City Readers Digital Historic Collections at the New York Society Library
57 Female Readers
The women who belonged to the New York Society Library represent a small but active slice of the Library’s readers. Educators, philanthropists, and merchants, these women read widely and voraciously, with circulation numbers that often far exceeded Library averages. Novels—in particular the romance, the gothic, and epistolary novels—were the most popular genre, representing between 60-70% of the most-frequently circulated books among women readers at the Library. Drama, poetry, and periodicals were popular as well, and travels, histories, and reference works also make frequent appearances among their borrowing records.
The readership of novels was by no means limited to women in this period, however; men and women alike enjoyed fiction in large numbers. Although prejudices and moral judgments would persist against this supposedly frivolous genre through the early nineteenth century, it would steadily gain headway as a respected literary form.
One can observe the popularity of the gothic novel in the reading histories below. Featuring gloomy settings, ghostly figures, supernaturalism and horror, these tales were immensely popular in Britain, Europe, and the United States in the 1790s. The genre would take root in the United States with authors like Charles Brockden Brown (whose bestselling novel Wieland was popular with Society Library readers), George Lippard, and Edgar Allan Poe.
-Sara Partridge, New York University