What is a “chapbook”?
A chapbook is a type of cheaply produced street literature in the form of small, paper-covered booklets, often printed on a single sheet folded into 8, 12, 16 and 24 page books. Chapbooks first appeared in the 16th century, when printed books became affordable, and grew in popularity during the 17th and 18th centuries as a medium for almanacs, children's literature, folk tales, ballads, nursery rhymes, poetry, political and religious tracts.
The term chapbook for this type of literature emerged in the 19th century. Chapbook derives from the word for the itinerant seller of things, such as books, a “chapman”. The first element of "chapman" comes from Old English "cēap" ('barter, business, dealing') from which the modern adjective “cheap” is derived.
Chapbooks served a valuable purpose in popular culture as a delivery vehicle of entertainment and (often unreliable) information. They are a record of popular culture, preserving cultural artefacts that may not have survived in any other form, and are recognised as stimulating influencers of thinking and quests for further knowledge.
In an autobiographical letter to Dr John Moore, Robert Burns – Scotland’s National Bard - mentions his first two chapbooks while growing up: “The Life of Hannibal” and “The History of Sir William Wallace”, crediting the latter for “pouring a Scottish prejudice in my veins which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest”.