Books in the Regency

Books in the Regency

In many books set in Regency England, both JAFF and non-JAFF, characters frequent bookstores. They carry books with them, in their pockets and in their luggage, and they have libraries in their homes. I have long been curious about those books, what they looked and felt like, their sizes, and their weights, and thought maybe others would be, as well. Below is what I have discovered.

Let me begin by saying that I did not find the actual information I was looking for. I ended up at Wikipedia, looking up quarto, and even they could not give me good, solid dimensions. LOL More on that later …

The most important thing to remember about books in the 19th century (which is when the Regency was, for the math-impaired and math-haters among us) is that every single aspect of every single book was created by hand. This is before or just at the beginning of the era of mechanization, and the machines available to printers were large and prohibitively expensive. The paper, ink, and quill used by the author were all handmade. The letters used in the press that printed the book were all handmade. The paper, as well. Each set of pages was passed, one large sheet of paper at a time, through the printing press. I won’t go into details about that here, but there will be links at the bottom of the post to the articles I read that do describe it.

1779 Bible from Uniacke Estate Museum in Nova Scotia. Photo courtesy of Leenie Brown.

What all this hand-made-ness means, is that books were incredibly expensive. This article from 2020 at the Jane Austen’s World website says that books in the Regency cost the equivalent of $90 to $100 in today’s (American) money. That’s a lot. I remember when I was a kid being told how expensive books were and how important it was to take care of them. Print books are still expensive today, and I cringe every time I have to add an outrageous price to a print book so I can literally earn a dollar off it. But back then, in the Regency, even the gentry often had a hard time finding money in the budget for books. This is why circulating libraries were so popular. It’s much cheaper to pay a small subscription fee to just borrow a book than it is to pay outright for one when a single volume might cost your entire income for the year.

Now, back to sizes …

Image courtesy of Leenie Brown

I could find no information on the actual size of the paper used to print books in the Regency. However, the Wikipedia and Wiktionary articles below give me a general idea of how big each size of book could have been. The biggest, a quarto, was made by printing four pages per sheet of paper. The general finished size I found for this is what we would call letter-size, about 8 ½ inches by 11 inches. This is close to the size of books I have experienced here in America with antique books, most of which have been from the late 1800’s.

There were more than just quartos printed, though, and many books were much smaller. The printer could print up to sixteen pages per side of paper, all in multiples of four. After quarto came octavo (eight pages per side), then duodecimo (12 pages per side), and finally, sextodecimo (sixteen pages per side.) The range of sizes for a sextodecimo book was three by five to five by six, or about the size of an index card. In my mind, the book of Shakespeare I imagine Mr. Darcy tucking into the pocket of his coat was likely a duodecimo or a sextodecimo.

Speaking of the latter, I came across another Jane Austen’s World post that talked about pocket books. Pocket books were an actual thing and were something ladies carried around in their reticules. As I understand it, they were little planners. The thought of Jane Austen being a planner girl like me just thrills me to the bone! <3

In addition to pocket books, almanacs were also printed small and would fit into reticules. And, ladies often carried around literal tiny books. These might be novels or poetry or Shakespeare, or anything in between. I’d imagine the print would be very tiny to fit it all into one little book. LOL Of course, they might have been printed in volumes or even abridged versions, either of which would have allowed the printer to keep the size down.

Screenshot from https://janeaustensworld.com/tag/regency-pocket-books/

This article is getting long and I should think about wrapping it up, but I can’t finish without sharing one thing that captivated me. Often, wealthy book purchasers bought unbound books and paid someone to specially bind them to the purchaser’s specific desires. They might have two houses, like Pemberley and Darcy House in London, and would have a book intended to be permanently housed in Pemberley’s library with one color of leather and one intended to remain in London in another color. That way, they could carry their books back and forth while reading and not forget to which library it should be returned. Fascinating!

So, there is a very brief summary of what I learned about books in the Regency era. I found the topic riveting, even if I never did find a picture of actual Regency-era books (the ones I have here I bummed off of Leenie Brown and screenshotted from websites). Not sure what that says about me, but there it is. LOL

What about you? Did you find this interesting? What stuck out to you the most? Are you more appreciative of your e-reader now? Let me know below.  

Sources:  

https://janeaustensworld.com/tag/18th-century-book-publishers/  

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quarto  

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sextodecimo  

https://janeaustensworld.com/tag/regency-pocket-books/  

https://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2011/10/07/the-making-of-regency-books/

 

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DarcyBennett
DarcyBennett
April 28, 2022 8:38 PM

I used to work where we had extremely fragile books that had to be kept in a special room with temperature control. Unfortunately I don’t think any were from the Regency era though.

Riana Everly
AuAu
April 27, 2022 9:21 AM

I’ve always found the customised binding interesting. These days we put so much thought into cover design, but back then, they would have just rebound the whole thing to match the library. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Jean Stillman
Jean Stillman
April 27, 2022 7:48 AM

Great article! As an avid reader who enjoys convenience and being able to travel light, I love my Kindle! Mostly because I can take so many books with me while traveling, but the cost of paperbacks or hardbacks is also a consideration. I used to collect hardback copies and had tons of books. It was definitely an expensive habit. Not to mention, I could only travel with a couple of books. The eReader has literally changed my life. And I know so many people will argue that there is nothing like the feel and the smell of a book, and that is true. But, with arthritis, the light weight of my Kindle suits me fine. And it is small enough to carry with me everywhere! Enjoyed the article and enjoy all of your books in my Kindle!

Gianna Thomas
AuAu
April 27, 2022 3:47 AM

The cost was rather shocking. I didn’t expect them to be cheap but also didn’t realize they were so expensive. No wonder that those with large incomes were the only ones who could afford books in that day. It also meant that many with lower incomes would be very much less educated and aware of the world in general. Thank you for sharing, Zoe. 🙂

Caryl Kane
Caryl Kane
April 26, 2022 12:30 PM

I’m all astonishment! Thank you for sharing.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
April 25, 2022 6:37 PM

Fantastic post! I like my Kindle but I love having books in my hand the feel,the smell etc. I can see Jane being a planner she seemed like she liked things organized.

J. W. Garrett.
J. W. Garrett.
April 25, 2022 10:46 AM

I really enjoyed this post, Zoe. In nearly every JAFF story they mention books in some form or another. Either Elizabeth or Darcy is reading something. I’ve read where Darcy always carried books with him. In one story it was mentioned he knew Bingley wouldn’t have books so he brought his own. I imagine his servants loved having to schlep a trunk of books when their master traveled.

The printing process itself fascinates me. The clerks would have to hand assemble the letters in that print job. And the letters would be backward. After a print run for that page, the process would start all over again for the next page. Fascinating.

The next time I read where Darcy has a book in his pocket, or Georgiana or Elizabeth has one in their reticule… I’ll wonder what size it is. Thanks for sharing.

Linda A.
Linda A.
April 25, 2022 10:41 AM

Now we know where the rest of Mr. Bennet’s income went after Mrs. B’s lace and parties! It also says a lot about Darcy “not neglecting” his library vs his income. And, Bingley probably wasn’t raised with a lot of books, so may also be part of the reason he doesn’t have shelves full of books. If you stop and think about it, the way Jane Austen included books (or mentions thereof) were another way of showing wealth and personality. (Or maybe I’m just confusing myself after all of the variations I have read.) 😉

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