Note: If you purchase anything from links on this site, I may make a commission.
Join our Facebook page.
Boys and girls who can buy attractive periodicals and books at any bookstore or news-stand, can have very little notion of the difficulty that little folk had seventy or eighty years ago in getting something to read. It was only about fifty years ago, indeed, that this first efforts were made to supply cheap, instructive, and entertaining literature, and one of the men who made those efforts was Mr. William Chambers, who, in 1882, when he was eighty-two years of age, published a little account of his life. What he has to tell of his boyhood and youth is very interesting.
His father was unfortunate in business, and became so poor that young Chambers had to begin making his own way very early in life. He had little schooling--only six pounds' (thirty dollars) worth in all, he tells us--and, as there were no juvenile books or periodicals in those days, and no books of any other kind, except costly ones, it was hard for him to do much in the way of educating himself. But William Chambers meant to learn all that he could, and that determination counted for a good deal. There was a small circulating library in his native town, and he began by reading all the books in it, without skipping one. Then he got hold of a copy of the "Encyclopaedia Britannica," which most boys would regard as very dry reading. He read it carefully. When that was done young Chambers was really pretty well educated, although he did not know it.
About that time the boy had to go to work for his living. He became an apprentice to a bookseller in Edinburgh. His wages were only four shillings (about a dollar) a week, and on that small sum he had to support himself, paying for food, lodging, clothes, and everything else, for five years. "It was a hard but somewhat droll scrimmage with semistarvation," he says; for, after paying for his lodgings and clothes, he had only about seven cents a day with which to buy his food.
In the summer he jumped out of bed at five o'clock every morning, and spent the time before the hour for beginning business in reading and making electrical experiments. He studied French in that way too, and on Sundays carried a French Testament to church, and read in French what the minister read in English.
Winter came on, and the poor lad was puzzled. It was not only cold, but entirely dark at five o'clock in the morning during the winter months, and William, who had only seven cents a day to buy food with, could not afford either a fire or a candle to read by. There was no other time of day, however, that he could call his own, and so it seemed that he must give up his reading altogether, which was a great grief to the ambitious lad.
Just then a piece of good-luck befell him. He happened to know what is called a "sandwich man"--that is to say, a man who walks about with signs hanging behind and before him. One day this man made him a proposition. The sandwich man knew a baker who, with his two sons, carried on a small business in a cellar. The baker was fond of reading, but had no time for it, and as he and his sons had to bake their bread early in the morning, he proposed, through the sandwich man, to employ William Chambers as reader. His plan was that Chambers should go to the cellar bakery every morning at five o'clock and read to the bakers, and for this service he promised to give the boy one hot roll each morning. Here was double good-fortune. It enabled Chambers to go on with his reading by the baker's light and fire, and it secured for him a sufficient breakfast without cost.
He accepted the proposition at once, and for two and a half hours every morning he sat on a flour-sack in the cellar, and read to the bakers by the light of a penny candle stuck in a bottle.
Out of his small wages it was impossible for the boy to save anything, and so, when the five years of his apprenticeship ended, he had only five shillings in the world. Yet he determined to begin business at once on his own account. Getting credit for ten pounds' worth of books, he opened a little stall, and thus began what has since grown to be a great publishing business.
He had a good deal of unoccupied time at his stall, and "in order to pick up a few shillings," as he says, he began to write out neat copies of poems for albums. Finding sale for these, he determined to enlarge that part of his business by printing the poems. For that purpose he bought a small and very "squeaky" press and a font of worn type which had been used for twenty years. He had to teach himself how to set the type, and, as his press would print only half a sheet at a time, it was very slow work; but he persevered, and gradually built up a little printing business in connection with his book-selling. After a while he published an edition of Burns's poems, setting the type, printing the pages, and binding the books with his own hands, and clearing eight pounds by the work.
Chambers wrote a good deal at that time, and his brother Robert wrote still more, so that they were at once authors, printers, publishers, and booksellers, but all in a very small way. After ten years of this work, William Chambers determined to publish a cheap weekly paper, to be filled with entertaining and instructive matters, designed especially for the people who could not afford to buy expensive books and periodicals. Robert refused to join in this scheme, and so, for a time, the whole work and risk fell upon William. His friends all agreed in thinking that ruin would be the result; but William Chambers thought he knew what the people wanted, and hence he went on.
The result soon justified his expectations. The first number was published on the 4th of February, 1832. Thirty thousand copies were sold in a few days, and three weeks later the sale rose to fifty thousand copies a week.