A History of Readers and the Things That They Made

Reading/Making begins with one deceptively-simple observation and two follow-up questions.

Observation: There are a lot of words on things! If we stop right now and look around us, we will notice that there are words everywhere, and not just on the pages where we expect to find them. We’re likely to find words on our coffee mugs, on our walls, on our pocket change. We will find words in our refrigerators, on our t-shirts, on the shops and signs as we drive to work.

Follow-Up Questions: When did we start putting so many words on so many things? And can the history of putting words on things tell us something new about the history of literature and the nature of reading?

 Reading/Making finds that although we’ve been writing words on objects for a long time—there are, after all, stone tablets, papyruses, and hieroglyphs—we only started putting lots of words on lots of things in the “long eighteenth century:” the period roughly between 1650 and 1850 when literacy rates soared and commercial goods became widely available. Between 1650 and 1850, reading was taken up as a useful as well as a pleasing pastime, and the literary marketplace saw its first big bang. Reading/Making argues that popular literature’s rising star was fueled by the ability of texts to leap, literally, off of the page and onto things.

I first became interested in the objects that quote from popular literature while working on another research project in an archive in 2010 when I saw a cotton valentine from the late eighteenth century. From a distance, the gauzy linen looks like a cross-stitch sampler, although it is, in fact, an example of printed fabric. In faded pink ink, a bawdy ballad swirls around the left- and right-hand sides of the fabric while, in the center, couples talks intimately in a garden alcove. At the top, a small portrait of Alexander Pope lords over inexplicably over the scene. (Pope is not the author of the ballad on the handkerchief.) A date, 1793, is hand-stitched near the bottom along with a set of initials: “E.B.”

I didn’t write about that object in 2010, but since seeing it, I’ve looked for more items like it: everyday things that feature quotations, authors, characters, or scenes from the period’s popular literature. Objects like that valentine can be hard to find. Few archivists have realized that such objects depict authors, characters, settings, scenes, or plots from books. Alexander Pope’s face, after all, is hard to recognize at a three-hundred year distance, and many objects like that handkerchief were acquired before anyone could just “Google” a snippet from the quotes they feature to identify their source. Moreover, most of these objects haven’t seemed very important. They’re too old to be thrown away but not significant enough to be thoroughly researched and set up for public display. They’ve lost out in archives to one-of-a-kind items that have obvious historical value or that can be traced directly to famous authors, artists, or public figures. For these reasons, I only expected to find a few more objects like that valentine. With the help of patient curators, however, I’ve now found thousands.

Not only have I found more handkerchiefs and valentines, I’ve also found: needlepoint samplers, paper dolls, fans, toys, porcelain figurines, silhouettes, board games, waxworks, set designs for private and public performances of popular texts, and lavish scrapbooks featuring popups and cutouts. All of them are either covered in quotations from published texts, or they depict popular authors, characters, settings, scenes, and plots from the period’s bestsellers.

Based on the objects that I’ve discovered, each chapter of Reading/Making takes up one of type of popular literature’s most popular objects: textiles, porcelainware, waxworks, toys, games, paper-works, and immersive environments.

Each type of object, I argue, has new things to show us about what kind of literature was popular in the period and how various components of literary works skipped between genres as well as mediums. For example, I show that the kind of poetry that appeared on needlework samplers highlights the enduring importance of old moral allegories; porcelainware and waxworks highlight conflicts over the nature of moral character that preoccupied the period’s writers as well as its philosophers; toys and games highlight the importance that plot takes after the 1740s in the context of the “rise of the novel;” paper-works (like silhouettes, handmade pop-up books, and fans) and immersive environments (like those designed for amateur and professional theatrical extravaganzas) highlight the pleasures as well as the cognitive dissonance that emerged once people found themselves getting “sucked into” books.

Today, we often think of reading as a mental activity: as something that we do inside of our heads and by ourselves as we translate words and sentences into mental pictures and intellectual or personal insights. Reading/Making shows that this was not the case when people first started reading printed texts en masse. Readers read with their minds and their bodies. As they turned over the pages of their new books, they also put their hands to work. They transformed the stories that they read into crafts or reached out to touch their favorite authors, characters, quotes, and scenes that appeared in the new shops and entertainment venues that sprouted up everywhere in eighteenth-century England. Wandering through the boards of Pinterest or the shops of Etsy shows that this tradition is more lively and thriving than we might think. Reading/Making concludes by considering what it means to return to embrace reading as a creative practice of making. Doing so, I argue, can help us not only to better understand how and what kinds of books became popular in the first place but also to imagine how and what kind of reading still matters to us now.


1. Introduction
2. Needlework Allegories
3. Porcelain Figurations
4. Waxwork Characters
5. Game Plots
6. Moving Scenes
7. Cutting and Folding Affects
8. Conclusion

Anticipated date of completion: July 2020. Anticipated length: 90,000 words, 8 illustrations (color preferred). Accompanying materials: database and exhibition website.