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  • Nineteenth-Century Timetables and the History of Reading
  • Mike Esbester (bio)

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Punch reprinted, in book form, some of the thoughts offered in its pages over the preceding sixty years on the subject of railway travel. This included the “Tourist’s Alphabet,” in which “B is the Bradshaw that leads you to swear.”1 George Bradshaw’s surname became a synonym for “timetable,” such was the success of his publication, which gave the times of trains to and from all stations in Britain. Bradshaw’s first timetable was issued in 1838, taking on its recognizable format in the 1840s. It was widely imitated,2 to the extent that after the 1840s “Bradshaw” would have needed no explanation to most people, to whom the word meant not only “timetable,” but also fiendish complexity. The nineteenth century was viewed by contemporaries as “an age of timetables,” 3 though they were not the only informational print items that pervaded daily life: people could also expect to come into contact with forms, trade catalogs, route maps, invoices, product advertising, and distance charts.4 But these ephemera had at least two things in common: though they were all nonliterary documents, they were all intended to be read.

So far most research into reading in history has concentrated on the literary book, although periodicals and newspapers have also received some attention. This focus leaves a gap in our knowledge of popular reading experiences in the past: we know relatively little about how everyday items might have been read and used as tools to help individuals find their way through daily life. This article will examine one instance of “functional literacy” or “functional reading,” in which reading was closely connected with a resultant act: the use of the transport timetable. It will show how a wide definition of what constitutes reading can assist our understanding of daily [End Page 156] life in the past. The history of functional reading is important because it helps us to develop a fuller picture of everyday events, particularly the ways in which documents made differing demands on the reading abilities of different individuals. By way of context, this article also surveys the historiography of information, currently a field of lively debate. This is one case study from the much larger research project “Designing information for everyday life, 1815–1914,” which explores an understudied area of history and considers how we may be able to reconstruct past reading acts.5

The journal Book History has a part to play in this. In their founding editorial, Greenspan and Rose affirmed that their remit was “certainly not limited to books,” and that articles engaging with ephemera would be welcomed in their mission to publish “new perspectives and innovative methods.” 6 In fact this journal has explored such nonliterary items as the Imperial Dictionary, copyright and musical magazines, tourist guides, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica.7 As Richard Gassan notes, ephemeral reading can be “an important indicator of deeper trends.”8 This article aims to show how the everyday reading of documents other than books can help us to access new facets of the lived experience of the past.

Reading in History

The historiography of reading has tended to privilege narrative literary reading of books, newspapers, or periodicals. Leah Price’s 2004 review of the field, in this journal, highlights a collective focus on the book,9 which was shared by Richard Altick, David Vincent, and Jonathan Rose, all of whom limited their discussion of ephemeral reading to passing comments. It was Altick’s desire that The English Common Reader should be “an attempt to study, from the historian’s viewpoint, the place of reading in an industrial and increasingly democratic society.” Yet in the end he confined himself to books and newspapers, as they involved literacy “more ambitious than deciphering handbills and legends in shop windows”10—though advertisements are precisely what people in an industrial society read every day. (Altick devoted more space to non-book reading in The Shows of London.)11 David Vincent’s Bread, Knowledge and Freedom and Literacy and Popular Culture pay only limited attention to broadsheets, forms, leaflets, and almanacs. 12 Such documents...


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pp. 156-185
Launched on MUSE
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