Yellowbacks: How WHSmith Brought Reading to the Masses

Yellowbacks: How WHSmith Brought Reading to the Masses

Put simply, yellowbacks were cheap, entertaining books that could be carried with you as you travelled. Much more practical than lugging the typical three-volume novels of the era around, they revolutionised the books industry and brought books by authors such as Jane Austen and Rudyard Kipling to a wider audience. Designed to appeal to the everyday man, yellowbacks often told tales of romance, crime and action, providing simple entertainment for their readers.

Yellowbacks gained popularity on the back of railway mania in the mid-1800’s, appealing to a public that were now able to commute by train, and who were reading more and more as education improved. Spotting the opportunity for commuters to read on the train, William Henry Smith II – our founder’s grandson– made an offer for the sole bookstall rights on London & North Western Railway lines in 1848, and on the 1st November that same year he opened the first WHSmith bookstall at Euston.

Similar contracts were soon signed across the railway lines and in 1851 there were 35 WHSmith & Son bookstalls across the rail network (growing to 1,115 by 1935). Travellers of the time were delighted to be able to buy books, candles to read them by and rugs to keep them warm, all alongside their newspaper, and in 1858 Smith started a lending service which allowed passengers to borrow a book at the start of their journey, and return it at their destination.

Yellowbacks have been described as ‘the most inspired publishing invention of the era’ by literary scholar Richard Altick, and are often praised not only for making reading an accessible hobby for all, but for cleaning up the seedy bookstalls that were set up in railway stations beforehand. Up until this time, the publications on offer at railways stations were at best torn or missing pages – and at worse of a slightly dubious nature.

All this changed when William Henry Smith II started selling yellowbacks. Nicknamed Old Morality by Punch magazine during his political career, William Henry Smith II was a man of very high morals and insisted on vetting the quality of the books and adverts in his stores to ensure they weren’t morally corrupt. At the time, The Times reported ‘a wholesome change in railway bookstalls… at the North Western terminus we diligently searched for that which required but little looking for in other places, we poked in vain for the trash.’ Luckily for Smith (and the brand), his literary preferences were in keeping with those of Victorian Britain and the number of WHSmith bookstands grew. 12 years after his first stand had opened, Smith’s bookstalls could be found on all main lines and many secondary lines up and down the country.

Yellowbacks are an incredibly important part of the history of WHSmith, cementing our place in the books and rail industries, and we are very proud of the role we played in bringing books to the masses.

Back in 2017 for our 225th anniversary celebrations, we paid homage to seven popular classics by reproducing them as yellowbacks to be sold in WHSmith stores throughout 2017. The seven classics we chose were:

Jane Eyre (Yellowback Edition) – Charlotte Bronte

A classic novel of intense power and intrigue, Jane Eyre dazzled readers with its passionate depiction of a woman’s search for equality and freedom.

The Warden (Yellowback Edition) – Anthony Trollope

This is a special yellowback edition of The Warden by Anthony Trollope, the first of his well-loved ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Yellowback Edition) – Thomas Hardy

A heartaching portrayal of a woman faced by an impossible choice in the pursuit of happiness.

Silas Marner (Yellowback Edition) – George Eliot

George Eliot’s tale of a solitary miser gradually redeemed by the joy of fatherhood combines humour, rich symbolism and pointed social criticism to create an unsentimental but affectionate portrait of rural life.

Hard Times (Yellowback Edition) – Charles Dickens

This is a special yellowback edition of Hard Times by Charles Dickens, a damning indictment of Utilitarianism and the dehumanising influence of the Industrial Revolution from one of the best-loved novelists in the English language.

The Turn of the Screw (Yellowback Edition) – James Henry

This classic text is a chilling ghost story which tells of a nameless young governess sent to a country house to take charge of two orphans, Miles and Flora.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Yellowback Edition) – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes and his faithful colleague Dr Watson solve a series of breathtaking and perplexing mysteries.

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