Gutenberg certainly had a great impact on the availability of books, but his printing press didn't help bring books into the hands of the poor. The price of books dropped from thousands of days worth of wages to hundreds, but this was still far too expensive for commoners.

By the 17th century many commoners in Europe could read, but they probably had nothing more to read than the Bible which I would guess was sponsored or at least heavily subsidized to make it affordable. The poor still couldn't afford to just go to a bookstore and buy any book they fancied.

Compare it with the 20th century and onward, when books can be bought with pocket change.

When did books first become affordable to the poor? This means that even low income families could afford, if they wanted, to own several books without significant financial sacrifices. In the early to mid 19th century there were already popular authors in Europe who wrote for the tastes of the poorer classes, so I would guess it was around that time, but can this guess be improved upon?

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    For a person living hand-to-mouth, anything more than free isn't going to be "affordable".
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 22, 2017 at 17:02
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    Public libraries can be see as "free" in this context I think. Feb 22, 2017 at 17:46
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    You may be interested in Paper by Mark Kurlansky. Basically, a history of the world through the lens of paper production.
    – AllInOne
    Feb 22, 2017 at 17:54
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    In 19th century Britain at least, novels were often published as part-works - notably many, if not most, of Dickens' first appeared in installments in Household Words - which presumably made them more affordable to the general population.
    – TheHonRose
    Feb 22, 2017 at 18:26
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    You need to look at more than just purchase price. The Mechanics' Institute movement and the commercial circulating libraries both contributed immensely to availability and universal readership.
    – user207421
    Feb 23, 2017 at 1:15

2 Answers 2


"Affordable to the poor" is a slippery concept.

However, books became much cheaper in the first half of the nineteenth century. Notable causes of this included steam-powered printing presses, mechanical typesetting, pulp paper mills, and the railway distribution network. These factors allowed the publication of cheap paperback books, which seem to have been invented by the Tauchnitz family in Germany, and followed up by publishers such as Routledge in the UK, aiming at the railway traveller market.


The Gutenberg-style press process initially output about 160 pages a day, which was revolutionary compared to about 12 you could expect out of a human copyist. This got polished to the point where by 1600 a press could output about 3,600 copies a day.

The next major advances came with the Industrial Revolution, starting with cast iron presses(in 1800) putting out about 480 pages an hour, then steam presses (in 1814) outputting more than a thousand pages an hour.

Each one of these advancements can be thought of as a similar % reduction in the price of printed works. With the new steam presses penny daily newspapers started to appear (vs. 6-cent).

However, we should backtrack a bit to the Bible and its importance to the history of printing. Most Protestant theology held that a person should read the Bible for themselves, rather than relying on a priesthood to interpret it for them. Inherent in this is the idea that a good Christian should be able to read the Bible, which means both literacy and owning a copy. This was more an ideal than a universal reality, but the Bible has always been the most-published book, and it was reality enough to actually impact the language in Protestant areas like Germany and England.

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    Also note that churches subsidized the printing and distribution of Bibles. The number of copies of the King James Version distributed in the 19th century was so high, and so many of them survived, that the vast majority of copies today are literally only worth the paper they are printed on to a collector.
    – Robert Columbia
    Feb 22, 2017 at 20:39
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    This basically just restates the question and repeats the information already contained in it. The only new and relevant part is the mentioning of the penny daily newspapers, (which are not really books, but might get close to them by also publishing serial novels, which were probably the first sources of literature for the poor).
    – vsz
    Feb 22, 2017 at 20:47
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    @vsz - The thing is, even the penny dailys really just spread newspapers to the Middle Class. The truly poor (as mentioned in the comments) even today don't have any cash to spare for such fripperies. That's why we have Public Libraries. So the only real way to answer the question is to show what the cost of printed media was at various times, and let the questioner decide when/if it qualifies.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 22, 2017 at 20:56
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    "the poor" doesn't have to be those who are starving to death in a third world country, the "general population" mentioned in the title can be the general population in a first world country, where the poor (maybe not all of them, but surely most of them) can definitely afford cheap books.
    – vsz
    Feb 22, 2017 at 21:17
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    @vsz - from reading Dickens, or contemporary authors examining the same era, it's easy to form the opinion that London at the start of the Industrial Age was awash in hundreds of thousands of people who literally were so poor that even the penny for a newspaper was beyond them. And it seems that outside of the major cities, there was much less circulation of printed works, so that books were still a middle class "frippery." Even today, instead of rookeries we now have seas of homeless people, who inasmuch as they don't even have the roof over their heads of those Londoners, are even poorer.
    – user6297
    Feb 23, 2017 at 6:07

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