Chapbook (from the Old English 'chap', to buy and sell), the comparatively modern name applied by booksellers and bibliophiles to the little stitched tracts written for the common people and formerly circulated in England, Scotland and the American colonies by itinerant dealers or chapmen, consisting chiefly of vulgarized versions of popular stories, such as Tom Thumb, Jack the Giant Killer, Mother Shipton, and Reynard the Fox, travels, biographies and religious treatises. Few of the older chapbooks exist. Samuel Pepys collected some of the best and had them bound into small quarto volumes, which he called 'Vulgaria'; also four volumes of a smaller size, which he lettered 'Penny Witticisms', 'Penny Merriments', 'Penny Compliments' and 'Penny Godlinesses'.
The early chapbooks were the direct descendants of the black-letter tracts of Wynkyn de Worde. It was in France that the printing-press first began to supply reading for the common people. At the end of the 15th century there was a large popular literature of farces, tales in verse and prose, satires, almanacs, etc., stitched together so as to contain a few leaves, and circulated by itinerant booksellers, known as colporteurs. Most early English chapbooks are adaptations or translations of these French originals, and were introduced into England early in the 16th century.
The chapbooks of the 17th century present us with valuable illustrations of the manners of the time; one of the best known is that containing the story of Dick Whittington. Others which had a great vogue are Jack the Giant Killer, Little Red Riding Hood, and Mother Shipton. Those of the 18th century are far inferior in every way, both as regards the literature and the printing; and unfortunately it is these which form the bulk of what is now known to us in collections as chapbooks. They have never exercised any great influence in England nor received much attention, owing no doubt to their poor literary character. In France, on the other hand, their French equivalents have been the object of close and systematic study, and L'Histoire des livres populaires ou de la littrature du colportage by Charles Nisard (1854) goes deeply into the subject. Amongst English books may be mentioned Notices of Fugitive Tracts and Chapbooks, by J. 0. Halliwell-Phillipps (1849); Chapbooks of the 18th Century, by John Ashton (1882), and some reprints by the Villon Society in 1885.
The word chapbook has not been noticed earlier than 1824, when Dibdin, the celebrated bibliographer, described a work as being a chapbook, printed in rather a neat black-letter.
Being the entry for CHAPBOOK in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.