125th Anniversary Series: What We Were Reading in 1891

2016 marks the 125th anniversary of The Seattle Public Library. After it was adopted as a department of the city in 1890, the Library opened its first reading room in Pioneer Square on April 8, 1891. To honor this milestone, we will be posting a series of articles here about the Library’s history and life in the 1890’s. We also encourage our patrons to share their favorite memories of SPL on social media using the hashtag #SPL125. Be sure to follow us on FacebookTwitterInstagram and Pinterest. – editor

Wouldn’t it be great if you could take a time machine back to the 1890s? You can! When we read like people in the 1890s, we see the world through their eyes. Go there now, via titles that were all the rage in the Gilded Age:

Holmes. Sherlock Holmes. In 1891 a newIllus-scan-paget-09 magazine hit the stands: The Strandand the July issue featured A Scandal in Bohemia, the first of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmeskicking off the most enduring literary craze of all time, with a hero who is truly immortal. Doyle himself couldn’t kill him off: the public was so incensed with Holmes’ demise in 1893’s The Final Problem that his creator relented, resurrecting his most famous creation in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

“I don’t know – I’ve never Kipled!” That’s a funny answer you can give when someone asks “Do you like Kipling?” – which in 1891 actually happened a lot. The decade’s hottest rising literary star, in 1889 Rudyard Kipling visited the ruins of the Seattle fire, describing the city as “a horrible black smudge, as though a Hand had come down and rubbed the place smooth. I know now what being wiped out means.” Kipling’s first novel – The Light That Failed – came out in 1891, and by the end of tf77e6f564bebb4224f1ea42df8241df4he century, it was a rare reader indeed who had never Kipled.

Binge-worthy Reading.
 Just as we excitedly gather to watch the latest episode of our favorite TV shows, 19th century readers eagerly awaited each installment of such serialized novels such as Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, George du Maurier’s Trilby, or Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead WilsonPopular since the time of Charles Dickens, serialized novels would soon go out of style in favor of more “serious” stand-alone novels, such as Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s Robert Elsmere, the must-read literary novel of the decade, proof that highbrow literature doesn’t always outlast more popular bestsellers.absinthe11

Decadent Hipsters. So much for bestsellers: what were the cool kids reading? Influenced by the decadent aesthetics of such French writers as Arthur Rimbaud and Joris-Karl Huysmans, in 1891 Oscar Wilde published the first uncensored version of his infamous novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the macabre story of a debauched fin de siècle Faust. Bourgeois readers were scandalized, and the wildly popular writer Marie Corelli stoked the outrage with her novel Wormwood: A Drama of Paris, a sensational exposé on the evils of absinthe – the Reefer Madness of the 1890s.

Looking Back at Looking Forward. Just like we do today, 125 years ago readers loved to imagine what lay ahead in the future, witness the huge popularity of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000 – 1887, which confidently predicted that by now we’d have obliterated poverty, work just a few hours a day and retire at 45. To his credit, he did predict credit cards. Given our current appetite for dystopias, it is striking how readers of the day devoured this now quaint Utopian vision. It seemed a time of infinite progress and possibilities, reflected by several Utopian communities that flourished in our own area at this time. By the end of the First World War, Bellamy’s idyllic dream would more frequently be depicted as a totalitarian nightmare.

‘Zines! Well, okay, glitteringplainmaybe not ‘zines exactly, but at a time of rapid technological advances and mass production, many longed for a return to artisanal, hand-made books. This DIY aesthetic was beautifully captured in the publications of William Morris’s new Kelmscott Press, which debuted in 1891 with the beautifully designed Songs of the Glittering Plain.

               – Posted by David W.

One thought on “125th Anniversary Series: What We Were Reading in 1891”

  1. Robert Elsmere could still be read profitably today by anyone interested in the roots of today’s vast divide between conservative and liberal Christianity. Neither the overall character of that conflict nor the specific cultural and theological issues involved have changed all that much since 1890.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: