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Wenches, Wives and Servant Girls

Society of 18th-Century Gentlemen

18th-CENTURY LITERATURE

The 18th century gentleman had a classical education that included knowledge of Latin and often French, plus study of Greek and Roman texts. What we would call the modern novel also had its roots in the 18th century and several classics were written during the period, including:

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel DeFoe (1660-1731)

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding (1707- 1754)

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774) (Goldsmith also wrote the enormously popular play She Stoops to Conquer -- still performed today and a true classic!)

Candide by the French Philosopher, Voltaire (1694-1778)

But exactly which books might a gentleman actually have read on a day-to-day basis?

The January 3, 1774 issue of The Boston Gazette and Country Journal lists books being auctioned on Wednesday, January 5th, 1774 at Gould’s Auction Office in Back Street, Boston. The books were from the estate of the late Mr. Robert Jenkins and included bound volumes of The New Universal, London and Gentleman’s Magazines (plus an additional “200 loose ditto”), and a “large collection” of books on divinity, history, philosophy, voyages, travels, plays, dictionaries and more. Another auction of books “chiefly new & neatly bound” was announced in the May 9, 1774 issue and included works by Milton, Pope, Swift, Addison, Young, Searns, Thompson, Smollet, Rollin, Guthrie, Salmon, Flavell, Hervey, Doddridge, Stackhouse, Owen, Fordyce, Ambrose, and others.

The English in particular were said to be “news hungry”, and daily, weekly, semi weekly and bi-weekly newspapers were being printed in all major cities both in England and the colonies. Monthly publications like The Gentleman’s Magazine were an important source of news, entertainment and information to the 18th-century gentleman. (Our own Society of 18th-Century Gentlemen’s Magazine is loosely patterned on this important publication. Click this link for more.) There were also various other popular magazines during the period. The Universal Magazine, Town and Country Magazine, London Magazine and Addison and Steele’s The Spectator are just a few examples. Similar magazines were also being published in the colonies — The Royal American Magazine or Universal Repository of Instruction and Amusement, printed by I. Thomas in Boston, for example.

Considering that all of the type for these newspapers, magazines and broadsheets was entirely hand-set one letter at a time in fairly small type sizes and printed one page at a time (also by hand), the volume of printed news being circulated is truly staggering.

The plays of William Shakespeare also enjoyed renewed popularity in the 18th-century, thanks largely to the efforts of David Garrick (1717- 1779). Garrick was considered the greatest actor of his day, and he did much to restore the original content to Shakespeare’s works, which had been ammended and edited over the centuries. In August of 1764, Captain Thomas Morris noted that a volume of Shakespeare’s plays was given to him as a present — by “Little Chief,” a Native American man living along Lake Erie near Detroit! This incident shows just how universally familiar the works of William Shakespeare were during the 18th century.

Any of the books and plays mentioned above offer excellent reading, and all 18th-century gentlemen would have at least been familiar with these titles. Several of these are still in print, and on-line texts of these classics are available from a variety of sources (just type the book title into your search engine of choice), and many may also be had from your local library or used book store in the event that, like myself, you prefer the tactical experience of actually handling a fine book.

There is also an excellent resource for 18th-century journals, including the Gentleman's Magazine, here. Though the archive is, at present, somewhat limited, this collection offers some excellent browsing. Go to the link and click on "browse."

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