For over two centuries, from the 17th to the 19th, street literature in the form of chapbooks and *broadsides provided the basic reading matter of the poor in Britain. Chapbooks were paper-covered booklets, usually of eight to 24 pages, and they were cheaply, often crudely, printed in their hundreds of thousands by specialist printers all over the country and sold in town streets, at country fairs, and by travelling hawkers for a halfpenny or a penny a time. They contained ballads, romances, folk tales, jokes, riddles, superstitions, news both true and fabricated, reports of trials, grisly murders, last dying speeches of condemned criminals, amazing wonders, sermons, squibs, catchpennies, and whatever else the printers and hawkers thought would take the public fancy. Whenever possible they were illustrated by woodcut illustrations. Chapbooks also provided the first real children's literature, and they proved an excellent means by which folklore could be disseminated across the land. Favourite items were reprinted again and again over the years. Most towns had their printers, but London was the acknowledged centre of the trade. Edinburgh-born James Boswell records in his London Journal for 10 July 1763: some days ago I went to the old printing-office in Bow Church-yard kept by Dicey, whose family have kept it fourscore years. There are ushered into the world of literature Jack and the Giants, The Seven Wise Men of Gotham, and other story-books which in my dawning years amused me as much as Rasselas does now. I saw the whole scheme with a kind of pleasing romantic feeling to find myself really where all my old darlings were printed. I bought two dozen of the story-books and had them bound up with this title, Curious Productions ...
   ■ Leslie Shepard, The History of Street Literature (1973); John Ashton, Chapbooks of the Eighteenth Century (1882); Roger Thompson, Samuel Pepys' Penny Merriments (1976).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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