The publishing trend of the second quarter of the nineteenth century was the literary annual, published in time for Christmas. The first English example, Forget Me Not of 1823 was published explicitly as an “attempt to rival the numerous and elegant publications of the Continent expressly designed to serve as tokens of remembrance, friendship, or affection.”  At this time publishers had started to bind books prior to sale (previously you would buy a set of folded and gathered sheets and arrange for binding yourself) and binding styles became an important factor in the marketing of books. Cloth bindings were introduced with elaborate foil stamping facilitated by the invention of stamping presses.

From "The Keepsake"1856. London: Hurst, Chance and Co.

From “The Keepsake”1856. London: Hurst, Chance and Co.

Illustrations were a fundamental ingredient, and were often commissioned before the writing they illustrated, so that the writing often ended up being written to accompany the picture. Print runs were often in the thousands, in a world where the typical book would print about 500 copies. The annuals were about 300 to 400 pages long and would sell for a significant price – The Keepsake of 1828 sold for thirteen shillings for instance (at a time when the average wage of an agricultural laborer might be eleven or twelve shillings a week).

The Keepsake, a literary annual, was published for the years 1828 to 1857 in time for Christmas of the previous year. Though they, especially the second, contained work from an impressive range of authors, Sir Walter Scott, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelly, Byron among them, the volumes were somewhat sniffed at by the cognoscenti. This was probably partly at least because the editors were known to offer large fees for contributions. item_22_keepsake_bindings_thumbAlso perhaps because the books were lavishly produced, bound in crimson watered silk with gilt edges and incorporating the newly developed steel-plate engraving process, which in contrast to the earlier copper-engraving process, allowed the sharp detail of the image to survive through many impressions. This extract from Middlemarch Ch.27 (published 1872, but set about 50 years earlier) illustrates the reaction.

The card-table had drawn off the elders, and Mr. Ned Plymdale (one of the good matches in Middlemarch, though not one of its leading minds) was in tête-à-tête with Rosamond. He had brought the last ‘Keepsake,’ the gorgeous watered-silk publication which marked modern progress at that time; and he considered himself very fortunate that he could be the first to look over it with her, dwelling on the ladies and gentlemen with shiny copper-plate cheeks and copper-plate smiles, and pointing to comic verses as capital and sentimental stories as interesting. Rosamond was gracious, and Mr. Ned was satisfied that he had the very best thing in art and literature as a medium for “paying addresses” — the very thing to please a nice girl. He had also reasons, deep rather than ostensible, for being satisfied with his own appearance. To superficial observers his chin had too vanishing an aspect, looking as if it were being gradually reabsorbed. And it did indeed cause him some difficulty about the fit of his satin stocks, for which chins were at that time useful.

“I think the Honourable Mrs. S. is something like you,” said Mr. Ned. He kept the book open to the bewitching portrait, and looked at it rather languishingly.

“Her back is very large; she seems to have sat for that,” said Rosamond, not meaning any satire, but thinking how red young Plymdale’s hands were, and wondering why Lydgate did not come. She went on with her tatting all the while.

“I did not say she was as beautiful as you are,” said Mr. Ned, venturing to look from the portrait to its rival.

“I suspect you of being an adroit flatterer,” said Rosamond, feeling sure that she should have to reject this young man a second time.

But now Lydgate came in; the book was closed before he reached Rosamond’s corner, and as he took his seat with easy confidence on the other side of her, young Plymdale’s jaw fell like a barometer towards the cheerless side of change. Rosamond enjoyed not only Lydgate’s presence but its effect: she liked to excite jealousy.

. . .

Mr. Ned smiled nervously, while Lydgate, drawing the “Keepsake” towards him and opening it, gave a short scornful laugh and tossed it up to his chin, as if in wonderment at human folly.

“What are you laughing at so profanely?” said Rosamond, with bland neutrality.

“I wonder which would turn out to be the silliest — the engravings or the writing here,” said Lydgate, in his most convinced tone, while he turned over the pages quickly, seeming to see all through the book in no time, and showing his large white hands to much advantage, as Rosamond thought. “Do look at this bridegroom coming out of church: did you ever see such a ‘sugared invention’ — as the Elizabethans used to say? Did any haberdasher ever look so smirking? Yet I will answer for it the story makes him one of the first gentlemen of the land.”

“You are so severe, I am frightened at you,” said Rosamond, keeping her amusement duly moderate. Poor young Plymdale had lingered with admiration over this very engraving, and his spirit was stirred.

“There are a great many celebrated people writing in this ‘Keepsake,’ at all events,” he said, in a tone at once piqued and timid. “This is the first time  have heard it called silly.”

“I think I shall turn round on you and accuse you of being a Goth,” said Rosamond, looking at Lydgate with a smile. “I suspect you know nothing about Lady Blessington and L.E.L.” Rosamond herself was not without relish for these writers, but she did not readily commit herself by admiration, and was alive to the slightest hint that anything was not, according to Lydgate, in the very highest taste.

“But Sir Walter Scott — I suppose Mr. Lydgate knows him,” said young Plymdale, a little cheered by this advantage.

Lady Blessington and L.E.L. (Letitia Elizabeth Landon) were regular contributors to The Keepsake which did indeed publish many female writers. Women figured largely among the readership too, and already in 1828, Robert Southey was complaining that sales of these annuals had killed off the sales of volumes of poetry, which had hitherto been the most suitable gift for a young lady. A Blackwood’s review of one annual suggested that if the volume were used as a tool of courtship the odds are “a hundred to one that you are a married man in six weeks or two months”. Poor Mr. Ned does not win this bet.

The University of Toronto Library provides an excellent introduction to the subject in this description of an exhibition on British Literary Annuals.

The earliest known printed book jacket was produced for The Keepsake in 1832.