Friday, February 18, 2011

Shakespeare Boiled Down (1890)

Shakespeare Boiled Down (Chicago: New Home Sewing Machine Co., c. 1890)
31, [1] p. : ill. ; 20 cm.

Shakespeare sold sewing machines—well, at least in 1890s-era Chicago. Issued by the New Home Sewing Machine Company, this rare piece of printed ephemera presents "Shakespeare Boiled Down," i.e. a collection of short, typically single page plot summaries of his plays. 

 According to the introduction (above), "the intention of this work is to present the reader a clear and concise description of the different plots and characters of all of William Shakespeare's plays." We are told that "great care has been exercised in the wording, so that both young and old can read understandingly." From the introduction it is clear these plot summaries are not intended for first-time readers of the plays, but instead for "those who wish to refresh their memory before witnessing the presentation of any of the plays," i.e. before seeing a theatrical production of Shakespeare. 

The summaries themselves are relatively standard accounts of the plays, yet in some cases key omissions reflect the day's sense of literary decorum and good taste. The summary of Titus Andronicus, for example, fails to mention any of the play's acts of atrocious violence: Lavinia is "seized," heads and hands are not chopped off, and no mention is made of the decapitated-head pastries Titus serves Saturninus and Tamora. When the summary mentions Act Five's grisly banquet, it only refers to Titus's curious chef's garb: "to humor a fad Titus dressed up as a cook." According to the summary, Lucius (here named "Mertius" for some reason—probably a nineteenth-century performance practice) at the end of the play "was crowned king, and lived to commit many acts of charity." Clearly this statement ignores his violent executions of Aaron and Tamora. Aaron, his child, and his affair with Tamora are strikingly absent. 

There are a few cheap woodcut illustrations of scenes, these from Julius Caesar and Taming of the Shrew. The Julius Caesar summary includes Antony's famous speech ("Friends, Romans, Countrymen") in its entirety.

This small and cheaply printed booklet sold for "15 cents," and in some cases—as with the 1893 reprint associated with the World's Fair—it was given away for free. The book was cheaply made, of course, not because the New Home Sewing Machine Company wanted its customers to have an affordable collection of Shakespearean plot summaries, but because they wanted to advertise their products.  

At the bottom of this page—from the last of the Shakespearean plot summaries—the reader is told "the NEW HOME advertisement occupies the balance of this book. You have permission to read on if you choose." 


These ads comprise the pamphlet's final four pages, marketing not only the "best sewing machine money can buy" (the company "challenge[s] the world to produce a better $20 dollar machine for 20 dollars ... than you can buy from one of our agents"), but also the "drop cabinet no. 9" and the "folding case no. 19," billed as "the very latest...something entirely new." Apparently New Home offers "the only Sewing Machine with a Perfect Double Feed." In the second-to-last image the ad informs customers that the company will send a copy of "Shakespeare Boiled Down" for the price of a 2 cent stamp. The pamphlet's lower cover (the last image seen here) bears the stamp of "Geo. A. Hicks Agent Mt. Pleasant, Mich," presumably the man charged with distributing these booklets and selling sewing machines. 

The image of Shakespeare "boiled down" is just delightful. 

Here is the complete digital version of the full text, brought to you via Scribd:

Shakespeare Boiled Down                                                            


  1. I have one of these that i got today and i have been searching and searching the internet for value. Cant find anything. It is in preety good condition. Can someone tell me a price it would sell for today?

  2. I have one exactly as shown in your blog could you tell me if this has any monetary value? Thank you