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Book tokens, eighteenth century style

The National Book Tokens scheme goes back to 1932. I imagine that this is their busiest time of year, and I was always happy to be given book tokens myself when I was a kid: I always wanted more books, and I had a pretty good idea which books I wanted. I didn’t realise that someone got in on the action 140 years earlier, but no surprises when that person turned out to be James Lackington. Here’s the battered Georgian book token I found the other day:



On the reverse is Fame, blowing a trumpet and proclaiming that the cheapest books in the world could be found at  the ‘Temple of the Muses’, Lackington’s great emporium in London’s Finsbury Square: “the cheapest booksellers in the world”. On the obverse is a portrait of Lackington himself.

He was doesn’t seem to have been unduly shy about coming forward. After the manner of royalty, a flag flew from the dome above his bookshop when he was in residence. I should try it! Or at least suggest it to the ABA President … Lackington was also the author of a couple of fairly unreliable volumes of memoirs, which unfortunately have more to say about the great benefits of Methodism/his own moral progression than they do about the mechanics of the eighteenth-century book-trade (which in fairness is probably more of a let down for modern book-trade historians than it was for contemporary readers).

Actually, Lackington had plenty of reasons to blow his own trumpet. He came from nowhere, with nothing, and established a hugely successful business. His refusal to give credit (to anyone) meant that he really could sell books very cheaply, and he pioneered the remainder trade (buying up publishers’ overstock and selling it for a fraction of the original price).

I had a vague idea (possibly fron a junior school project) that bronze tokens like these were minted as a way of ripping off impoverished workers in the early years of the industrial revolution – the local mill owner would pay his workforce in his own currency, which they could only spend in shops he owned. As usual, it’s not that simple. There was a huge shortage of low denomination coinage in the late eighteenth-century, and private firms stepped into the breach. Of course Lackington’s token could have been redeemed at the Temple of the Muses, but they would also have been accepted elsewhere, at the shopkeeper’s discretion. I’m now wondering if Lackington was the first bookseller to immortalise himself in bronze – we shall see!

Edited to add (05/12):

Of course, once one starts looking … here are better examples of both the Lackington token designs, 1795 and 1794.



The 1794 full frontal portrait on the obverse was swiftly replaced by something more conventional in profile, but the reverse remained unchanged:



When I showed the tokens to Laurence Worms his immediate response was ‘oh yes, I’ve got a book about that’ followed (with his customary generosity) by an offer to lend it to me. Here it is, a handsomely printed volume published in the States in the ’80s:



Lackington was the most prolific issuer of tokens. Some 7 tons (over 700,000) were struck, but only in the year 1794-95, when Lackington moved into his new premises, The Temple of the Muses in Finsbury Square.


One thought on “Book tokens, eighteenth century style

  1. […] at The Temple of the Muses, had issued medallion-like tokens which could be exchanged for books. Bryars and Bryars give more details of these […]

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