One of my absolute favorite books about the history of printing, publishing, selling, and reading books is The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period by William St. Clair (Cambridge, 2004). St. Clair spends a lot of time exploring the ways that copyright law determines what books are available and how they are priced and sold. For instance, during what he calles the “brief copyright window, 1774-1808” hundreds of texts were suddenly in the public domain for the first time. In 1774 the House of Lords declared that perpetual copyright was illegal and that the fourteen year limit established in 1710 was the law of the land.

What this meant in practical terms is that anyone with a press could now print up their own editions of Chaucer, Milton, Swift, Dryden, Spencer, and others. If everyone could print the same texts, one way to differentiate your product from the inferior output of your competition was through editorial apparatus — introductions, author portraits, and notes. Thomas F. Bonnell’s book, The Most Disreputable Trade: Publishing the Classics of English Poetry, 1765-1810 (Oxford, 2008) examines the efforts of several publishers competing for the expanding British reading public. This week I just want to call attention to one item in the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections that was sold by one of the more enterprising publishers of public domain material.

Between 1777 and 1782, John Bell published a set of 109 volumes under the title Bell’s Edition. The Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill. He launched the series with Milton’s Paradise Lost in April 1777 and attempted to maintain a regular schedule of issuing one new volume each week. Bonnell’s book is rich in the details of the trials and tribulations of Bell’s publishing venture. In spite of challenges and setbacks, the entire series of 109 volumes was completed with the 14th volume of Chaucer in May 1783.

In addition to a regular publishing schedule, Bell also regularized the size of each volume, maintained a consistent style for his title pages, and made an enormous effort to include a portrait of each author. Features of book series that we now take for granted were innovations of Bell’s venture. The Archives and Special Collections holds a complete set of this series:

What appears to be a stack of folio volumes is actually two boxes filled with Bell’s smaller volumes of poetry.

Each volume has its series number on its spine, and they are uniformly bound and sized to fit perfectly into this handy carrying case. With a collection this compact, it was suddenly possible to carry one editor’s canon of British poetry wherever one went. Whether moving from the country into town, or embarking on a grand tour of the continent, you could have your favorite poets at the ready.

In order to reach as wide a range of buyers as possible, the entire series was available in a variety of bindings. Individual volumes were very reasonably priced at one shilling and sixpence for a book sewn in paper wrappers. A complete set “neatly sewed and titled.” (Bonnell, 125) cost just eight pounds, eight shillings while the complete set bound “superbly in Morocco, gilt edges” would run a full thirty-three pounds. The two wooden cases that hold the set in the Archives & Special Collections cost even more — an additional two guineas (a guinea in this period was worth 21 shillings).

One of the great details included in Bonnell’s book is this description of the case:

N.B. Two Cases are constructed in the shape and appearance of two folio volumes, which contain the whole of this great collections, and are well adapted for travelling in the seat of a post chaise, or for library furniture. (125)

And there you have it, the Kindle of the late eighteenth century!

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