Literary annuals had a massive influence on the British publishing market from the mid-1820s through the 1840s. Published in the fall before the Christmas and New Year gift-giving season, the volumes were marketed as beautiful and respectable presents that were especially appropriate for young ladies. Typically between three and four hundred pages, annuals contained a mixture of prose and poetry by famous authors of the Romantic and Victorian periods and their aristocratic contemporaries. William Wordsworth, S.T. Coleridge, Mary Shelley, Walter Scott, Robert Browning, Countess Blessington, Lady Caroline Lamb, and Lord Morpeth were among the contributors.

As important as their literary content was, annuals were also prized for their artistic elements. From elaborate bindings of glazed paper, gold-blocked leather, and watered silk to detailed engravings produced with the newest printing technologies, the volumes were beautiful objects often displayed in drawing rooms. As books intended for display and exchange between friends, family, and lovers, the annuals created a new genre that changed the publishing industry. Their success was staggering. While in the 1820s it was common for books to be published in print runs of 500 or sometimes 1,500 copies, literary annuals were produced in runs of several thousand (Erikson 5). In 1828, for example, over 100,000 annuals were sold (Harris, "Feminizing the Textual Body" 575).

Though immensely influential, the contemporary response to the genre was not entirely positive. The Poet Laureate Robert Southey, for instance, declared the entire genre to be “picture-books for grown children” (in Renier, Essay 13). Alfred Tennyson similarly called the annuals “vapid books” produced for an equally vapid audience (in Ledbetter "beGemmed and beAmuletted" 235). The tendency to deprecate the genre and its importance to British publishing history lingers today, and annuals have received relatively little attention from literary scholars. Indeed, much of the influential work on the genre has come from bibliographers who have used the annuals to trace technological advances in binding, steel-plate engraving, and color printing.

Recognizing the annuals’ important role in the print culture of nineteenth-century Britain, this online exhibition aims to provide an introduction to the genre. This resource is meant to be accessible to wide audience, and it is a hybrid of an exhibition catalogue and a scholarly article. Drawing from the impressive holdings at the University of Toronto, the exhibition brings together volumes from the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, the McLean Collection in the Robertson Davies Library at Massey College, and the Special Collections in the E.J. Pratt Library at Victoria University. Thematically organized virtual cases display books from diverse and dispersed collections and libraries. Viewed in sequential order, the cases tell a loose narrative of the development of the genre from 1823-1839.

Copyright © 2009 Lindsey Eckert.
Web Design by Lindsey Eckert and Matthew Powell.

Last updated September 2012