A Very Short History of the Chapbook

When it comes to the time-honored form of the chapbook, the power of literacy comes in small packages.

Such power was on display in the archive last week, when we laid out an array of these bite-sized books for a visit from Karin Gottshall’s Structure of Poetry class. Students in this class compile hand-bound chapbooks of their own work for a final project, so by bringing them into Special Collections, Karin and I hoped to situate their creations in the surprisingly long and storied history of this short form.

Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad Collection #58, ‘The Lovely Maid of Willims Town’

The roots of chapbooks go back to 16th century Europe, when printing technology began to democratize. Books had long been the preserve of the wealthy, who possessed both the education and means necessary to read them. This changed, however, when the increasing accessibility of paper and printing presses made it feasible for unbound books of eight or twelve pages to be sold for a penny or less: in those days, not as negligible a price as it might seem, but still within the reach of a laborer’s wages. Itinerant peddlers called ‘chap-men’ rose to meet this demand, carrying printed matter from presses in the cities to an eager audience of the rural working classes. These early readers thrilled to tales of adventure and roguery. Even those who couldn’t read were able to participate, thanks to the chapbook’s fluid relationship with orality: many early examples came in the form of folk songs, so they were meant to be performed publicly as well as read in private. Early chapbooks also tended to be profusely illustrated, but this wasn’t always an aid to comprehension — because woodcut engravings were so cheap to reproduce, they were often recycled throughout many different texts with little regard for the subject matter.

Chapbooks’ wide accessibility also made them a political force to be reckoned with. Literacy rates burgeoned among the European public in the late 17th century, abetted by the institution of charity schools for educating the poor, but also likely owing to the simple fact that written materials were cheaper and more plentiful than ever before. In any case, whether they merely responded to the demands of an increasingly literate public, or played a part in producing it, the rise of chapbooks accompanied an unprecedented state of affairs: reading was no longer the sole domain of the upper classes.

Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1791

This might not have been so disruptive if the form were restricted to folk tales and ballads, but by the 18th century, some chapbooks began to reflect the Enlightenment mores that were taking society by storm. Examples include Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, which was copiously reprinted in chapbook form for years after its publication in 1791. The insurrectionary potential of pamphlets like Paine’s, and other radical thinkers, inspired a backlash. While chapbooks had originally sprung up to appeal to their audience’s unstudied interests, relating their stories in an amoral and non-didactic tone, publishers in the 19th century began to prescribe certain interests to their readers for their own good. This led to a proliferation of religious chapbooks, often called ‘Sunday schools’ or ‘godlinesses’, which aimed to bolster the moral fiber of the plebeian masses whom the racier strand of chapbooks had previously entertained.

American Tract Society, Dancing as a Social Amusement (1847)

This sanctimonious turn ushered in a long period of dormancy. Along the way, chapbooks lost their monopoly on the dissemination of cheap print: industrialization reduced the costs of printing once again, allowing lower class readers to lift their sights from the compact octavo or duodecimo bindings of the traditional chapbook towards the sprawling forms of newspapers and novels. By the time the chapbook returned, in the early 20th century, it was to bear the evidence of these radical changes.

By the time of its resurgence, ‘chapbook’ may have been a conscious archaism hearkening back to a preindustrial past. The printing press enjoyed a rush of renewed interest beginning in the late 19th century, thanks to the Arts and Crafts movement — a group of artists and designers who reacted to what they saw as the garish aesthetic standards of the day by advocating a return to traditional methods of handicraft. Chapbooks, which began their history spurred by the early forerunners of industrial technologies, now arose in protest to the alienation thought to be inherent in mass production. Along with this stylistic shift came a major reorientation in genre: where the chapbooks of yore focused on the episodic and the epic, tales of daring and debauchery, the new artisanal chapbook adopted a lyric mode. Its primary genre was poetry.


Djuna Barnes, ‘The Book of Repulsive Women’, 1915


H.D., ‘The Tribute and Circe’, 1917

At first this meant the poetry of the early Modernists — writers like Ezra Pound, H.D., T.S. Eliot, and Djuna Barnes — who published short-form leaflets of their work, as well as placing it in collections and literary magazines. It also saw currency with Dadaists in Europe, and in the tracts of the Russian avant-garde. But the chapbook continued to have an ambivalent relationship with the aesthetics and distribution methods of high and low culture. Soon the 20th century brought its own technological changes, in the form of typewriters and mimeograph machines that put the power of textual reproduction more directly in the hands of writers than ever before. These tools were eagerly seized upon by Beat poets of the 1950s. The utilitarian manuscripts they hacked out of their typewriters may seem like a far cry from the nostalgic designs of Arts and Crafts printers like William Morris, but there is some political coherence to this unlikely pedigree. The creators of chapbooks have always been concerned with circumventing the official channels by which writing is allowed to make itself available to a public. Over the course of the 20th century, this labor was to unite authors as disparate as feminist consciousness raising groups and Star Trek fans, as the chapbook morphed into the zine.

