Home > Research and Resources > Sierra Dye, "Consumers and Producers: Chapbooks and Women in Scottish Society"

Sierra Dye, "Consumers and Producers: Chapbooks and Women in Scottish Society"

(The author is a PhD Candidate in History and Scottish Studies at the University of Guelph)

From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, chapbooks were the ubiquitous literature of the Scottish people. Produced quickly and cheaply, they were sold in the city streets and market villages of Scotland, from the sixteenth century on. The date of the first chapbook printed in Scotland is not known (depending in part upon differing opinions regarding the definition of a chapbook), but some of the earliest examples of Scottish printed chapbooks appear to be dated from the late seventeenth century. Following the introduction of chapbook printing in Scotland, many more chapbooks were produced, with the bulk of publications falling into the period between 1750 and 1850. At the height of their popularity in Scotland, as many as 200,000 chapbooks were sold each year, the majority of which found their way into the hands and homes of the common people, whose interests and lives had provided printers with both the material and market for publication.

Women in particular played an important role, as both major characters and audience members for the songs, ballads and tales of chap literature. As lovely lasses, quarrelsome wives, and workers in Scottish society, women featured in countless chapbook publications. Actual working women would in turn have been a primary facet of the intended audience and consumers of this material. As such a common and popular form of entertainment for Scottish society, high and low, these chapbooks would have played an important role in imparting and perpetuating social values to these women, including ideas about gender roles and identity. These chapbooks, therefore, represent an important lens into the social fabric of early modern society. Using these sources, this paper will explore some of the roles and work women engaged in, as described in this popular literature, as a way of better understanding how women acted and participated in their communities as both producers and consumers.

The research for this paper has been drawn from a larger on-going project created and coordinated between the Department of History, the Digital Humanities, and the Archival and Special Collections at the Library of the University of Guelph in Ontario. Guelph is proud to house an extensive collection of over 500 of these chapbooks, the majority of which were printed between 1749 and the 1850s. Our project has been to digitize these chapbooks, as well as providing a comprehensive survey of the collection, identifying them thematically as well as providing brief descriptions of the general content for each source. This fully searchable database will help to facilitate research, collaboration, and the utilization of these important sources for scholars at home and abroad. Thematic search terms will include categories such as: family, work, food, religion, Highlands, Covenanters, class, crime, fashion, childhood, and of course, gender.

Scottish chapbooks in general have been drastically underutilized as primary sources of Scotland’s history, even though they represented some of the most common and popular forms of literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Edward J. Cowan and Mike Patterson’s recent work, Folk in Print: Scotland’s Chapbook Heritage 1750-1850, published in 2007, represents the first book-length scholarly work on this subject in over a century. A number of articles have also been printed on the subject of Scottish chapbooks, but few, if any, explore these sources as source of information about gender or women’s history, let alone women’s work. As Cowan points out, it is possible that chapbooks have been avoided as subjects by historians because they do not fit into proper scholarly categories. Some are presented as true histories or biographies, others are clearly folk or fairy tales, but the vast majority are simply collections of songs, anecdotes, and whatever else might easily fit into the small 8 to 24 page booklets. However, as Cowan also points out, the one thing these booklets were always sure to be was marketable. Chapbooks were designed to be mass-produced, quickly, and cheaply, and therefore needed to be also sold plentifully. Material for the chapbooks was produced by printers and writers, or stolen from rival competitors, or recycled from much older material, but ultimately what was included in these pages was what the printers believed would sell. Consequently, chapbooks themselves represent a lens to better understand the consumer market, as well as the producers.

Which brings us back to women. As discussed above, women indeed would have been an important part of the market for this literature. In addition, as workers in their communities, they also often provided the raw material for these publications, as examples of maids, mothers, money-lenders, servants, shepherdesses, and many more. In Folk in Print, Cowan discusses several types of work and occupations described in chapbooks, such as lawyers, tailors, and school masters; however, he focuses almost entirely on work available to men rather than women. While women certainly had more limited options in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women did in fact play a critical role in early modern and modern economies, both at home and in their communities, and many types of work were available to them.

