Reading and the Gilded Age

In case it wasn’t apparent by my extensive post about the back-to-school season, I’m a big fan of fall. Everything from the plethora of pumpkin flavored goodies to the crunch of a bright orange leaf under my feet brings a smile to my face. Now, I could go on for days about how much I love the feel of a crisp autumn wind in my hair, the feel of a new argyle sweater on my arms, and the eeriness that seems to creep into the atmosphere, but I will restrain myself. I’m here to talk about books. Now, unlike so many people who enjoy getting swept up in a good summer reading list, I love reading in the fall. It’s cool enough outside to keep me from feeling bad about not working in the yard and nothing goes better with a fall evening than a mug of tea and a good book.


Books weren’t always as easy to come by, however. Today we can drive to a local bookstore, visit the town library, or instantly download a book on a variety of electronic devices. Many of us have an abundance of books that we attempt to donate to libraries, sell in garage sales, or give to thrift stores. Owning books, although fabulous for book people, can seem like a waste of space to those who don’t smile at a neatly alphabetized book shelf. During the time of the Whaleys, literacy reached all time highs and the standardization of production in the print industry allowed for a literary boom. More books and more kinds of books were suddenly available to a wider population. In case you’re a numbers person, 93% of native-born, white men and 91% of native-born, white women were literate. Additionally, the number of new books published between 1880 and 1900 grew by 300%! Free lending libraries were created during the nineteenth century and reading circles became popular forms of educational leisure activities. In short, the Gilded Age saw an expansion in reading culture.

Library (1880ies)

There were definite class divides in reading material, however. Middle class readers sought self-improvement through their reading materials. Books and the “right” authors were to teach lessons about everything from social interactions to morality, to success. Reading material such as this, it was believed, would bring people of the middle class together. Alternately, cheap story newspapers and paperback books (dime novels) were consumed by working class readers. Dime novels were excitingly violent pieces, including westerns and detective stories. These stories reflected working class values, such as integrity and physical toughness. It wouldn’t be hard to distinguish stories from each readership.

Beadle’s was the most popular dime novel publisher.

So, this fall, if you’re like me and love grabbing a cozy blanket, hot cider, and a good read, remember that the advances of the Gilded Age contributed to the spread of reading culture throughout the country.


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