3.4.3: 1725 - 1830 - Types of reading public

Later researchers do not agree as to the size of the reading public in the eighteenth century, and neither did the contemporaries. Many of the latter thought that in the Dutch Republic everybody, right down to the coach driver, read books. Others, such as Betje Wolff, were of the opinion that only a very small section of the population opened a book with any regularity.

Betje Wolff's view was unpopular for a long time. Researchers thought that there would have been a strong increase in the number of readers in the second half of the eighteenth century. For the greater part of the eighteenth century there was supposedly a division within the reading public; the select group of academically educated frequent readers on the one hand and the much larger group of elementarily educated, incidental readers on the other. The rise of new groups of readers, mainly from the middle classes is supposed to have put an end to this division. An argument in favour of the idea of a new reading public is formed by the growth and diversification of the number of available titles in the eighteenth century. Not only did various new genres appear on the market, but many published works were explicitly aimed - as would be clear from the title or foreword - to new, specific groups of readers such as women, children, the 'common man' or the 'disadvantaged'.

The available data regarding the reading public in the eighteenth century does not as yet confirm the idea of a sharp growth in the number of readers. For instance, research into bookshops in Middelburg and Zwolle around 1800 shows that people were not exactly beating a path to their doors. The vast majority of people only went there now and again to buy a schoolbook, an almanac or some stationary. Only a small section of the public, which in accordance with Betje Wolff's estimate probably did not exceed a few percent of the households in town, regularly bought any reading material. It is remarkable, however, that this group of people who bought large amounts of reading matter were from a wide range of social backgrounds. Regular and varied purchases occurred across the entire social spectrum. Moreover, whether they were highly educated or not, in high positions or not, they all preferred the same kinds of old and new, edifying and enlightened material. In short, the middle groups were not dominantly present in bookshops around 1800 at all. Neither was there a run on the circulating libraries, which together with the reading societies are usually considered to be strongholds of the new readers. The records of booksellers who also had a circulating library show that the public who purchased books was many times greater than the public that only visited the libraries.

Should this situation be regarded as the result of the slow growth of the reading public in the course of the century? The results of research into book ownership in household inventories in The Hague in the eighteenth century point in a different direction. This research shows, for instance, that in 38% of the inventories in The Hague, not a single book was noted down and that in 27% of the inventories, fewer than five books were found. Large collections of over a hundred books were only found in 4% of households. It is remarkable that there was no continuous increase in book ownership in the course of the century. There was only an increase in the first half of the century; after 1750 the increase halted. Only the owners of large book collections, among whom a large proportion were representatives of the wealthier part of the population, left ever larger collections after 1750. Book collections in The Hague continued to be composed in the same way; bibles, psalm books and hymnbooks formed the core of all collections.

The data from The Hague appear, therefore, to support Betje Wolff's view.

author: J. Brouwer

Types of reading public