User:Runtripandfall/Edwardian print culture

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The Edwardian era (see also Fin de siècle and Belle Époque), is commonly recognized as being a time of great social change.[1] One of the greatest social changes to occur between 1880 and 1914 was the widespread development of a print culture in an increasingly literate populace. In the United Kingdom, the development of print culture both drove and reflected the social, educational and moral concerns of the day.

Public libraries and social control[edit]

The Public Libraries Act 1850 had previously led to the wide-spread establishment of free council-run libraries. Indicative of the social, educational and moral concerns consequent to the Industrial Revolution, the Act was initially less an encouragement for the working class to better themselves through education, and more an indication of middle-class anxiety over potential working-class disorder manifesting as paternalism.[2] The 1849 House of Commons Public Library Report’s primary commendation for supporting the institution rested upon the perspective that public libraries ‘promoted literary taste and temperate and moral habits among the inhabitants.’[3]

However, in conjunction with the serial philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, the development of the public library system also gave rise to the notion of the public library as we know it today, with its philosophical and architectural conception of universal, free, access and the user’s right to a plurality of information. With a network of 602 libraries in 1919 eventually forming the basis of the modern public library network we have today, public libraries rapidly expanded from being institutions formed with ideals of education and temperance to being institutions in which an increasingly literate population could access all sorts of material.[4] This disconnect between class perceptions of library usage was mirrored by broader tensions in print culture at large, most notably the conflict between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture which divided the world of book publishing.

Book publishing: high culture vs. low culture[edit]

The Edwardian book publishing industry underwent many of the same debates that were a concern for public libraries, and which are still consistently debated in modern print culture. Both industry and institution faced ‘the Great Fiction Question’: the tension between culture and leisure, ‘high’ literature and ‘low’ popular fiction. Within the publishing industry, that question took on a economic factor, with the fortunes of public libraries and book publishers clearly entwined.[5] Publishing responses to the development of the public library were divided. Some publishers saw the public library as a strong source of competition and an institution which, by catering to the public demand for populist works, could potentially act against the creation of an ‘educated’ culture, while others, such as Henry Colburn, saw economic opportunities and moved from publishing political, ‘cultural’ works by the likes of Disraeli to solely publishing fiction intended for the public library system.[6]

Book publishing became a prominent industrial economic player in the Victorian era, with the rise of distinct literary genres and formats, and technologies that allowed for widespread cheap reproduction of texts. Companies such as Longman, Heinemann, Methuen and Macmillan, established in tandem with the major literary movements of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, all survive today as independent firms or conglomerations.[6]

With the rise of the public library and an increasingly literate population, publishers deliberately sought to counter what they perceived as the dangers of ‘low’ literature by producing low-cost, accessible modern versions of classic works in series such as Everyman. However, despite the Edwardian anxiety over class mobility, strictures, and the dangers of populist literature, it is notable that the publishing firms which persisted into the twentieth century were ones which were reliant upon popular appeal. The fortunes of publishers such as Methuen and Heinnemann were founded upon ‘star’ popular authors including, respectively, Marie Corelli and Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson, while Macmillan, under the aegis of John Morley, strongly established itself with the 39 volume series, English Men of Letters.[6]

Newspaper publishing and periodicals[edit]

The final key development in Edwardian print culture came in the establishment of aggregated press conglomerates, with the Harmsworth Brothers preceding Rupert Murdoch as the first viable press barons of the twentieth century. Owners of Associated Newspapers, they were responsible for the London Daily Mail and Daily Mirror in addition to the Glasgow Daily Record and the Sunday Pictorial. While they employed skilled reporters, their techniques of stunt publicity and support of ‘reportable’ events such as exploration and invention could be said to locate their work firmly within the framework of ‘low’ culture.[7]

If the Harmsworths espoused ‘low’ culture and an ultimately Conservative perspective in print, at the other end of the spectrum resided writers such as George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, whose intellectual monographs for the Fabian Society were targeted to reach an increasingly and radicalized working class.[8]

This blurring of ‘high’ and ‘low within print culture was furthered in periodicals such as The New Age and The New Witness, which fused artistic avant-garde experiments (including the initial publication of Ezra Pound) with radical politics which lent themselves to both the extreme left-wing and the eventual rise of Fascism.[9] Social changes surrounding the role of women in society and the nascent tumult of the suffrage movement were also propagated and documented in periodicals which, while targeted predominantly towards the upper, educated classes, nonetheless represent one of the significant social changes to come out of the Edwardian era.[10]


  1. ^ Nowell-Smith, Smith. Edwardian England 1901-1914. Oxford University Press, 1964.
  2. ^ McMenemy, David. The public library. Facet, 2009, p. 24-26.
  3. ^ House of Commons. Report of the Select Committee on Public Libraries together with the minutes of evidence and appendix. House of Commons, 1849, p. vii.
  4. ^ Kelly, Thomas. A history of public libraries in Great Britain, 1845-1975. Library Association, 1977, p. 122.
  5. ^ Holland, Evangeline. The Edwardian publishing industry. Posted July 15, 2009. Retrieved 01/04/2011.
  6. ^ a b c Glasgow, Eric. "Publishers in Victorian England," Library Review, 47(8):395-400.
  7. ^ Arnold Baker, Charles. The Harmsworths, The companion to British History London.
  8. ^ Bloomsbury dictionary of English literature, 1997.
  9. ^ Villis, Tom. "Early modernism and exclusion: the cultural politics of two Edwardian periodicals," University of Sussex Journal of Contemporary History, December(5):1-17.
  10. ^ Delap, Lucy. The freewoman, periodical communities and the feminist reading public. Library Chronicle, 2000.

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