Step back to Queen Victoria’s heyday and open a Yellowback… if you can find one. Yellowbacks were inexpensive, highly commercial paperbacks published in Victorian Britain and sold through W.H. Smith bookstalls in railway stations. Today, they are highly collectible and harder to find.
Although the Victorians were already reading paperbacks, Yellowbacks became a huge part of the publishing industry from 1850 until 1900 and were instantly recognizable thanks to a unique cover style created by Edmund Evans.
Evans, a wood engraver, developed engravings in three printings – one block offering an outline in brown and the two other blocks providing color tints. He then adopted yellow glazed paper as the background for the illustration – delivering an eye-catching, even lurid, effect and the Yellowback nickname was born. Evans' printing style proved so popular that it moved beyond paperbacks to some hardback editions as well, some of which are featured here.
The books were affordable at just one to two shillings each and easy to find at railway stations when rail was the universal method of travel. Many were reprints and authors welcomed them as the genre opened their writing to a mass audience. The books often carried an advertisement on the back cover, helping to cover printing costs.
George Routledge was the most famous of the Yellowback publishers with his ‘Railway Library’ series of more than 1,200 books published from 1848 until 1899. Ward & Lock was another company of note in this genre. Both publishers are an ideal place to start for anyone just beginning to collect Yellowbacks. The likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, James Grant and Anthony Trollope were published in this format.
Dr. Chester W. Topp is the world’s top authority on Yellowbacks. Now 92, Topp is a former professor of mathematics at Cleveland State University and has written extensively about them. He also owns one of the world’s finest collections of Yellowbacks.
“My study is filled with them,” he laughs. “My living room is filled with them, two upstairs bedrooms are filled with them and they are in the basement too. Michael Sadleir’s book in two volumes (XIX Century Fiction, A Bibliographical Record Based on His Own Collection) got me interested in yellowbacks more than 40 years ago. I was already a collector of Anthony Trollope at that time. I don’t know how many Yellowbacks I have - perhaps 2,000 and if you include all my Victorian paperbacks then I probably have around 5,000 books.”
Topp – whose son Bob runs The Hermitage Bookshop in Denver – has written nine volumes of bibliography on Yellowbacks. Naturally, Volume One tackles Routledge but the work of more than 25 publishers are detailed in his books.
“Yellowbacks were published and printed in Britain,” said Chester. “Of course, copies were imported into other countries by travelers. The publishers also took titles that had been printed in the US and published ‘pirate’ editions in the UK as there were no copyright rules. Because they were easily available at bookstalls in train stations, everyone read them.”
Sadly, Yellowbacks – because of their fragile paperback state – do not stand the test of time. Classic examples of the genre are often surprisingly affordable due the wear and tear of being carried around by Britain’s mobile generation of Victorians.
“It’s very rare to find an unused, nicely bound copy,” said Chester, who struck up relationships with many of Britain’s leading rare book dealers in order to assemble his collection. “My copies are all sound. I’ve read every single one but copies in good condition are hard to find.”
Yellowbacks continued to be published after 1900 with the likes of Chatto & Windus issuing them in the 1920s, but their heyday had long passed.
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Robert Smith Surtees