Yellowbacks were popular titles bound in boards, rather than leather or buckram, and were also known as “mustard plaster” novels due to the color of the binding. They developed in England in the 1840s as competition for the “penny dreadful” novels, and they were marketed as entertaining reading to a new population of readers (increased during Queen Victoria’s reign) and often sold through stalls at railway stations. They were cheap, often costing only two shillings, and therefore much more affordable than the standard publication price. In addition to the eye-catching graphic covers, yellowbacks included advertisements for such popular products as Pears’ Soap, Fry‘s Cocoa, and Enos’s Fruit Salt.
Popular authors such as Mrs. Oliphant, Wilkie Collins, and Anthony Trollope often appeared in the yellowback publications after publishing their works in the more expensive editions. Unlike the usual leather or buckram-bound editions, yellowbacks could be cheaply printed because they were bound in board cases covered with colored paper which had been block printed with vivid pictures designed to attract the interested reader. The back cover advertisements further helped to lower the cost.
The Athenæum’s collection of over 100 yellowbacks chiefly represents the work of Chatto & Windus, publishers located in Piccadilly, London. Old call number stickers indicate that these were part of the Athenæum’s 19th-century recreational reading collection, a collection which grew following the board decision in December, 1855 to allow book circulation. Judging from the condition of some of the titles, especially those for Mrs. Oliphant, we assume that these were well-read favorites. Many of the yellowback authors are available today in reprint or through e-books as the 21st century has judged them les harshly than many 20th-century critics, and the Athenæum owns some of these reprints which do circulate to our readers.