One major form of employment for women was as domestic servants in other households. Women were often likely to become domestic servants in this period, at times traveling to cities from their rural homes in order to find employment, Indeed, many chapbooks refer to the lives and duties of female servants, including washing, cleaning, cooking, plucking chickens, making beds, and more. Sometimes these servants are merely supporting characters in larger dramas, but occasionally these women play starring roles themselves, especially in folk and fairy tales. For example, in the tale of “The Wandering Young Gentlewoman, or the Cat-Skin’s Garland,” (UG/s0077b49) the heroine is a Cinderella-type character who is cast off by her father for being born a girl rather than the son he was hoping for. Her mother sends her to the country but makes certain she is well-clothed and educated. As a young woman, she dresses herself in a garment, made of the skins of cats of all things, and wanders the countryside until she is hired as a scullion maid for a Knight’s house. When the Knight’s son goes to attend a series of balls, she begs to be allowed to follow him, but is beaten by her mistress. Ignoring the ban, the girl dresses herself again in her rich clothes and attends the balls several nights running, during which time the son dances with her and begs her to tell him who she is. When he eventually follows her back to his own home, he discovers who she is, and, exposing her lineage to his parents, obtains their permission to marry her. The tale ends with a happy reunion between daughter and father. Other folk and fairy tales, including Cinderella, describe similar themes of work, disguise, and ultimately a happy ending. While specific details are often omitted, (although sometimes items like the cat-skin garment helpfully sneak their way in), these tales can tell us more about the common appeal of the idea that a life of manual labour, poverty, and abuse might eventually lead to at least a good marriage, if not Prince Charming. The continued popularity of such stories indicates that this ideal remains an attractive prospect for many women today as well as in the past.

Working as a domestic servant can be seen as one part of a life-cycle of work for women. Young women would often leave their homes in search of employment as servants in other households in order to set aside some money in preparation for marriage later in life. Many of these young women went to cities in order to increase their chances of finding a good position. However, while migrating to urban areas for employment was quite common, it was also not always encouraged. For example, in one chapbook (UG/s0090b33), a song describes the pleasures of the rural landscape and country living—a typical literary trope in chapbook literature; it then goes on to specifically exhort young women to stay in their villages rather than seeking employment in cities. Generally, this kind of appeal was more commonly directed at young men in chapbook material, so this particular piece is somewhat unusual in being addressed specifically towards young women. It does, however, indicate that there was at least some level of ambivalence towards the influx of young women into cities in search of employment. This ambivalence likely stemmed from an anxiety over the uncontrolled and sexual bodies of unmarried and unsupervised women. While women and domestic servants represent regular characters in much chapbook material, this anxiety can sometimes be seen in the sexualization of many female characters, especially servants.

For example, in the popular tale of Lothian Tom (UG/s0006Cb12), a rogue and trickster from childhood onward, Thomas Black, or Lothian Tom, is a comical character who gets up to no good; ultimately a consequence of his moral failings, such as mischievousness, lack of interest in education, laziness, irresponsible with money, dishonesty. Female characters are incorporated regularly, and like the rest of the characters in the tale, often serve as dupes for his tricks, but these jokes frequently take on a distinctly sexual character when played on women. In one situation, Tom plays a trick on a female servant who falls asleep while doing the washing in the yard after staying out all night dancing at a wedding. While she is leaning, asleep, against the wash tub, he lifts her skirts and petticoats over her head and leaves her that way so that everyone can see her standing naked as they pass along the road. Several people pass, including a farmer whose horse takes “fright at the unusual sight” and breaks all the eggs being carried in the cart, causing the farmer to lash, not Tom, but the servant’s buttocks in a rage.

Another potential, although less common, job available to some women was as a shepherdess. Generally speaking, sheep herding in chapbooks was far and away categorized as a male occupation rather than one practiced by women. Most of these songs focus on describing the idyllic life of the shepherd who, in the romanticism of the times, was frequently portrayed as having nothing better to do with his time than to sit back and relax with his flock, composing songs and poetry, and occasionally to make love to the local farmer’s daughter. Sometimes this lifestyle was deliberately depicted in stark contrast to the comparably miserable life of the city man; indeed, as many poets and chapbook writers of the times agreed, it was better by far to be a shepherd than a king. While it is far more likely that the opposite was in fact true, the romance and appeal of the life of the shepherd was almost universally applauded, at least in the poems and songs of the chapbooks.

