he United States of America is a country founded by readers.  Lots of them.  And even though historical literacy rates continue to be debated by scholars, all agree that they rose in the years following settlement. From the early 1600s until 1690, perhaps as many as 60 to 90 percent of urban males of European descent were literate. And women’s literacy was quick to follow.  By 1800 about half of the female population was literate.  It is believed that by 1850, that number had nearly doubled to 90 percent.  A few years later, African Americans were finally afforded the opportunity of instruction in reading, and they too leaped at the chance.  Somewhat like the Internet today, books, broadsides, magazines, and newspapers were novel and exciting objects that entertained, educated, and kept readers abreast of the happenings in the world they lived in. Many such publications were read to pieces.  Literally.  

During the early colonial period, books were seen as rarefied objects, most prohibitively expensive, and some almost impossible to obtain no matter what the cost.  In time, presses were established, trade improved, machines were invented, paper became affordable, and, finally, the price of books went down. But books were still cherished; they were read, saved, and handed down.  By the early 1900s the vast majority of the American population—rich or poor, black or white, male or female—were readers.  This is their story.     






> > click any image to enlarge

Figures 1.3-4 The History and Adventures of Little Eliza. aas online record

Children’s books were notoriously read “to pieces.”  Little Eliza is an example of a well read book, with many torn pages and careful hand stitching used to repair them.  

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