People’s Library

Cassell & Co., Ltd. (London, UK)
Series dates: 1907-1933
Size: 4.5″ x 7.25″

When Arthur Spurgeon was appointed the general manager of the faltering Cassell & Co. in 1905 one of the immediate steps he took was to initiate a series of cheap, three penny novels and the People’s Library series. The latter, initiated in 1907 and consisting of literary novels and classics, was an unexpected success, eventually reaching 120 volumes and selling more than three million copies in the UK and (starting in 1910), the US (The Story of the House of Cassell). Most of the titles in the series were published in 1907-1909 with a few reprints at least through the early 1930s. The People’s Library with both literary and “man-in-the-street” appeal (Publishers Weekly, vol. 86, Sept. 26, 1914) was an influential model for the literary reprint series in the 20th century.


A description of Cassell’s People’s Library series was published in The Publishers’ Circular (August 3, 1907, below left [click to enlarge]). The article indicates that the series is intended for those wanting to build a substantive library at a low-cost. Mention is made of special bookcases to be provided by the publisher, which hold 50 volumes while being “artistic in design.”

The People’s Library books are color coded: red binding for fiction and green for “more serious works” of literature. These statements recognize the ongoing concern with fiction and its potential for weakening the mind and soul; nevertheless, well-selected fiction in a serious series certainly outshine cheaper, throw-away paperbound fiction (which had been very popular in the latter part of the 1800s).

A brief article in the New-York Observer (vol. 89, Nov 17, 1910) introduces the series to the U.S. Again, the quality and inexpensiveness of the series are noted, as is the allure of purchasing 100 volumes for $25.

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This People’s Library copy of Charles Kingsley’s Two Years Ago is dated 1909, two years after the start of the series. The jacket reflects its relatively early date in the 20th century: the series name is not mentioned on the jacket (typically the series name is always on the jacket) and the flaps and back of the jacket are blank (eg., not used for advertising the title or other titles in the series).

The jackets are unique to each title with a jacket design based on an illustration based on the novel. The price, here 2/6, is indicated on the jacket spine.


The blank rear of the jacket and back flap.


The bindings are basic cloth with lines printed on the front and back, vaguely suggesting a more fancy quarter binding. The decorations on the book are meant to emulate those found on a more expensive book.


The icon in the lower right on the cover (detail below) contains the text La Belle Sauvage, which was the name of the former inn occupied by Cassell & Co. soon after its founding in 1851.


The half title page indicates the series name:


An elaborate title page and facing page include an editor’s note on the title. Such a scholarly note, along with the elaborate design, helps to assure the reader that they are holding literature, while merely a novel, of some quality. The date of the book (MCMIX, 1909) is included under the publisher’s imprint.


The copyright page is blank.


“A List for Reference” for the People’s Library and its first 100 titles is bound in the rear of the book. “1 through 85 Now Ready, 86-100 Ready April 15, 1909.”


In addition to the 100 titles to be ready by April 1909, “other volumes to follow.”