Celebrating the Digitization of McGill Library’s Chapbook Collection: An exhibition of British and American chapbooks


Celebrating the Digitization of McGill Library’s Chapbook Collection: An exhibition of British and American chapbooks

This exhibition celebrates the creation of the Library’s newest digital collection. The McGill Library’s Chapbook Collection contains over 900 English-language chapbooks published in England, Scotland, Ireland and the northeastern United States.  Through a generous donation from the Harold Crabtree Foundation digital facsimiles have been prepared and the entire collection is now online.

The majority of the chapbooks in the McGill Library’s Chapbook Collection were published in the early 19th century.  They contain stories based upon medieval romance, English legends and folklore, or abridged from popular literature for adults.   Children’s chapbooks of popular nursery rhymes, fairy tales and books of instruction are also part of the chapbook collection courtesy of The Sheila R. Bourke Collection of Children’s Literature, a major research collection in children’s literature which is held by the Library.

Chapbooks are small in size and number of pages. They were printed on cheap paper and their leaves stitched together, sometimes including an illustrated paper cover. Often undated, without authors, chapbooks are usually identified by their printer and often contain numerous woodcut illustrations. They were carried by peddlers known as “chapmen” and were sold for pennies or less to the rural population on their trade routes.  Scholars link the proliferation of this “cheap print “ to  increased literacy rates and though first-hand accounts of readership are rare, chapbooks are considered a significant aspect of the printed popular literature of the time.

These selections from McGill Library’s Chapbook Collection illustrate a range of subject genres, printers and publishing locations on both sides of the Atlantic.  Included are evangelical publications such as Hannah More’s Cheap Repository Tracts and the Religious Tract Society who modeled their publications on the chapbook format in an attempted to reform the lower classes.

The McGill Library’s Chapbook Collection can be viewed online from the McGill Library website at http://digital.library.mcgill.ca/chapbooks.

Items displayed in this exhibition have been selected from McGill’s Rare Books and Special Collections including The Sheila R. Bourke Collection of Children’s Literature and the Children’s Collection. 

This exhibition was prepared by Sharon Rankin, Liaison Librarian. The Library would like to thank Jason Grand, McGill M.A. English 2014 for the excerpts of his texts used in this exhibition.

Free admission. Accessible during opening hours.

McLennan Library Building Lobby : 3459 rue McTavish. Montreal, Quebec , H3A 0C9


McGill Library’s Chapbook Collection – Website Launched!

On August 15, 2013 the website was launched!

Through a generous donation from the Harold Crabtree Foundation, digital facsimiles of the  Rare Books and Special Collections chapbook collection have been prepared and a virtual collection created.

beechapbookThe McGill Library’s Chapbook Collection is organized by subject categories which can be browsed. The entire work can be read in PDF format or online, using the page turning functionality of the Internet Archive.

Visit the collection at:


TEI details

The McGill Library’s Chapbook Collection project is also a text encoding project.

Rare Books and Special Collections is creating a TEI XML file for each of the chapbooks using TEI P5:Guidelines for Electronic Text Encoding and Interchange by the TEI Consortium. Level 4 coding from Best Practices for TEI in Libraries is the goal of the project, to enable future functionality using the encoded TEI text file.

The project is seeking partnerships with scholars to enhance the level of encoding and extend the use of these files in the support of digital humanities research.

The Milner Toys Series



As part of the Sheila R. Bourke Collection of Chapbooks in McGill University, there is a 6-part series by author Mary Martha Sherwood based on her children’s book History of Henry Milner (1837). According to the advertisements on the back cover of these chapbooks, the series is also referred to as the Milner Toys series.

Mrs. Sherwood is a prominent author of many chapbooks and children’s literature of McGill’s collection and is claimed to be “one of the most significant authors of children’s literature of the nineteenth century1. Alongside her works such as The History of the Fairchild Family, the Milner Toys series relates the theme of childhood within domesticity and religion by taking readers through the life and lessons of the fictional character Henry Milner in 19th century England.

Bibliographic Information:

Titles (in order):

I.  Master Henry’s Arrival
II.  Master Henry’s Lesson   II. Master Henry’s Lesson
III. Master Henry’s Walk
IV. Master Henry’s Visit
V. Master Henry’s Green Bag
VI. Master Henry’s Rabbit

Location: Troy, New York

Publisher: Merriam & Moore

Date: All published in 1850, except 1*

* Rare Books and Special Collection holds 2 versions of the second chapbook, Master Henry’s Lesson, the second published in the year 1851.

