4.4.3: 1830 - 1910 - Types of reading public

Bookseller Fuhri in The Hague wrote in 1845: 'Everybody reads here: in the entire country, wherever you go, in the humblest citizen's family, you will find books. But not always purchased books; on the contrary, usually rented ones'.

Whether Fuhri was right or was proved more and more right in the course of the century, we do not know. It is generally assumed that in the course of the nineteenth century a strong expansion of the reading public took place. After all, all the conditions had been met. Nevertheless, little is known about the composition and development of the reading public in this period. Speculations about the growth of the reading public are therefore usually based on the drastic changes in supply and distribution and on the improvement of education and prosperity. All sorts of hot social items - secession of Belgium, Nonconformism, school funding, suffrage, social questions - will have stimulated the eagerness to read. For the time being it can only be guessed how far all these factors reached.

A few things are known, however, such as, for example, that around 1850 the public in two large bookshops in Middelburg and Zwolle mainly consisted of the higher social levels. The middle classes were not represented very much, whereas the lower orders were almost entirely absent. We do not know whether these groups did not read as the shops concerned were fairly upper class, nor do not know whether books were 'rented' rather than purchased in these circles. Little is known about the public of commercial libraries. They certainly did not rush to the lending libraries of the booksellers in Zwolle and Middelburg.

After the middle of the century, a division is said to have occurred in the reading public: in addition to the expensive editions for a posh audience, cheap popular editions for the general public were published. Whether such editions - in combination with new outlet channels - actually succeeded in reaching new groups of readers - youth, women, workers, Catholics, farmers - is unknown for the time being.

Women are usually considered to be new readers in the nineteenth century and numerous editions intended specifically for women appeared on the market. Women were the subject of a continuing discussion throughout the century. Reading matter that kept the woman from her tasks as a wife and a mother, French novels in particular, were strongly advised against by writers of every kind. Did reading women allow these reading instructions to dictate what they should do?

For a long time books remained too expensive for workers, in spite of declining prices. They read newspapers rather than books, if they read at all. Thus Aaltje Tijsseling, born in 1891 in a working class family in Lemmer, recalls about her childhood: 'My mother could neither read nor write, but we always had to go to school. There was no book or newspaper to be found in the house. We had no money to read. But I recall that my father occasionally bought a newspaper for three cents'. It is unknown to what extent workers made use of the books which the libraries of 't Nut (Society for Public Welfare) made available free of charge to 'persons of limited means'.

In Catholic circles too, reading remained the exception rather than the rule for a long time. If they did read, it was not a book, but their own compartmentalised magazine such as the Katholieke illustratie (Catholic Illustrated), 'Sunday reading for the Catholic population of the Netherlands'. Founded in 1867, this richly illustrated magazine offered something for every taste. It became an instant success. Within a few years the magazine was read in 50,000 families and for a long time it was the only reading matter in many Catholic families.

We are still groping in near total darkness about reading in the country. The well-known economist Baron Sloet tot Oldhuis wrote in 1853 in the Tijdschrift voor staathuishoudkunde en statistiek (Magazine for Political Economics and statistics): 'In many regions the farming class would read more if every village had a public library where the farmer could obtain books free of charge'.

author: J. Brouwer

Types of reading public