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  • Dinners or Desserts? Miscellaneity, Illustration, and the Periodical Press 1820–1840
  • Brian Maidment (bio)

The magazines, with their collection of light, brilliant articles, have . . . usurped the place of better books . . . They have become the dinner instead of the dessert of the literary gourmand of our time, and, as might be normally expected from desserts taken in place of, and altogether unconnected with, honest, substantial dinners, have induced a species of emptiness and flatulence in the exclusive consumers thereof, by no means pleasant or agreeable . . . .inordinate magazine reading has, in some degree, generated, and will be apt to further generate, a false taste and a feverish desire for the rapid acquisition of superficial information, that is not at all to be desiderated.1

PERIODICALS- newspapers, magazines, reviews, &c., concentrating in a page the idea formerly diffused through a volume, diminishing the expence [sic] and labor of reading, and facilitating the acquirement of knowledge or amusement, have . . . , in a great measure, taken the place of Books.

But even Periodicals are increasing beyond the possibility of purchase or perusal; while many of them, as the newspapers, are of a size which precludes their preservation.

Happily, the Spirit or Essence of all this vast body of printed paper- all that is new in it-all that regards the time, may be so abridged and concentrated, as to being all the topics of the day at once within the means and the leisure of every reader.2 [End Page 353]


This paper concerns a group of cheap illustrated weekly periodicals from the 1820s and 1830s which prefigure the Penny Magazine in a number of significant ways, most obviously in their commitment to, and attempted definition of, what might be called “popular knowledge.”3 The central issue is how far these magazines conspired in constructing “a feverish desire for the rapid acquisition of superficial information” among artisan and middle class readers that led them away from what the anonymous contributor to the Parterre described as nutritious “dinners” to “empty and flatulent desserts,” from “aliment” to “condiments,” in their intellectual nourishment. These magazines show an astonishing level of uniformity in their format and appearance, and share very precise and much repeated characteristics—weekly publication; cheapness, which usually means 1d or 2p an issue; a double columned octavo or 12mo. page laid out like a tract or even a broadside in ways that deliberately evoked the cultural history of both these forms; illustration, usually in the form of a wood-engraved title page vignette; and, centrally, an announced commitment to the democratisation of secular knowledge and information. But despite the obvious shared visual and formal uniformity of these magazines, their central common defining characteristic is their interest in the concept of “miscellaneity,” a term I’ll return to in the context of recent critical work by Jon Klancher and Jon Topham.4


There are a lot of these magazines, many of them extremely short-lived and now elusive. Topham prints an invaluable list drawn from the opening statement of the True Halfpenny Magazine, which offers a list of 36 rival publications produced in the decade between 1822 and 1832.5 On closer inspection not all these magazines fit easily into the precise genre discussed here. But there are still a large number, and to the list published by Topham should be added others mentioned elsewhere by Topham,6 James7 and Maidment.8 Originally defined by its inclusiveness and miscellaneity, this literary mode began by the 1830s to specialise and to aim at “niche markets,” a development I”ll return to later in this paper. The two most famous and long lived of these journals were the Mirror of Literature, which, launched in 1822 by the reprint specialist publisher John Limbird and running until 1849, virtually defined the genre, (fig. 1) and the Mechanic’s Magazine (1823 – 1873), published by Knight and Lacey, one of the key firms in testing out the new market for informative compilations (fig. 2).9 The Mechanic’s Magazine adapted the format, readership and illustrative

[End Page 354]

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Figure 1.

Issue title page of the first issue of The Mirror of Literature, 2 November...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 353-387
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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