Dream books purported to reveal the meanings of dreams, and were extremely popular in the 19th century. They often came in the form of small, cheap pamphlets, known as chapbooks.
Hodgson's Fashionable Dream Book, shown here, is a typical example, published in 1830. Its title, which describes the book as ‘Fashionable’, indicates the genre’s growing popularity. The title page states that the book will show ‘how all things, past, present, and to come, may be ascertained by means of dreams’. It provides interpretations for a vast A-Z of dream imagery which ranges from the common, such as ‘death’ and ‘fall’, to the bizarre, such as ‘cakes’ and ‘elephants’.
Who used dream books?
Like others of its kind, this book is primarily aimed at female readers. We can tell this from the hand-coloured frontispiece illustration, which features a dreaming woman surrounded by pictorial representations of her dreams. Indeed, the illustration suggests why dream books were so popular among women and girls: they chiefly addressed common hopes and desires, such as marriage and financial stability, which are represented here by a gallant man in military uniform and a chest full of money. By promising to reveal the future through dreams, they may have given women a sense of control over their lives or allayed their fears.
In the 19th century, however, dreaming teetered on the borders of respectability. To many medical practitioners dreaming was an indication of mental disturbance. Unsurprisingly, dream books were associated with superstition and quackery. In spite of this culture of disapproval, however, Hodgson's Fashionable Dream Book demonstrates that the genre in fact promoted socially conventional and conservative values.
- Article by:
- Roger Luckhurst
- The Gothic
Roger Luckhurst challenges the idea of the 19th century as one of secularisation, exploring the popularity of mesmerism, spiritualism and 'true' ghost stories in the period.
- Article by:
- Ruth Richardson
- Popular culture, Reading and print culture
Chapbooks were small, affordable forms of literature for children and adults that were sold on the streets, and covered a range of subjects from fairy tales and ghost stories to news of politics, crime or disaster. Dr Ruth Richardson explains what this literature looked like, its subject matter and the ways in which it was produced.