mechanics and the politics of the printing office and how they shaped how the founding generation turned a page. Susan, thank you for being here today.

Susan Berg: Thank you, Harmony.

Harmony: Well, I wanted to think about what kind of reading was being done in the 18th century. Books were not so common and so easy to come by.

Susan: Not only were books not as common. Now, you see them in a grocery store in the check out line. You didn't find that in the 18th century. There were very few sources of books. We could say that in Williamsburg, which we probably know best, they had a printing office that also functioned as a book store and they got many books that way as well as from merchants in England that would ship them over to other stores throughout the colony.

But really the books they chose weren't for relaxation necessarily. They were reading other topics. They were reading to better themselves: to learn. There were no schools. There were no public libraries. To learn how to read and write, you really had to get it from a book or a tutor who taught you from a book. So they served a more important purpose. There was no web, no other source really than books to learn to read, to write, to learn your craft.

If you were a cabinetmaker unless you could learn from the previous master, but to really get ahead you needed to turn to books. Also, we don't think of books so much as status symbols today. But that's exactly what they were in Virginia. Most people, books were expensive, so the gentry had books in private libraries, but tavern keepers and craftsmen and merchants might only have a few in their house. They might have a Bible or some religious works, but they didn't have much more than that, usually. And when they did, it was to better their craft, as I said, and if they wanted to become a gentleman it was to show that they could be a gentleman by having a gentleman's library.

Harmony: What makes a book expensive? What makes it a status symbol?

Susan: Books would have been expensive to Virginians because most of them were imported from England and the few that weren't, that were made in the colonies, you had to have the paper, which was actually made from linen. We think of books being made of paper coming from trees. No, in the 18th century they were made from linen rags. And actually that's why books lasted a lot longer.

You can pick up a book that was made almost 300 years ago and the pages in it last better than one that might have been done 50 years ago. It hasn't disintegrated. You can still read it. And to print a book, and there were print shops throughout the colonies, you needed the rags so you needed a paper mill. You needed to set type. I mean, there weren't computers, there weren't laser jet printers. You had little pieces of metal that had to be formed and each page had to be set out letter by letter, space by space.

Harmony: So just the technology of printing a book is so much more time consuming.

Susan: Absolutely, and expensive. And it was a trade that was skilled. It was taught to apprentices, journeymen, master craftsmen and then trying to distribute it. So, it was just so unlike what we know today. Trying to pick up a book, in other words, purchase it and bring it into your home was not as simple as it is to readers today.

Harmony: What do we know about who was a reader in the 18th century who might have been literate?

Susan: That's the question that you almost start with. Who could read? And unfortunately that's one of the hardest ones to answer. There are a lot of different studies about who could read in New England and Virginia. Those are the two areas of the colonies they like to compare the most.

In New England they like to say, based on studies there, that most of the people were literate. And that probably was because in New England it was settled by Puritans who wanted to separate from the church of England and they created a theocracy, in other words the church ruled the government, so they made sure that the colonists there were informed about religion. And there were a lot of pamphlets, a lot of sermons that all taught religion and that was an important part of their education. People who came to Virginia came to, in many ways, just to make money. It wasn't religious separation.

So the few books they brought with them, and they thought they were important, were there to help them make a living and also to import the English culture that they had. So, in the end, if we look at who could read -- you know that the people who brought over books could read. But when they look at other studies for literacy, they're not sure if just because you could sign your name did that mean you could read or you could just sign your name?

And also, people who could read didn't necessarily always be able to write, so trying to look at the all over population and figure out who could read and who couldn't creates different studies that people don't always agree on. I think, again, the Tidewater area, if you look at the many different sources of finding this, signatures on wills and deeds, signatures on other forms of business correspondence, but also looking again at the customers from this area who frequented the bookstore to pick up reading material, you could safely say there was well over half of the white population could read.

Harmony: Are the books that the colonists bring with them remembrances of home, of the country that they left?

