Blog Post 103 – The Chapbook Tradition

My ambitions got ahead of my time last week, so I am behind in posting about magical books in American traditions.  I thought today, though, I’d start at the cheap and plentiful end of the spectrum in the hopes that I might make up for any lack of posting.

Chapbooks—small, cheaply made books usually containing no more than a hundred pages or so—have been a part of the New World landscape since Colonial times.  Many of the most important texts leading up to the Revolutionary War were published in chapbook format, such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.  These booklets, which were also frequently referred to as “tracts” or “pamphlets,” were cheap to make and cheap to buy, and could often be found in the stock of travelling peddlars (also known as “chapmen,” where the term chapbook comes from).

In addition to political messages, these little books frequently served as repositories for folklore and folk music, fairy tales, religious information, poetry, fiction, almanacs, and most importantly to us, magic.  I’ll be addressing the topic of almanacs separately, as they have had a tremendous influence on the occult in America, so in this post I’ll focus primarily on the booklets of magic which circulated in North America from the 1600’s until modern times.

Early occult chapbooks generally originated in places like London or Scotland, and bore titles such as Dreams and Moles with Their Interpretation and Signification (London, 1750), The Fortune Teller & Experienced Farrier (Exeter, 1794) or the Spaewife, or Universal Fortune-teller (Scotland, 1860’s).  They contained advice on interpreting signs, reading palms and other body parts, and performing basic divination such as taseomancy (tea-leaf reading).  Some examples of the esoteric knowledge they contained:

  • When a woman dreams she is a man, and is not married, she will have a husband; or if she’s without children, she’ll have a son, but if married ‘twill be ill to have a son; and to a maid-servant, much incumbrance [sic]; ‘tis very fortunate to a harlot, because she will forsake her evil ways. (Dreams & moles)
  • Either he or she that has a mole on the upper part of the ear, and on the right side of his belly, shews the party guilty of such crimes as may endanger their life. (Dreams & moles)
  • [On Palmistry:]  The liver line, if it be straight and crossed by other lines, shews the person to be of sound judgement. (Fortune Teller)
  • To dream you are pleasantly sailing on calm water, denotes a peaceable and quiet life. (Fortune Teller)
  • A Mole on the hip, shows that the person will have many children. (Spaewife)
  • A face naturally pale denotes the person very amorous. (Spaewife)
  • He that hath a great and broad mouth is shameless, a great babbler and liar, proud to an excess, and ever abounding in quarrelsome words. (Spaewife)
  • He that hath a decent beard, handsome and thick of hair, is good-natured and reasonable. (Spaewife)

Some of these books gave medical advice as well, and instructions for livestock management.  In The Fortune Teller & Experience Farrier, author Ezra Pater tells anyone with a horse suffering from a cough to “take five or six eggs, and lay them in a sharp white-wine vinegar, till the shells be somewhat soft, then fling them down his [the horse’s] throat and it will cure forthwith.”   Such remedies would go on to be de rigueur for magical practitioners in rural locations, and especially in the New World.  The reasons for the popularity of such simple guides probably stems from their low cost, but also may have something to do with the rough medicine of frontier life.  In many cases, settlers lived days away from good medical or veterinary care, and so a small practical guide would be indispensible to a rural family.  As for magic’s entanglement with practical medicine, I can only reiterate that until very recently (the mid-to-late twentieth century really) there was no separation between the two, especially not in rural communities.  Not everyone used every remedy, and not everyone used magic, but they were not at odds with each other, either.  I find the best analogy here is a cookbook:  just because you have one hundred recipes doesn’t mean you cook all of them.  In most cases, you specialize and repeat the recipes you like or are best at, and those become your signature dishes.

Over time, other chapbooks emerged and became more and more popular.  In rural and farm communities, such as the Pennsylvania Dutch areas of the middle Appalachians and the Ohio Valley, little books like Hohman’s Long Lost Friend became household texts.  Individual families would also compile their own books, not unlike family recipe books, which might be kept on the same shelf as the family Bible.  In many cases, these chapbooks would be the only texts in the home other than the Bible and perhaps a cherished tome or two of literature like Shakespeare.  In more urban areas, cheap editions of Grimoires found their way into chapbooks, with publishers like Chicago’s William Delaurence producing a number of pirated works in reduced pamphlet form, including The Egyptian Secrets of Albertus Magnus, The Sixth & Seventh Books of Moses, and Hindu Magic and Indian Occultism. In Owen Davies’ excellent history of magical books entitled Grimoires, he explores the influence of the occult in Chicago:

Chicago may have an image as a grim, grey industrial city, but in the early twentieth century it was also a hotbed of mystical, magical, and prophetic activity.  Rural Pennsylvania may have been the cetre of pow wow and New Orleans the home of hoodoo, but Chciago was the undoubted centre of organized occultism and grimoire publication…[it] proved fertile ground for mystical and magical groups. (p.210-11)

Other cities, like Chicago, also began producing quantities of occult chapbooks.  Detroit—which had and continues to have a strong tie to hoodoo—was home to countelss candle shops with shelves full of pamphlets on luck, love, and money magic.  In Harlem, stores like the Hindu Mysterious Store were selling racks of booklets on occult topics into the mid-to-late twentieth century.  Some of the many titles included:

Books like these, especially the dream books (which purported to interpret dream symbols into lucky numbers to be used in lotteries), were tremendously popular.  While the number of shops carrying such literature has diminished recently, the occult pamphlet remains popular and can still be found in many urban magical retailers.

Today, chapbooks still exist and continue to be published, though in two distinct veins.  Some occultists (myself included) like to produce very limited runs of such booklets as artisan items.  The publishing company responsible for the marvelous Witches’ Almanac also issues lovely chapbooks such as Spells & Incantations, Magical Creatures, and Magic Charms from A to Z.  I’m still working on the illustrations and additional material for our New World Witchery cartomancy chapbook, which will eventually be sold through our Etsy shop.  Many classic chapbooks are also still available, such as Henri Gamache’s Master Book of Candle Burning.

The other form in which one can find modern chapbooks will likely lead to scowls from some readers.  If you’re ever standing in line at the grocery store, however, look over at the racks of gum and magazines, and usually near the top there will be small, palm-sized books of cheap newsprint paper and glossy stock covers.  Some of them are all about alleged dieting secrets and pop psychology, but occasionally you can find little tomes of herbal lore, astrological information, and even love spells.  While it may seem unsavory to think of magical literature as an impulse buy in the checkout lane, I would recommend perusing them.  They’re often incredibly cheap and sometimes have good information in them, as well as guideposts to other resources that might be even more worthwhile.  Of course, you may also find all you can do is line your familiar’s cage with them, too, so browse before buying.

I hope this has been useful to you!  If you have any favorite chapbooks or magical booklets, I’d love to know about them!  Please leave a comment or send an email and share them with us.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

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2 Comments on “Blog Post 103 – The Chapbook Tradition”


  1. It seems as though witchy minds think alike. I’ve recently been researching chapbooks, quartos, octavos and folios. Correct you are about the small, glossy tomes found in supermarket checkouts. However, none of them carry a mystical or magical feel. I’d really like to bring those back and make a small information of magical-lore books for the modern magician with an old-time aesthetic. Thank you for the information.


    • Thanks for the comment! I agree about the old-time aesthetic, though I definitely don’t pass up magical information just because it’s on the rack next to “101 Diet Secrets.” But I would love to see (and plan to see, if I may drop hints about projects in the works) more of the old-style chapbooks, for sure!

      Thanks again for writing! Enjoying your site as well!
      -Cory


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