BKAS ESSAY SHORTS No.1 (March 2018)

(March 2018)

Literary Gifts for the Season
Book Advertising in The Times' Christmas Books Supplement, 1909-1919 [Part I]

Peter Robinson (Japan Womenʼs University)

Fig. 1 Special Christmas Gift Books Supplement, The Times
(7 December 1909)


On the 7 December 1909, The Times newspaper issued the first of its ʻSpecial Christmas Gift Books Supplementsʼ (SCBS), a gratis sixteen-page magazine insert to the daily newspaper. Designed as an attractive, richly illustrated supplement printed on glossy paper, it targeted the affluent and discerning readers of The Times, presenting the selected seasonal lists of most major British and American publishers (Fig. 1). The primary function of the supplement, as a prominent editorial apology indicated, was to market books as Christmas gifts: ʻThe Times tenders apologies to publishers whose advertisements have been crowded out through lack of spaceʼ. Apparently more than a rhetorical problem, this shortage of space was gradually resolved as the supplement had quickly expanded to 28 pages by 1912.1

Produced for six years between 1909-1914, the SCBSʼs lavish advertising was punctuated by light book commentary and reading recommendations, with a bias towards Childrenʼs and illustrated books that upheld the gender distinctions which characterized the age: Books about Girls, and Books for Boys. The inclusion of advisory editorial comment positioned the supplement as more than a simple trade catalogue, but it was unmistakably commercial and lacked the hard-edged literary criticism that was already a hallmark of the Times Literary Supplement.

The appearance of the SCBS at this time, and in this particular form, indicates it was part of the slew of supplements issued by The Times shortly after the arrival of its new proprietor, Lord Northcliffe in 1908, who set about transforming the paperʼs fortunes and arresting stagnant daily sales.2 The SCBS closely resembled The Womenʼs Supplement (1 Oct 1910 ‒ 31 Dec 1911)3 in production, which was also richly illustrated and printed on glossy paper (Fig. 3).

Relationship with the Times Literary Supplement

Given its contents, the SCBS had an interesting relationship with the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), which started life as a regular supplement of The Times in 1902 before becoming a separate title with its own legal status in 1914. It is curious that it was not until this corporate separation that the responsibility for the issuance of a ʻChristmas Books Numberʼ, was passed directly to the TLS, appearing yearly from the 9 December 1915 (Fig. 2). Once incorporated into the TLS, the lavish production values of the SCBS were withdrawn, and it was printed on the standard wood pulp paper used by the TLS. There was a corresponding decline in the design and visual appearance too, with the expensive in-text illustrations replaced by four pages dedicated to images and printed in lower resolution, more typical of the period. It is probable that the increasing materials shortages due to WWI, which ultimately led to a Government directive against non-standard features in newspapers and magazines (a move which The Times opposed) made the precipitous transition of the SCBS to a themed issue of the TLS in 1915 a way of protecting the feature.4

The Times Book Club & The Franco-British Exhibition of Books

As well as producing a burst of advertising revenue for, the main purpose of the SCBS was in fact to support The Timesʼ Book Club. Founded in 1905 as a circulating library tied to the purchase of a yearly subscription to The Times, The Club regularly organized Christmas activities timed to meet the peak bookselling period and frequently put on book exhibitions in its reading rooms at 376-384 Oxford St. London, nicknamed ʻthe bookloverʼs rendezvousʼ. Announced on the 20 September 1905, The Times Book Club was created with the massive outlay of £100,000 as bait to lure in new subscribers, with the target of doubling annual subscriptions within a matter of weeks. In 1908, a year before the first SCBS was issued, The Times Book Club held a large-scale Franco- British Exhibition of Books at its London premises. While showcasing some extremely rare antiquarian editions and fine bindings, it also featured cheaper modern works and compendiums. Something for every pocket. Illustrated catalogues of the exhibition were available gratis. Much of the advertising for the exhibition played heavily on the rhetoric of gift-giving which was such a feature of the content of the SCBS. A full-page advertisement in The Times of the 30 November 1908 (Fig. 4), claimed the exhibition was ʻA Bookgiverʼs Opportunityʼ, for ʻwhen a rich gift is sought as now at the coming Christmas gift-season it is difficult to conceive that any present could be so welcome as some favourite work of literature or devotionʼ.5

Fig. 2 Christmas Books Number of the Times Literary Supplement which replaced the SCBS of The Times in 1915. TLS (9 December 1915)
Fig. 3 Advertisement for the SCBS in The Times Literary Supplement (2 December 1909)
Fig. 4 Advertisement for the Franco- British Exhibition of Books at The Times Book Club, The Times (30 November 1908)

Books as Gifts

The autumn and Christmas season had long been recognized as a key sales period on the publishing calendar. However, publisher-advertising within the SCBS spent considerable resources working- up the rhetoric of gift-giving to create a relatively new marketplace featuring a new type of customer: the non-reading book buyer. The rhetoric developed by The Times for earlier exhibitions translated easily across advertising genres. After extolling the thoughtful process by which a gift- book is selected, advertising material for the Franco-British Book Exhibition had intoned, ʻDoes not a Christmas-gift thus chosen, mark with peculiar relevance and appropriateness the season of goodwill?ʼ What this implies is a different mode of engaging with and consuming books; a deferred or indirect form of consumption. By selecting an ʻappropriateʼ gift-book, a process which the SCBS was designed to assist with, the buyer was required to display an intimate knowledge and judgement of the gift-book recipientʼs likes and dislikes or, in a nutshell, their literary taste. The process of bringing together two different readings: the character reading of the gift-giver and the knowledge the publisher has of their own list, will be further examined in Part II of this essay.

(All images © The Shadowlands Newspaper Library, used with permission)

Reposted and reformatted 18 January 2023.

1. The Times, ʻSpecial Christmas Gift Books Supplementʼ, No. 1 (7 December 1909), pp. 1-16; No. 2 (5 December 1910), pp. 1-20; No. 3 (4 December 1911), pp. 1-23; No 4 (2 December 1912), pp. 1-28; No. 5 (8 December 1913), pp. 1-28; No. 6 (10 December 1914); pp. [tbc]. The final supplement was not gratisand cost 1d., the same as the newspaper itself. 

2. Lord Northcliffe, also proprietor of The Daily Mail, set about modernising the paper against fierce resistance to change by long-term editorial staff. For more on these changes wrought at The Times, see Derwent Mayʼs, Critical Times: The History of The Times Literary Supplement, London: HarperCollins (2001). 

3. On the 22 June 1920, after nearly a decade of absence, The Times Womanʼs Supplement was reinvented as an independent magazine. In the relaunch packaging, it was marketed as a fortnightly magazine now belonging to the same family as the Times Literary Supplement and Times Educational Supplement

4. On the 24 February 1917, The Timespublished an article entitled, ʻThe Newspaper Crisisʼ. The article explained that the Government-imposed restrictions on the importation of paper and papermaking equipment, and further restrictions brought in by Lloyd George, meant that newspapers faced a stark choice: either to offer an ʻemasculatedʼ paper, or else have a complete paper with ʻan advanced priceʼ. 

5. ‘The Beauties of Books’ [adv.], The Times (30 November 1908), p.5.