Allison Wolfe and Molly Newman, Girl Germs (199-)


Th’yla, an anthology of Kirk/Spock fanfiction (1981)

But some chapbooks stayed chapbooks, particularly within the domain of small press publishing. Short, artfully designed books remained an appealing form for poets and writers who wanted to reach niche audiences and sidestep corporate publishers. This is the crop of chapbook most abundant in our archive, and it made up the bulk of what Karin’s students saw last week.

Lyn Hejinian, ‘A Mask of Motion’, 1977


David Stairs, ‘Asperity’, 1989

Of course, you don’t have to have a press to make a chapbook. The students in CRWR 175 will approach the task armed with nothing more than a word processor and some sewing expertise (and let’s be clear, there’s also no shame in staples). We hope that some of their creations might find their way into our archive to rest alongside their fellows. If you have a little book of your own that’s been hanging out in a drawer for months or years, consider re-homing it in Special Collections!

For further reading, see:

A Pleasant History of the Chapbook

McGill Library’s Chapbook Collection

A Short History of the Short Book


Reflecting on KDR’s 110-year history at Middlebury: one social house’s commitment to paddle its own canoe

KDR founded at Middlebury, 1905

Soon after the founding of Kappa Delta Rho (KDR) at Middlebury College, Delta Tau Delta, a national fraternity already in existence, sent a representative to the College to attempt to absorb KDR into that organization. Reflecting upon this crucial moment in KDR history, founding member George E. Kimball, Class of 1906, famously said that KDR “decided to paddle [its] own canoe and took no further action in the matter.” This early commitment to striking out independently, unfettered by affiliation, characterized the history of the fraternity (and later social house) at the College until its official termination in 2015.

KDR was founded by ten male students in May, 1905, in 14 Painter Hall (a commemorative plaque was installed on the building in 1956). That spring, the founders of KDR were members of Middlebury’s Commons Club, united by their dissatisfaction with its lack of exclusivity (membership was open to all who wished to join).

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Painter Hall in 1906, one year after the founding of Kappa Delta Rho. Photo available via the Internet Archive.

Competing with previously established national fraternities on campus was difficult for KDR during its first years in existence (for example: Chi Psi, Delta Kappa Epsilon, and Delta Upsilon). Of the new fraternity’s ability to entice students to join, one faculty member remarked that it would have “a hard row to hoe,” a phrase which members fondly recount when discussing the success of KDR in the face of adversity. In fact, KDR remained exclusive to Middlebury College only until 1913, when its “beta” chapter was established at Cornell University. Today, there are 41 active KDR chapters, and the fraternity has initiated more than 25,000 members since its inception in 1905.

Early traditions

The founders selected official colors (Middlebury blue and Princeton orange) as well as an official flower (the red rose), designed a coat of arms, drew up a constitution, and adopted a motto: Honor Super Omnia (“Honor above all”).

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Middlebury College students on a Kappa Delta Rho-sponsored hayride, 1942. Photo available via the Internet Archive.

Early traditions adopted by the Middlebury chapter of KDR include the “Frat Ride,” a post-exam event during which brothers, including KDR alumni, and their dates went to Silver Lake for the day and returned to campus by train, at which time they reportedly danced in the frat rooms until midnight. Other traditions include the annual initiation banquet held at the Brandon Inn. KDR adopted 48 South Street as its physical residence in the 1920s and the chapter remained based in the house until 2015.

Changing faces

The College Archives recently acquired KDR member photo composites from Jonathan Hanlon ’93. The faces on these boards throughout the years are representative of an increasingly diverse student body, as well as KDR’s tendency to reflect that diversity through its membership.

1959 Kappa Delta Rho photo composite. Middlebury College Special Collections & Archives.

Extending the paddle

Although the Middlebury chapter was technically an all-male fraternity, it began including women as “social members” in the late 1970s. According to Chris McInerney ’80, social members ate dinner at the house once a week, were allowed to vote in the election of officers, and were considered by KDR brothers to be members of the chapter.

When in 1990, Middlebury required that all fraternities on campus become coeducational or be terminated, KDR chose again to “paddle [its] own canoe” and officially invite women to pledge. In doing so, it lost the recognition of the national organization for more than a decade, despite its status as founding “alpha” chapter.

