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.
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 …
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.
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.