Descriptions of shepherdesses also occasionally manifest in the pages of these chapbooks. Sometimes they are portrayed in similar fashion to male shepherds, idling by the banks of streams, enjoying the beauty of surrounding nature, but more often they become part of the common theme of love songs, which are far and away the most popular form of chapbook material. Sometimes these women fall into the trope of love lost, portrayed as pining away upon the slopes for their absent lovers, lost at sea, or to the army, or to a rival, or some similar insurmountable separation. More frequently, however, they are depicted as the subject of a young man’s desire, made perhaps more desirable by her double attraction as both a sexual object and as part of the ideal sheepherding setting. Like their male counterparts, shepherdesses generally fall into the same stylized themes of nature, beauty and simplicity, but, like most women, almost always take on the added characteristics of sexuality and desire.

Sometimes this sexuality has a very specific consequence. One chapbook presents a rather shocking cautionary tale meant to encourage young women to guard their virginity and not be coaxed by men into pre-marital relations (UG/s0077b48). In the tale, a merchant’s daughter is courted by a squire’s son at Oxford. A marriage date is agreed upon by her family, but she allows herself to be talked into sleeping with him before they marry, after which he abandons her and disappears to London for two years. After he leaves her, she decides to go become a wandering shepherdess in atonement and sorrow. Years later, her betrothed returns to Oxford where he is confronted by her parents, but he blames it on the girl’s own falsity. When he hears about a beautiful shepherdess in the country, he tracks down this beauty and, not recognizing her at first as his jilted lover, attempts to convince her to sleep with him. When he recognizes her and she refuses him, he comes back the next day and rapes her. Then he kills her and throws her body in a river. As a moral tragedy, her death is punishment for her original submission, while her lover is tormented by the thought of what he has done, which drives him to his own deathbed, where he then confesses to girl’s father, which causes the father’s death as well. The tale serves as a cautionary tale for young women to guard themselves against the flattery of young men, emphasizing in particular a young woman’s responsibility for guarding her own virginity, rather than the men who talk them out of it.

In another chapbook, presented as a biography, a young woman named Elizabeth Stewart suffers from a similar series of unfortunate events (UG/s0030Gb50). In this narrative, Elizabeth is described as an orphan raised and educated by a cousin; she is later engaged as a domestic servant in a household where she sadly allows herself to be seduced by a fellow servant who lures her with the false promise of marriage. The loss of her virginity destroys her and her life, but she is rescued from a complete degradation and prostitution only by the intervention of a young man who stops her before she actually manages to sell her body on the street in Glasgow. She ends up in an Asylum for reformed prostitutes, where she is saved by religious instruction just in time for her to shortly die of an unspecified illness. The tone of the text is clearly religious and moral and meant to instruct the readers of the benefit of religious instruction and faith, even in adversity.

Stories like these can tell us more about ideals of female chastity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as of religion and education. They also can sometimes give us surprising peeks into the Scottish social system, such as the asylum for reformed prostitutes, as well as prostitution itself, which unfortunately is frequently left out of scholarly discussions as a category of work for women early modern Scotland. More importantly, we can also use texts like these to explore and analyze how women may have internalized these values and ideals, such as the double standard for male and female sexuality, and how this might have played a role in the construction of their own gender identity.

Women could also be employers as well as the employed. For example, in the popular ballad, “Watty’s Travels to Carslile in Search of a Place,” a young man, Watty, leaves his village home in order to travel in search of work. Interestingly, he is interviewed not by male employers, but apparently by their wives (UG/s0098b48/1). He is questioned by a number of “wives” who ask him what he desires as wages (“Twa pound and a Crown”) and what he can do for work (“Dod I can saw, maw, plough, dig, much a byre, sing a Psalm o’ David, dance a hornpipe, nick a mare’s tale, ca’ the kirn, hunt a brock, or fight ony ane my weight in Craigletown Parish”). He is eventually hired by a woman who he describes as: “an auld bearded cummer, she ca’d me her man! I may say from that day all my sorrows began.” Under her tyrannical rule, Watty suffers as his dog is killed and skinned, tanned for leather, while his fellow workers scorn him as a half-wit. His most memorable clashes, however, were with his mistress, who he states had a beard that reminded him of a billy goat, smelled of mutton, and had “hard frost looks would ha’e frightened the deil.” While Watty eventually moves on from this frightful mistress, this piece does reveal that women were able to act, either in the stead of their husband or as widows, as employers in their own right in Scottish society.