1978 Kappa Delta Rho photo composite. Middlebury College Special Collections & Archives.

Despite the loss of its status as a nationally-recognized fraternity, KDR persisted at Middlebury: in 1991, when the College abolished fraternities, KDR emerged as a coeducational “social house,” on a campus no longer host to Greek life.

The National Fraternity of Kappa Delta Rho recognized the Middlebury chapter as its “alpha” again in 2000, but this time as its only “society,” rather than as a fraternity, to reflect the presence of women in the chapter.


2015 Kappa Delta Rho photo composite displaying the social house’s final membership at Middlebury. Middlebury College Special Collections & Archives.

Middlebury terminates KDR in 2015

On June 25, 2015, Middlebury College Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of the College, Katy Smith Abbott, informed KDR that due to violations of hazing and conduct policies, it could no longer operate as a social house on or off campus. Citing these infractions, Abbott explained, “The activities of KDR constitute extraordinary and repeated violations of Middlebury’s policies. Regrettably, we no longer believe that it is possible for KDR to successfully reform and to create a positive impact on our community.”

The KDR house at 48 South Main Street was converted to general student housing beginning in the fall of 2015 and currently serves as housing for upperclassmen.

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Kappa Delta Rho members at KDR house, circa 1980s. Available via the Internet Archive.


Vermont Life magazine, Digital Archive

Vermont Life magazine is available online.

Visit http://go.middlebury.edu/vermontlife to browse and search the digital archive of Vermont’s iconic 72-year-old magazine.

Vermont Life was a quarterly magazine, published by the State of Vermont, covering Vermont’s “people, places and culture.” The state-owned magazine was founded in 1946 and ceased publication in the summer of 2018.

Summer 1947


Summer 2012

The digitization of Vermont Life was undertaken to support the Middlebury College fall 2018 class: “Vermont Life’s Vermont,” taught by Professors Kathy Morse and Michael Newbury.

Vermont Life was digitized from originals held by Middlebury College Special Collections, the State of Vermont, and the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library with funding support from the following: the Davis Family Foundation, Middlebury College Friends of the Library, Middlebury College Departments of American Studies, Environmental History, and History, Middlebury College Digital Liberal Arts Initiative, the Center for Research on VermontSaint Michael’s College Library, the Vermont Historical Society, and the University of Vermont Special Collections.

Three female skiers from the Winter 1948 issue


Bhutanese festival-goers in Burlington’s Old North End, Autumn 2012 issue of Vermont Life



Bird’s Eye View of Middlebury

A while back we purchased an 1886 “Bird’s Eye View” of Middlebury from a local antique shop. The colorized reprints of this image from the 1990s are pretty common, but the original print is quite rare. Unfortunately the print was torn and stained, so we sent it off to conservator MJ Davis, who did a beautiful job of mending and washing it. Yes, that’s right, if you know what you’re doing, it’s possible to wash paper!  Below see the “before and after”.

The funds for the purchase and conservation of the piece were provided by the Friends of the Middlebury College Library.  Thanks to all those who contribute to this worthy cause!

Photos courtesy of Washi Paper Conservation

Exhibit of early printed books opening June 14th in the library

Special Collections’ summer exhibition, In the Footprints of the First German Printers: 1450-1500, retraces the expansion of printing in Europe. The exhibit follows the German pioneers who initiated and spread the art of bookprinting and developed a tradition that transformed the world of learning.

All but one of the books featured were donated by Helen and Arthur Tasheira, Californian benefactors of Middlebury who summered in Vermont. In 1946, they generously gifted forty-three printed books from the infancy of print, primarily from Italy and Germany. (The other book on display was a gift of Middlebury alumna Ruth Hesselgrave, class of 1918.)

Woodcut print from the Nuremberg Chronicle depicting the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt. The Nuremberg Chronicle was produced in 1493, a lavishly illustrated retelling of the history of the world. Middlebury’s copy is in German and was donated by Ruth Hesselgrave, class of 1918.

Each book contains the history of the early evolution of printing. By studying the materials of the covers, pages, inks, the page layout implemented, the hand-painted additions to the printed text, we learn about how the first printers’ processes developed and how readers’ interpretation of texts evolved. (And that’s without even reading them!) 

In the Footprints of the First German Printers: 1450-1500 was curated by Marie Théberge (P ’10) and designed by Mikaela Taylor (’15) with additional support by Danielle Rougeau and Rebekah Irwin. It will be on display in Davis Family Library atrium (main level) and Harman Periodicals Reading Area (lower level) from June 14th through September 30th.

DIY Valentine Event Tuesday February 13th

DIY Valentine-making is back this year!

On Tuesday February 13th from 3-5pm, join us in Library 145 to make Valentines with inspiration from our collection of vintage postcards, poems from the Abernethy Collection of American Literature, and vintage topographic maps. Otter Creek Bakery cookies will be provided!