Chapbook Features:

Naturally, the chapbooks in the Milner Toys series share a structure that include a cover with a simple title, a title page, followed by a frontispiece, a few narrative sections, and the same advertisement on the back cover. Interestingly however, some of their similarities are not consistent across all 7 chapbooks. For example, 4 of the 7 chapbooks share the same image of a man with a young boy on the cover. The chapbook published in 1851 consists of different image of a man with a young boy walking in a field. The other 2 have, what seems to be, a fruit basket on the cover instead.

Although the cover of each chapbook includes one main title, the title page includes the titles of the other sections as part of the content of the book. Each section begins with the same style lettrine, also known as a drop-cap.

Each chapbook includes numerous woodcut engravings within the text. Some of the illustrations are done by Alexander Anderson. According to the McGill note in the catalogue, coloured illustrations were completed by hand.

A Poem for Mother’s Day

Our collection of chapbooks is divided into several categories by subject matter,  one of which is “Instructional.” This category contains all sorts of chapbooks imparting good manners and religious lessons to  young readers, through songs, poems, and moral tales. The lessons range from charity to industriousness, with a good dose of piety thrown in. One of the main themes throughout each work, however, is obedience, both to God and parents.


So, in honour of Mother’s Day this weekend, and in celebration of my own mother, who is indeed very kind, I offer up this little instructional poem found in  “Pleasing Poetry and Pictures: For the Mind and Eye,” from 1849.

My Kind Mother.
A Dutiful Child is the Joy of its Parents.

I must not tease my mother,
For she is very kind ;
And every thing she says to me,
I must directly mind ;
For when I was a baby,
And could not speak or walk,
She let me in her bosom sleep,
And taught me how to talk.

I must not tease my mother;
And when she likes to read,
Or has the headache, I will step
Most silently, indeed.
I will not choose a noisy play,
Or trifling troubles tell;
But sit down quiet by her side,
And try to make her well.

I must not tease my mother;
I have heard my father say,
When I was in my cradle sick,
She tended me all day.
She lays me in my little bed,
She gives me clothes and food,
And I have nothing else to pay,
But trying to be good.

I must not tease my mother;
She loves me all the day,
And she has patience with my faults,
And teaches me to pray;
How much I’ll strive to please her
She every hour shall see,
For, should she go away, or die,
What would become of me !



Cinderella in the 1800’s

Coming across, so far, three versions of the story of Cinderella during McGill’s Chapbook Digitization Project, I thought I would share a short comparison between the three, in no particular order:

Version 1:
Title: The History of Cinderella; or, the Little Glass Slipper
Printed: Otley, England by William Walker
Date: 1813
Excerpt:  Her movements were so graceful, and her dancing performed with such nice, and, at the same time, easy exactness, that the admiration of the whole assembly was raised to the greatest height, and every part of the room resounded with loud bursts of applause.” (p. 22)

Unique to this version of the Cinderella story (from the other two) is its numerous wood-cut engraving in the shape of either a rectangle, and more commonly within the text, the shape of an octagon. Furthermore, this Chapbook includes a few stanzas of verse throughout the text alongside the main story line.

Version 2:
Title: The Surprising Adventures of Cinderilla; or the History of A Glass Slipper to which is added An Historical Description of the Cat
Printed: York, by J. Kendrew Colliergate
Date: 1820
Excerpt: ” The King’s son conducted her to the most honourable seat and afterwards took her out to dance with him. She danced so very graceful, that they all more and more admired her.” (p.17)

One of the key distinctive features of this version of the story is the spelling of the protagonist’s name. Cinderella is most commonly spelled with an “e”, however, this Chapbook has published the name with an “i”. Furthermore, unlike the other two versions, this Chapbook includes a section for the alphabet before the main body of the text as well as adds a juvenile section towards the end of a description of a cat.

