What did the people in the lower orders of society and children read in the 18th and 19th centuries? In the Netherlands, their main reading material was catchpenny prints.
They were cheap, mass-produced sheets printed on one side on unfolded sheets of paper. Because they were sold for one or more cents, they were known as catchpenny prints or ‘centsprenten’ in Dutch. The prints of about 30 x 40 cm size contained one or more images and a short accompanying text, often written in rhyme and secondary to the images. Retailers or merchants sold the prints per piece and teachers sometimes gave a print as a reward to students.
Subjects and themes
Catchpenny prints cover all kinds of subjects. There are prints with images of ships, soldiers, animals, tools, people in other countries, but also board games and narrative prints with fairy tales, murder stories, farces, stories from Dutch history, Bible stories and more. A popular theme on catchpenny prints are children’s games: next to marbles and riding in a goat cart, also less charming games such as knocking off a goose’s head and shooting birds are depicted.
Another popular subject was the history of Jan de Wasser. Jan and his wife Griet ‘swapped pants for apron cloth’, after which Jan did women’s work such as cooking and cleaning. Together they sailed to an island with a baby tree to ‘have’ a baby and after this ‘childbirth’ Jan had to stay in bed instead of his wife. Jan de Wasser was the typical example of a henpecked husband.
At the end of the eighteenth century, the ‘Maatschappij tot Nut van ‘t Algemeen’ (Society for Public Welfare) began to encourage publishers to produce prints with more educational value. The images became neater and the language of the prints was cleaned. It was the intention or the hope that both children and parents would become more aware of important civil norms and values.
The quality of the paper was poor and so was the quality of the images, but that kept the price low. In order to save costs, prints were often sold uncolored or with a coarse stain. More expensive prints in colour were produced using templates. Low prices made catchpenny prints very popular and they were spread widely.
Catchpenny prints provide an excellent insight into the subjects that the Dutch population was interested in, which makes them a veritable treasure trove for everyone who is interested in the history of the Netherlands. The prints can serve as a source for a wide range of research on text and language, on the daily life of our ancestors, on disappeared crafts and professions, on pedagogical views and role patterns. Illustration techniques and dissemination can also be studied using the prints.
Millions of catchpenny prints have been printed and distributed in the Netherlands and Flanders by dozens of printers, publishers and resellers. More than 100.000 prints came off the press every year and most of them have been passed on to others, got lost, left in the pub or ended up as packaging material. Fortunately, the National Library of the Netherlands holds a large collection of four thousand catchpenny prints from 1730-1935; it is largely built up by donations. The largest part of the collection was donated by private collectors Aernout and Leny Borms-Koop. 1,255 of their prints are now available online at Europeana for everybody to research and enjoy.
By Karin Vingerhoets,
KB | National Library of the Netherlands
The blog post is a part of the Rise of Literacy project, where we take you on an exploration of literacy in Europe thanks to the digital preservation of precious textual works from collections across the continent.