Make your own sausage-slicing dog butcher Valentine, complete with swinging hinged arm!

New this year: dazzle your Valentine by making your card pop! Learn the Turkish Map Fold to showcase a love poem, original collage, or map to your heart.


Plus, we’ll have information on upcoming book arts workshops this semester. Be sure to join our email list!

New podcast asks “What is Vermont music?” with Special Collections’ Rebekah Irwin

Listen to our favorite new podcast, Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and the Vermont Humanities Council, and edited and distributed by VTDigger.

Episode two, A Green Mountain Mixtape explores Vermont music and the questions musical traditions raise about Vermont identity. Director and Curator of Special Collections Rebekah Irwin discusses a pioneer in folk life preservation, Helen Hartness Flanders, who recorded Vermonters singing traditional folk ballads passed down from one generation to the next. Click here to visit the Before Your Time website

In her quest to preserve the past, Flanders utilized emerging sound recording technologies, starting with wax cylinders, then aluminum discs, vinyl LP’s, and reel-to-reel tapes, formats that today represent the history of recording technology.


Episode one, Vermont’s Great Flood features Nick Clifford, professor emeritus at Middlebury College. He and his wife Deborah Clifford wrote a book on the 1927 flood called The Troubled Roar of the Waters.



Come celebrate the season with Robert Frost and the Spiral Press

Join us Thursday, December 14th at 4:00pm in the Davis Family Library Atrium for a reception to honor and enjoy the current Special Collections exhibition, Holiday Greetings from Robert Frost and the Spiral Press, curated by College Archivist Danielle Rougeau.

Light refreshments will be served.

On display for the first time since 1961, when Corinne Tennyson Davids donated the Wales Hawkins Memorial Collection of Frostiana to Middlebury, Robert Frost’s complete set of 28 holiday cards tell the story of an artistic collaboration spanning more than three decades. Robert Frost and the Spiral Press created holiday greeting cards of the highest craftsmanship and design from 1929 until 1962. Works of art in themselves, the cards also stand as true first editions of the chosen poems. Frost became a true champion of fine letterpress, and commented that “the Spiral’s typography and printing found things to say to my poetry that hadn’t been said before.”  

DIY Bookmaking is back this J-Term!

Vinyl records are so 2010. Special Collections bookmaking gurus are back to celebrate the millennium renaissance of audio cassette tapes, those small, plastic, blasts from the past. We’ll provide vintage cassette tapes and you will go home with a super-cool, handsewn, blank notebook with covers fashioned out of “upcycled” audio tapes. Low fidelity, high reward. All materials provided.

When: Tuesday, January 16, 2018 from 4:15-7:15p

Where: Special Collections Reading Room

How: visit go/wtw for information and go/ideal to register on November 19 at 8am

Cost: $12

Kickoff 1953: Alumnus Revisits TV Profile 64 Years Later

Imagine being the subject of a nationally broadcast television special that profiled your life as a star college athlete. Now imagine that the first time you saw that program was over 60 years after it first aired. That’s what happened to Carey Smith, ’54 when he recently viewed this clip from a newly digitized 16mm film reel in the College archives. Part of an hour-long program originally produced by NBC as an overview of the 1953 season of NCAA football (and in particular, the introduction of the newly instituted one-platoon system), the clip captures Smith’s reflections on the Middlebury experience in a dramatic fashion that only mid-century network television can deliver.

The clip opens with an easygoing overview of the program given by famed NBC personality Dave Garroway who then introduces us to Smith, the captain of the 1953 Middlebury football team, as he arrives early on campus for his senior year. After chatting with coach Duke Nelson, Smith walks across the empty football field and up windswept bleachers where he daydreams about the year ahead: football season, keeping up with classes, and skiing at the Snow Bowl. Finally, in a move that may be familiar to many seniors (this author included), Smith takes a pensive walk up the hill to Mead Chapel, all the while ruminating on his time at Middlebury and what might come next after that time runs out.

Portrait of Carey Smith, captain of the 1953-54 Middlebury football team.

In the end, Garroway asks, “Thirty years from now, what will have happened to Carey Smith?” Unlike viewers in 1953, we know the answer to that question. Smith joined the military after graduation and served in Japan and Korea, eventually finding a career as a school superintendent. College archivist Danielle Rougeau recently spoke with Smith who revealed that because the segment was filmed before the semester started, townspeople filled in to play the other college students (including his supposed love interest, Jean Walters). Although it was screened in his hometown theater, Smith hadn’t seen the film until it was posted on Vimeo and neither had his five children, all of whom were unaware that he had ever played collegiate football.