The Beginnings of Pulp

And a reminder that modern attitudes towards the pulps are certainly not new. This one is for the Castalia crowd.

Here is the estimable Mr. Tom Simon, in part 4 of his essay series “The Exotic and the Familiar”:

Up to the middle of the nineteenth century, while printing was relatively cheap, paper was an expensive commodity. It was made mostly from waste linen, and consequently, the quantity of paper manufactured could never exceed the quantity of linen that was thrown away. (You could make paper directly from flax fibres; but it was much cheaper to let the linen industry use the flax first, and buy up the worn-out linen afterwards.) Men and women made a decent, if undignified, living as rag-pickers – the recyclers of their time. Ragpickers scavenged all kinds of useful stuff from the rubbish-heaps of the world, but their chief stock in trade was linen rags for the paper trade: hence the name of their profession. So long as the supply of paper was limited in this way, books remained a luxury; literacy for the masses, a pipe-dream.

In the 1840s, separately but almost simultaneously, two men invented machines for turning wood into a fibrous pulp. One was a German, F. G. Keller; the other a Canadian, Charles Fenerty. This wood pulp, it turned out, could be used to make paper almost as good as linen-rag paper, and much cheaper. For a few years before this, a few small firms in London had been turning out cheap pamphlets containing lurid adventure stories for a mostly working-class audience. The new pulp paper allowed the pamphlets to be printed by the millions, and ‘pulp fiction’ was born. When The String of Pearls appeared, the usual thing was to release a novel in weekly instalments, and charge (in England) a penny for each issue. The stories were not chosen for highfalutin literary quality; they were written to please a large and not very sophisticated audience.

The English upper classes ignored the new medium. The middle classes, who feared anything that might diminish their advantages over the working class, hated it and sneered at it, dismissing all stories so told as ‘dreadful’. This was a calumny. As Theodore Sturgeon would certainly have said, nine-tenths of the penny serials were crap; but then, nine-tenths of the expensive books favoured by the middle classes were crap. The real sin of the penny dreadfuls was not that they were bad stories, but that they brought printed books within the reach of the Lower Orders.

Included in the article is a link to the also excellent G.K. Chesterton essay “A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls”.

Read the whole thing after the link! It is truly an excellent essay, as is the norm with Mr. Simon.