Version 3:
Title: Cinderella or, The History of the Little Glass Slipper
Printed: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by Mathew Carey
Date: 1800
Except: “The king’s ſon conducted her to the moſt honourable ſeat, and afterwards took her out to dance with him. She danced so very gracefully, that they all more and more admired her.” (p.21)

This particular version of the story of Cinderella is a facsimile (an exact reproduction of the original copy) that was acquired privately by the Huntington Library in 1951. According to the printed note at the beginning of this copy, it is “the earliest known American edition of Cinderella”. Mathew Carey, the publisher of this copy, was an Irish immigrant who came to Philadelphia in November 1784. The note further mentions that the text of this version may have been derived from Charles Perrault‘s collection of stories, first published in the late 17th century.

As displayed by the above excerpt, the text closely follows the standard version of the story (Version 2 above also demonstrates this). However, unlike the previous version, this publication includes numerous Latin Ss, ct-ligature, signature characters, and wood cut oval-shaped images.

The Latin S (ſ)

As you’ve seen already, a few chapbooks in the 1700s-1800s were creative in their printing methods. The Cheap Repository, among others, used some neat ligatures, including the æ (as in “æther”), the œ (as in “Œdpial”), the “ct” wiggle (no ASCII character, unfortunately), and the Latin ſ, a character unfortunately recognized by most text-recognition software as an F. It makes for especially interesting work when you’re editing a Biblical tract full of Chriftians, fins, pioufness, wifdom, mifery, paffion, feizing with fudden fits … You get the idea.

I’m guessing it was something of a 27th letter for a while? Often Ss are replaced with ſs every time they appear in a word, except as the last letter (as in “diſtreſs” and “ſenſations” and “covetouſneſs”).

One of the cool things* I get to do in this job is learn how optical-character-recognition works and try to “teach” it to work better. To that end, I built a language. It’s exactly like English except it understands a good chunk of Latin ſ usage. So far it’s mainly  Christian/religious/moral terminology, as well as common words and phraſes — but, if used in conjunction with character-by-character training, and a digitizer who’s willing to add words to the dictionary as he/she goes along, it vaſtly decreases the error rate and improves readability (i.e. keeping editor brain-fry to a manageable level).

It’s not an open format, but rather a proprietary archive for ABBYY FineReader — but, on the off-chance that this helps anyone in the future, I’ve made it publicly downloadable on Google Drive. I’d love to know if anyone finds a use for it!

* Cool if you’re a computer geek.

Punch & Judy!

While I love it when we get to touch upon topics of historical significance, maybe my enthusiasm in this case should be reconsidered.

The popular Punch & Judy puppets (see here and here for more) have been around for centuries, and immortalized in countless ways. In chapbook form, however, the classic tale loses the absurd comedic effect that usually comes with the live show.

The Punch & Judy Foundation (yes, really) even dedicates a page to criticisms and (mis?)conceptions about the tradition. Easily my favourite part is that even Dickens had something to say about it:

In my opinion street Punch is one of those extravagant relief’s from the realties of life which would lose its hold upon the people if it were made moral and instructive…. I regard it as quite harmless in its influence and as an outrageous joke which no one in existence would think of regarding as an incentive to any kind of action or as a model for any kind of conduct.

“It is possible, I think, that one secret source of pleasure very generally derived from this performance, as from the more boisterous parts of a Christmas pantomime, is the satisfaction the spectator feels in the circumstances that likenesses of men and women can be so knocked about without any pain or suffering.

Seems like Dickens would’ve been pro-video-game.

My knowledge of Punch & Judy comes from the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business, and the 1940 version of Pride & Prejudice (with the inimitable Greer Garson and Lawrence Olivier); I’m sure the rest of you have your own references. Our copy of The Serio-Comic Drama of Punch & Judy sits in the Rosalynd Stearn Collection in the McGill Rare Books Library.

Birds of Spring

bird-cover bird-titlebird-turkey 

Spring is finally in the air along with some returning feathered friends. In honour of our avian associates I thought I’d share part of a chapbook on birds. While there are plenty of chapbooks in the collection on birds, I picked Juvenile History of Birds because of a reference to Canada in the first entry. It describes the turkey’s homeland of Canada as “covered with snow above three parts of the year.” I’m assuming that’s three parts out of four, which it certainly feels like sometimes.

This also gives me an opportunity to mention another part of McGill University’s Rare Books and Special Collections – the amazing Blacker-Wood Collection of Zoology and Ornithology. For example, it houses a book with pictures of birds and people made entirely of feathers from 1618! You can see the digitized version here. There are also several collections on different aspects of Canadiana such as Canadian history, literature, architecture, prints, and even the Olympics.