Susan: In the case of Virginia, yes it is, because they're moving to wilderness and they wanted to bring with them English standards, English culture. What becomes unusual is that was in the 17th century. By the 18th century and as we get closer to the Revolution, the books that are being printed and sold and distributed are railing against taxation from the British and become political pamphlets that fuel the fire that had colonists decide it was time to revolt against the mother country. So the purpose of books as retaining the English culture is now turned on its head.

Harmony: If literacy is so limited, how are people sharing information? Is it read to them?

Susan: That's a great question. Because it's really the books and the printed word that is the only source of information, colonists would learn from the books they had in their homes and, as we said, gentlemen had huge libraries, but most of the people only had a few books. But then, fortunately, starting around 1730, Williamsburg did have a printing office. And this by way was after one had started there 50 years earlier and the printer was thrown out of the colony.

So the governor finally said, "we do need a printing office, and the reason we need it is, we've got to print the laws of this colony so people will know what the laws are." So William Parks shows up and the governor says, "We will pay you to print the laws." That's fine, but guess what? A few years later he's printing a lot more than the laws. He does start a newspaper and there is the Virginia Gazette, which starts in 1736 and people begin to subscribe because a newspaper is a cheaper source of information than books.

You learn what's happening in England because they had to fill four pages. They had information that was sent over from England. You find out what's happening in the colony. You have advertisements of material for sale. You have, unfortunately, advertisements of runaway slaves. The Virginia Gazette becomes a real source of information for the colonists. And one other piece that Parks decides is going to be helpful is an almanac, because we're in a colony where most people are farmers.

They needed an almanac just as people consult today for the weather and to know when to plant your crops. What the phases of the moon are. What happened was, it was the cheapest piece available for sale in the printing office. It was 7 ½ pence. Almost everyone could afford it. It could last a whole year and Parks often supplemented it with information about fares in Virginia, distances between colonies, all sorts of practical information.

And then he did something even better. He would interleave copies of the almanac with blank pages so people could turn it into a daily calendar and diary and just know about any appointments, any loans, any debts, when they planted. It became a personal record for all these colonists.

Harmony: So we've mentioned the almanac and also the Bible. What other books are in circulation and how do we know about them?

Susan: Ok. There's a lot of titles in Virginia. They're in circulation over a broad variety of subjects. They include history, science, law, especially the classics for the gentry who needed to read classics to maintain their status symbol as gentlemen. And how do we know these? Because there are some catalogs of libraries that still exist today, so we have actual titles and subjects. And those are four or five that we can point to, mostly gentlemen's libraries.

In one in Williamsburg merchant family of William Prentice, we see women owned books as well as men and children. They have children's books. Other ways we find out what books are being sold is looking at advertisements in the Gazette. Because once William Parks and his successors in the shop got shipments of books from England, he needed to advertise them so people would come in and buy them.

So we see all sorts of titles, as I said, from religion to even literature; plays, poetry, drama, popular magazines of the 18th century, "The Spectator" and "The Tattler" were found in there. Your reader today might not recognize most of the titles, but they probably would recognize Shakespeare and other famous English authors. There were also some racy titles. John Cleland's novel Fanny Hill was considered racy in the 18th century, and yet in Williamsburg they sold nine copies of it within a few years, so the tastes of Virginians was pretty broad.

Another way we can find out what books were read is not just what books are advertised, but there are some what they call day books from the Williamsburg printing office and from those we can find out the titles that weren't just advertised, but were actually sold to customers. You're not going to spend money on a book unless you plan to read it.

Harmony: What can we understand about the 18th century when we compare our 21st century reading habits to theirs?

Susan: If people today think about why they read something, often they have to read something when they are in school and college. Afterwards they might read, I hate to say it, more and more online. I mean I don't hate to say it, but more and more the information again is online, so it's current affairs or it's information on health or practical information, even recipes that they might want to cook at home. People in 18th century Virginia read pretty much for the same reason; current affairs, medicine, health. As I said "The Complete Housewife" was a book that told women how to cook and keep house.

But in the 18th century you had to read to get ahead. You didn't have a public school teacher. You had the college of William & Mary, but not many people went there, only the privileged. And they also read because they knew it would give them a status that they wouldn't have otherwise.

Harmony: Susan, thank you so much for being our guest today.

Susan: Thank you, Harmony.

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