Christmas books in Dickens’ England

“Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.”

— Charles Dickens, “Bleak House,” 1851


If you had been shopping for Christmas presents in Dickensian London during the early decades of the 19th century, and managed to find your way through the detestable smoke and fog, you might have visited a quaint old bookshop on some cobbled street and planked down anywhere from 12 shillings to three pounds for one of the popular literary annuals of that day.

Annuals were small volumes, often pocket-sized, which were specifically marketed as gift books, mainly to middle-class women. They came out late each year for the following year, just like calendars. They were timed to be in bookstores for the holidays and were very popular as Christmas and New Years’ presents, at least for those who could read and afford them. The less fortunate received coal in their stockings to contribute to the smog.

The fad for annuals began in the 18th century and ran to about 1860, peaking from the 1820s to the 1840s. During this period, over 800 different annuals were marketed in Great Britain, Europe and the United States.

Annuals came in several types and styles, with literary annuals especially popular in England after Rudolph Ackermann, an Anglo-German publisher, introduced the form to Great Britain from Germany. Literary annuals were composed of poetry and short stories by popular authors such as Thomas Hood and Mary Shelley, author of “Frankenstein.” Often edited by women, these books were illustrated with steel engravings that also could be purchased separately for framing.

Early literary annuals were cheaply bound in paper covered boards and had separate sheaths (little cardboard boxes that opened at the top), in which they were stored and carried. Couples often used these books for courting, and they became so popular by the 1830s that publishers began to upgrade the board bindings to gilt-decorated cloth or embossed leather. Some were even dressed in silk bindings which had a shimmering appearance known as “watered silk.”

Original examples of literary annuals are not uncommon in the rare book market today, sometimes even surviving with their sheaths, although they are hard to find in fine condition. Fragile to begin with, they are usually worn and soiled with broken hinges and faded colors, the boxes, if present, often falling apart.

At a recent German auction, I bought three almost pristine copies of one of the most popular of the British literary annuals, Ackermann’s “Forget Me Not” for 1828, 1830 and 1831, each one issued late the previous year. These volumes were from an old European library where they had resided for nearly two centuries, apparently unread and untouched. The bindings of glazed green boards decorated with heraldic devices are like new, as are the sheaths. The text edges of each book still shine with original gilding, the yellow endpapers are fresh and bright, the hinges are unbroken, and the dedication pages of each book (sadly for romantics) were never inscribed.

Given the ravages of time and the elements, it is miraculous when anything this old and ephemeral survives in such condition. In this state, the books show just how they looked when they appeared new in bookstores and under Christmas trees.

Dickensian bookshops, even if poorly lit and permeated with smog, were not quite the foreboding places suggested by black-and-white daguerreotypes or the macabre poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, but were instead filled with color. Book decoration early in the 19th century was an art form just entering what became known as the golden age of publishers’ bindings, and the colors and gold leaf became ever more ornate as publishers strove to outdo one another to attract customers.

Another innovation, dust jackets, also began to appear on some books at this time, including some of the annuals. Unlike sheaths, however, early dust jackets were not meant to be saved and were typically discarded like gift wrapping paper. A dust jacket found today on a book issued before 1850 is a great rarity, as desirable as an antique toy still in its original box. Only about 20 books from that era are known to survive with original jackets, several of them on annuals.

Two of these recently came to light at other auctions, one an 1842 German almanac in board binding and a jacket with decorative label, the other an 1847 Hungarian annual in pink watered silk and a pink jacket, the exquisitely delicate gold-stamped binding as fresh as the “Forget Me Nots.”

Finding such books today in their complete and pristine original state makes as fine a Christmas present as when they were new. Only a young woman who received one as a courting gift or a child who opened one of the juvenile annuals on Christmas morning might have found more pleasure in them.

Mark Godburn is an antiquarian bookseller and writer in North Canaan. 


His book, “Nineteenth-Century Dust-Jackets,” is available from the Oak Knoll Press.