It is not just servants and scullions and employed women who are described in the pages of chapbooks, but also the lives of those further down the economic scale. Beggar women for example sometimes make appearances and occasionally even become the star characters. For example, the song “The Happy Beggars,” (UG/s0090b45) appears to be a drinking song of sorts; the song is designed to be sung by six women in turn, with each having a single verse describing how their lives as beggars are more joyous and filled with ease than any lady or Queen.

How blest are the beggar-lasses,
Who never toil for treasure!
Who know no care, but how to share
Each day successive pleasure

The “beggars” then take turns making fun of aristocratic women who are tied down by their slavery to fashion, hygiene, make-up, and money, and include other humorous depictions of upper-class prudishness and hypochondria. This song again returns to the theme that the happiest people on earth are those who are lucky enough to escape the cares and sorrows of having money and position. The lives of shepherds, farmers, rural villagers, and even beggars are idealized and immortalized in the verses of an age. While it seems unlikely that this would in fact be the opinion of an actual beggar woman on the street, this song does underline the ways in which social values—in this case the value of freedom from social pressures—were incorporated and revealed in the popular literature of the time.

Some chapbook material describes some fairly unorthodox occupations for women—in at least one case as a soldier. The song, “The Bold Hairy Cap,” (UG/s0030Bb33) is written from the point of view of a young woman who has fallen in love with a young man who has left to go be a soldier in the army. After he leaves and her family discourages her from pining for someone who is lost to her, she declares that she will go and join the army herself. To that end, she dresses herself as a man, wearing what she calls “a hairy cap” like her young man:

I’ll dress myself like a young man,
And with my bonny lad I’ll gang,
I’ll enter as a volunteer,
And follow my lad baith far and near,
And with my knapsack on my back,
I’ll boldly cock my hairy cap.

Not content to merely disguise herself as a man, several verses describes how she will dress and act like a young man, fighting with her sword and even courting other young women:

I sold my petticoat you know,
My ribbons and my ruffles too:
I’ll buy myself a good broad sword,
As you shall see upon my word,
I’ll look as rakish as young Jack,
With my broad sword and hairy cap.       Etc.

If Jack does go to America,
Then I will go as well as he
I’ll court the lasses night and day
And flatter them as Jack did me
They’ll like me ne’er the worst for that,
For wearing of my hairy cap.

Again as a popular song, it is difficult to claim that such unorthodox behavior was actually practiced, but women disguising themselves as men is not an altogether uncommon theme in chapbook literature. Typically it is done in order to pursue a lover or a potential lover, as the young woman described above does here, but this song definitely puts an unusual slant on this trope by emphasizing that the woman in question does not simply dress as a man, but takes on some of his more masculine qualities and behaviors. Ultimately, however, her unorthodox gender behavior is normalized once again when she promises that she will give up her “hairy cap” and follow in his footsteps into death as well, if she learns that he is killed. 

If Jack does go unto the sea,
Then I will go as well as he,
If in the wars that he is slain,
Then farewell to my cap again;
But I’ll make no dispute of that,
I’ll follow the lad with the hairy cap. Etc.

My bonny lasses, now farewell,
I leave you spinning at the wheel,
For with my bonny lad I’ll gang
Where King George does command,
With my young lad I’ll kiss and clap,
And boldly cock my hairy cap. Fal lal de ral Etc.

This passage implies that while she herself might dally with the lasses for a little while, ultimately her true interest is in her male lover, although it might be that death is the final arbiter of her gender behavior.

By far the most common form of work a woman was expected to do in her life was in the home. Women are described countless times as mothers and wives, and the work done in their households was a critical part of the Scottish economy.  The food produced in the household is often described, and even in some cases recipes are given, such as a notation on a het-pint, which is described as including spirits, egg, and sugar (UG/s0141b34/27). Spinning, weaving, and making clothes are described, as is the care of children. Occasionally a chapbook has a common theme running throughout the various entries, including themes that focus on household and the economy, including descriptions of women’s work…and their expenses. In one chapbook song, a man bemoans the cost of getting married, literally and figuratively, including the raising of a child that may or may not end of being his own anyway; meanwhile the would-be bride retorts that any woman would be cursed to marry such a cheap-skate anyway (UG/s0030Bb34). However, in the process of the song, many of the costs and purchases necessary for the setting up and running of the household are enumerated, giving us a peek into the domestic budget. In the same chapbook, complaints against the cheating of the various tradesmen and shopkeepers in towns are listed, including farmers, butchers, and cobblers, all of which appear to have one way or another for maximizing their own profits at the expense of the local buyer. Indeed the entire chapbook seems organized around the theme of money, or rather the lack thereof. Chapbooks like these reveal not only details and information about local and domestic economies, but also the attitudes towards money, poverty, and avarice, which seem to be at the forefront of the thoughts of at least this printer and his buyers.

Women, young and old would have learned a great deal from the pages of these chapbooks, internalizing messages about their sexual bodies, religious values, and gender roles in society. However, they also learned these roles from the women around them. One chapbook in particular makes this learning process quite clear, in which a young woman chooses to flirt and dance until she is ready to settle down, but even then refuses to be ruled by her husband: tendencies apparently learned all from her mother. The song entitled, “My mother did so before me” makes it clear that her mother had been the influential factor in determining her own choices and gender identity later in life (UG/s0090b45). While this again may have more to do with social commentary on providing examples for daughters, it is also illustrative of the influence and impact of female communities and the social construction of gender.

These chapbooks provide an important glimpse into the lives and work of Scottish women. At a time when literacy rates were rising, popular literature became common in many households, and women—as wives, widows, mothers, and daughters—would have been very familiar with the themes and images described in the pages of these short booklets.  Much like the influence of the media today (including television, fashion magazines, and the internet), Scottish women would have been exposed and influenced by the embedded ideologies present in these chapbooks, particularly regarding gender. At the same time that these women consumed these images and ideologies, they also themselves provided the raw material for it. As workers as well as wives, domestic producers as well as daughters, these women played a critical role in their local and household economies, roles that were included and described—at least in a formulaic fashion—in the popular songs and literature of this time. While it is unlikely that these sources provide a clear and unbiased picture of how women actually lived their lives, they can be used to tell us more about the kinds of work that women might have engaged in, their duties in the household, and roles they might have been expected to fulfill. More importantly, they can tell us about the kinds of ideals and archetypes they would have been exposed to on a regular basis, which would have certainly had a profound impact upon their own identities as women and producers in their communities.


1 An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Women’s History Scotland Annual Conference in Kirkwall, Orkney, May 2013.

References and Suggested Readings:

Abrams, Lynn, Eleanor Gordon, Deborah Simonton and Eileen Janes Yeo, eds. Gender in Scottish History since 1700. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

“Chapbooks.” National Library of Scotland, 2012. http://www.nls.uk/collections/rare-books/collections/chapbooks

Cowan, Edward J. and Mike Paterson, eds. Folk in Print: Scotland’s Chapbook Heritage 1750-1850. Edinburgh: John Donald, 2007.

Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. “The Scottish Chapbook Project.” University of South Carolina, June 2002. http://library.sc.edu/spcoll/britlit/cbooks/cbook.html

Ewan, Elizabeth and Maureen Meikle, eds. Women in Scotland, 1100-1750. East Linton, East Lothian: Tuckwell Press, 1999.

Ewan, Elizabeth and Janay Nugent, eds. Finding the Family in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2008.

Foyster, Elizabeth and Christopher A. Whatley, eds. A History of Everyday Life in Scotland, 1600 to 1800. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

Gilbert, Suzanne. “William Harvey and the Scottish Chapbooks.” Scottish Studies Review 5, no. 1 (Spring, 2004): 9-18.

Harvey, William. Scottish Chapbook Literature. New York, Burt Franklin, 1903.

Houston, R.A. “Women in the Economy and Society of Scotland, 1500-1800.” In Scottish Society, 1500-1800, edited by R.A. Houston and I.D. White. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Mitchison, Rosalind and Leah Leneman. Sexuality and Social Control: Scotland, 1660-1780. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Morris, John. “Scottish Ballads and Chapbooks.” In Images & Texts: Their Production and

Distribution in the 18th and 19th Centuries, edited by Peter Isaac and Barry McKay, 89-112. Winchester: St. Paul’s Bibliographies, 1997.

Morton, Graeme and Trevor Griffiths, eds. A History of Everyday Life in Scotland, 1800 to 1900. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

Sanderson, Elizabeth C. Women and Work in Eighteenth-Century Edinburgh. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996.

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